Ghana Empire

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Ghana Empire

c. 300–c. early 1200s
Ghana empire map.png
The Ghana Empire at its greatest extent
Capital Koumbi Saleh
Common languagesfulfulde, Soninke, Malinke, Mande
African traditional religion, Islam
Kaya Magan Cissé
Majan Dyabe Cisse
Ghana Bassi
Soumaba Cisse
Historical era9th century-11th century
c. 300
 Conquered by Sosso/Submitted to the Mali Empire
c. early 1200s
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Blank.png Dhar Tichitt
Blank.png Djenné-Djenno
Mali Empire Blank.png
Today part of

The Ghana Empire (c. 300 until c. 1100), properly known as Wagadou (Ghana being the title of its ruler), was a West African empire located in the area of present-day southeastern Mauritania and western Mali. Complex societies based on trans-Saharan trade in salt and gold had existed in the region since ancient times, [1] but the introduction of the camel to the western Sahara in the 3rd century CE, opened the way to great changes in the area that became the Ghana Empire. By the time of the Muslim conquest of North Africa in the 7th century the camel had changed the ancient, more irregular trade routes into a trade network running from Morocco to the Niger River. The Ghana Empire grew rich from this increased trans-Saharan trade in gold and salt, allowing for larger urban centres to develop. The traffic furthermore encouraged territorial expansion to gain control over the different trade routes.


When Ghana's ruling dynasty began remains uncertain. It is mentioned for the first time in written records by Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī in 830. [2] In the 11th century the Cordoban scholar Al-Bakri travelled to the region and gave a detailed description of the kingdom.

As the empire declined it finally became a vassal of the rising Mali Empire at some point in the 13th century. When, in 1957, the Gold Coast became the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to gain its independence from colonial rule, it renamed itself Ghana in honor of the long-gone empire.


Trade routes of the Western Sahara c. 1000-1500. Goldfields are indicated by light brown shading: Bambuk, Bure, Lobi, and Akan. Trans-Saharan routes early.svg
Trade routes of the Western Sahara c. 1000–1500. Goldfields are indicated by light brown shading: Bambuk, Bure, Lobi, and Akan.

Theories of foreign state founders

The origins of Ghana have been dominated by disputes between ethnohistoric accounts and archaeological interpretations. The earliest discussions of its origins are found in the Sudanese chronicles of Mahmud Kati and Abd al-Rahman as-Sadi. According to Kati's Tarikh al-Fettash in a section probably composed by the author around 1580, but citing the authority of the chief judge of Messina, Ida al-Massini who lived somewhat earlier, twenty kings ruled Ghana before the advent of the prophet, and the empire extended until the century after the prophet. [3] In addressing the rulers' origin, the Tarikh al-Fettash provides three different opinions, one that they were Soninke, another that they were Wangara (which are a Soninke group), and another that they were Sanhaja Berbers.

Al-Kati favored another interpretation in view of the fact that their genealogies linked them to this group, adding "What is certain is that they were not Soninke” (min al-Zawadi). [4] While the 16th-century versions of genealogies might have linked Ghana to the Sanhaja, earlier versions, for example as reported by the 11th-century writer al-Idrisi and the 13th-century writer ibn Said, noted that rulers of Ghana in those days traced their descent from the clan of the Prophet Muhammad either through his protector Abi Talib, or through his son-in-law Ali. [5] He says that 22 kings ruled before the Hijra and 22 after. [6] While these early views lead to many exotic interpretations of a foreign origin of Wagadu, these views are generally disregarded by scholars. Levtzion and Spaulding for example, argue that al-Idrisi's testimony should be looked at very critically due to demonstrably gross miscalculations in geography and historical chronology, while they themselves associate Ghana with the local Soninke. [7] In addition, the archaeologist and historian Raymond Mauny argues that al-Kati's and al-Saadi's view of a foreign origin cannot be regarded as reliable. He argues that the interpretations were based on the later presence (after Ghana's demise) of nomadic interlopers on the assumption that they were the historic ruling caste, and that the writers did not adequately consider contemporary accounts such as those of al-Yakqubi (872  CE) al-Masudi (c. 944  CE), Ibn Hawqal (c. 977  CE), al-Biruni (c. 1036  CE), as well as al-Bakri, all of whom describe the population and rulers of Ghana as "negroes". [8]

