West Africa Empires
From the fourth century to the end of the seventeenth century, three great empires flourished on the west African grasslands to the south of the Sahara desert. Cradled between two river basins and stretched across major trade routes, these civilizations grew from small nations to large empires. Each in turn fell due to internal decline and external forces from the north. Yet each, in turn, built off of the earlier accomplishments of the previous civilization. Trade routes, religion, governmental organization, civil improvements, and ruling people groups were all either developed for the first time or in a constant state of change throughout this period of time which finally ended at the brink of European exploration and colonialism.
These three great empires grew on a unique African area called the Sahel, grasslands stretching from the Indian ocean to the Atlantic. Across two major river basins, the Niger and Senegal, in the western portion of the Sahel and bordering the Sahara desert, these civilizations gained control of the great wealth to be obtained from trans-Saharan trade. To the south lay gold mines, to the north lay Saharan salt and, ultimately, European and Middle Eastern markets. Taking advantage of this opportunity, these civilizations became trade links between a wide variety of goods, and in the process became exceedingly wealthy. Yet in the end, their greatest source of strength would become their downfall. Venturing beyond Mediterranean waters and into the Atlantic ocean, European explorers found a direct route to African goods and gold, sidestepping the need for the intermediary empires. This eliminated the need for the long Saharan routes, and thus became the downfall of the important West African trade cities of Timbuktu and Gao. As these cities, and others like them, lost their importance and prestige, the centuries long tradition of strong West African empires deteriorated.
Following Rome's eventual pullout from Africa after the Third Punic War in the second century, an indigenous tribe of Africans, the Berbers, controlled North Africa1 to the north of the Sahara desert. By the fourth century, a group of these Berbers had migrated across the Sahara desert to the Sahel and had begun establishing the framework for the first west African empire, Ghana, where only individual chieftaincies had previously existed2. While these original white Berbers ruled over their new kingdom following its initial creation, the black3 Soninke people, from the border area of the Sahara, later dominated the empire4. This was the first of the divisive events that occurred between Ghana and the Berbers to the north.
By the eighth century Islam had rapidly spread across all of North Africa, making converts of the North African Berbers5, separating from them the Ghanaians by not only desert but also religion. Along the desert trade route, the Muslims gained control of the oases by the tenth century6. When Islam had finally found its way across the Sahara, the Ghanaian government allowed Muslims within their cities and took them as court advisors 7. Several important towns accepted Islam as their recognized religion8, yet Ghana still did not become an official Islamic state9. This lack of governmental patronage of Islam incited the religiously fervent Berbers (the Almoravids in North Africa), to declare a holy war against Ghana, bringing the already ailing empire to destruction10.Yet before this religious influence on the destruction of Ghana, Islam brought an important advancement to Ghana that ushered its development from a kingdom to an empire.
Regardless of its unique geographic placement, the young kingdom of Ghana did not originally have the capacity for extensive trade across the threatening desert. For several centuries Ghana had survived without the use of camels, instead implementing horses and donkeys for their beasts of burden11. Yet…