History of Islam in the Ghana Empire

Modern scholars, particularly African Muslim scholars, have argued about the extent of the Ghana Empire and tenure of its reign. Islamic religion was known very well around the Asian-African-European area. The African Arabist Abu-Abdullah Adelabu has claimed that some non-Muslim historians played down the territorial expansion of the Ghana Empire in what he called an attempt to undermine the influence of Islam in old Ghana. In his work The Ghana World: A Pride For The Continent, Adelabu maintained that works of such Muslim historians and geographers in Europe as the Cordoban scholar Abu-Ubayd al-Bakri had been subjugated to accommodate contrary views of non-Muslim Europeans. [9] Adelabu claimed constant cold-shouldering of Ibn Yasin's Geography of School Of Imam Malik in which he gave a comprehensive account of social and religious activities in the Ghana Empire have well-attested compositional bias of Ghana history documentation, especially by the European historians on topics related to Islam and the ancient Muslim societies. Adelabu said: "...the early Muslim documentaries including Ibn Yasin's revelations on ancient African major centers of Muslim culture crossing the Maghreb and the Sahel to Timbuktu and downward to Bonoman had not just presented researchers in the field of African History with solutions to the scarcity of written sources in large parts of sub-Saharan Africa, it consolidated confidence in techniques of oral history, historical linguistics and archaeology for authentic Islamic traditions in Africa". [10] [11]

Oral traditions

In the late 19th century, as French forces occupied the region in which ancient Ghana lay, colonial officials began collecting traditional accounts, including some manuscripts written in Arabic somewhat earlier in the century. Several such traditions were recorded and published. While there are variants, these traditions called the most ancient polity they knew of Wagadu, or the "place of the Wago" the term current in the 19th century for the local nobility. The traditions described the kingdom as having been founded by a man named Dinga, who came "from the east" (e.g., Aswan, Egypt [12] ), after which he migrated to a variety of locations in the western Sudan, in each place leaving children by different wives. In order to achieve power in his final location he had to kill a goblin, and then marry his daughters, who became the ancestors of the clans that were dominant in the region at the time of the recording of the religion. Upon Dinga's death, his two sons Khine and Dyabe contested the kingship, and Dyabe was victorious, founding the kingdom. [13]

Theories concerning the foundation of Ghana

French colonial officials, notably Maurice Delafosse, whose works on West African history has been criticised by scholars such Monteil, Cornevin and others for being "unacceptable" and "too creative to be useful to historians" in relation to his falsification of West African genealogies, [14] [15] [16] [17] concluded that Ghana had been founded by the Berbers, a nomadic group originating from the Benu River, from Middle Africa, and linked them to North African and Middle Eastern origins. While Delafosse produced a convoluted theory of an invasion by "Judeo-Syrians", which he linked to the Fulbe, others took the tradition at face value and simply accepted that nomads had ruled first. [18] Raymond Mauny, synthesizing early archaeology, various traditions, and the Arabic materials in 1961 concluded that foreign trade was vital to the empire's foundation. [19] More recent work, for example by Nehemiah Levtzion, in his classic work published in 1973, sought to harmonize archaeology, descriptive geographical sources written between 830 and 1400 CE, the older traditions of the Tarikhs, from the 16th and 17th centuries and at last the traditions collected by French administrators. Levtzion concluded that local developments, stimulated by trade from North Africa were crucial in the development of the state, and tended to favor the more recently collected traditions over the other traditions in compiling his work. [20] While there has not been much further study of either traditions or documents, archaeologists have added considerable nuance to the ultimate play of forces.

Contribution of archaeological research

Archaeological research was slow to enter the picture. While French archaeologists believed they had located the capital, Koumbi-Saleh in the 1920s, when they were located extensive stone ruins in the general area given in most sources for the capital, and others argued that elaborate burials in the Niger Bend area may have been linked to the empire, it was not until 1969, when Patrick Munson excavated at Dhar Tichitt (the site of a culture associated with the ancient ancestors of the Soninke people) in modern-day Mauritania that the probability of an entirely local origin was raised. [21] The Dar Tichitt site had clearly become a complex culture by 1600 BCE and had architectural and material culture elements that seemed to match the site at Koumbi-Saleh. In more recent work in Dar Tichitt, and then in Dhar Nema and Dhar Walata, it has become more and more clear that as the desert advanced, the Dhar Tichitt culture (which had abandoned its earliest site around 300 BCE, possibly because of pressure from desert nomads, but also because of increasing aridity) and moved southward into the still well watered areas of northern Mali. [22] This now seems the likely history of the complex society that can be documented at Koumbi-Saleh.

Koumbi Saleh

The empire's capital is believed to have been at Koumbi Saleh on the rim of the Sahara desert. [23] According to the description of the town left by Al-Bakri in 1067/1068, the capital actually consisted of two cities 10 kilometres (6 mi) apart but "between these two towns are continuous habitations", so that they might be said to have merged into one. [24]


According to al-Bakri, the major part of the city was called El-Ghaba and was the residence of the king. It was protected by a stone wall and functioned as the royal and spiritual capital of the Empire. It contained a sacred grove of trees in which priests lived. It also contained the king's palace, the grandest structure in the city, surrounded by other "domed buildings". There was also one mosque for visiting Muslim officials. [24] (El-Ghaba, coincidentally or not, means "The Forest" in Arabic.)

Muslim district

The name of the other section of the city is not recorded. It was surrounded by wells with fresh water, where vegetables were grown. It was inhabited almost entirely by Muslims along with twelve mosques, one of which was designated for Friday prayers, and had a full group of scholars, scribes and Islamic jurists. Because the majority of these Muslims were merchants, this part of the city was probably its primary business district. [25] It is likely that these inhabitants were largely black Muslims known as the Wangara and are today known as fulbe/fulani and Jakhanke. The separate and autonomous ran towns outside of the main government is a well known practice used by the fulbe and Jakhanke Muslims throughout history.


The Western Nile according to al-Bakri (1068) Senegal River according to al-Bakri.jpg
The Western Nile according to al-Bakri (1068)
The Western Nile according to Muhammad al-Idrisi (1154) Senegal River according to al-Idrisi.jpg
The Western Nile according to Muhammad al-Idrisi (1154)

A 17th century chronicle written in Timbuktu, the Tarikh al-fattash , gives the name of the capital as "Koumbi". [3] Beginning in the 1920s, French archaeologists began excavating the site of Koumbi-Saleh, although there have always been controversies about the location of Ghana's capital and whether Koumbi-Saleh is the same town as the one described by al-Bakri. The site was excavated in 1949–50 by Thomassey and Mauny [26] and by another French team in 1975–81. [27] However, the remains of Koumbi Saleh are impressive, even if the remains of the royal town, with its large palace and burial mounds has not been located. Another problem for archaeology is that al-Idrisi, a twelfth-century writer, described Ghana's royal city as lying on a riverbank, a river he called the "Nile" following the geographic custom of his day of confusing the Niger and Senegal, which do not meet, as forming a single river often called the "Nile of the Blacks". Whether al-Idrisi was referring to a new and later capital located elsewhere, or whether there was confusion or corruption in his text is unclear, however he does state that the royal palace he knew of was built in 510 AH (1116–1117 AD), suggesting that it was a newer town, rebuilt closer to the Niger than Koumbi Saleh. [28]


Most of the information about the economy of Ghana comes from al-Bakri. Al-Bakri noted that merchants had to pay a one gold dinar tax on imports of salt, and two on exports of salt. Other products paid fixed dues, al-Bakri mentioned both copper and "other goods." Imports probably included products such as textiles, ornaments and other materials. Many of the hand-crafted leather goods found in old Morocco also had their origins in the empire. [29] The main centre of trade was Koumbi Saleh. The king claimed as his own all nuggets of gold, and allowed other people to have only gold dust. [30] In addition to the exerted influence of the king onto local regions, tribute was also received from various tributary states and chiefdoms to the empire's periphery. [31] The introduction of the camel played a key role in Soninke success as well, allowing products and goods to be transported much more efficiently across the Sahara. These contributing factors all helped the empire remain powerful for some time, providing a rich and stable economy that was to last over several centuries. The empire was also known to be a major education hub.[ citation needed ]


Much testimony on ancient Ghana depended on how well disposed the king was to foreign travellers, from which the majority of information on the empire comes. Islamic writers often commented on the social-political stability of the empire based on the seemingly just actions and grandeur of the king. A Moorish nobleman living in Spain by the name of Al-Bakri questioned merchants who visited the empire in the 11th century and wrote of the king:

He sits in audience or to hear grievances against officials in a domed pavilion around which stand ten horses covered with gold-embroidered materials. Behind the king stand ten pages holding shields and swords decorated with gold, and on his right are the sons of the kings of his country wearing splendid garments and their hair plaited with gold. The governor of the city sits on the ground before the king and around him are ministers seated likewise. At the door of the pavilion are dogs of excellent pedigree that hardly ever leave the place where the king is, guarding him. Around their necks they wear collars of gold and silver studded with a number of balls of the same metals. [24]

Ghana appears to have had a central core region and was surrounded by vassal states. One of the earliest sources to describe Ghana, al-Ya'qubi, writing in 889/90 (276 AH) says that "under his authority are a number of kings" which included Sama and 'Am (?) and so extended at least to the Niger valley. [32] These "kings" were presumably the rulers of the territorial units often called kafu in Mandinka.

The Arabic sources, the only ones to give us any information, are sufficiently vague as to how the country was governed, that we can say very little. Al-Bakri, far and away the most detailed one, does mention that the king had officials (mazalim) who surrounded his throne when he gave justice, and these included the sons of the "kings of his country" which we must assume are the same kings that al-Ya'qubi mentioned in his account of nearly two hundred years earlier. Al-Bakri's detailed geography of the region shows that in his day, or 1067/1068, Ghana was surrounded by independent kingdoms, and Sila, one of them located on the Senegal River, was "almost a match for the king of Ghana." Sama is the only such entity mentioned as a province, as it was in al-Ya'qubi's day. [33]

In al-Bakri's time, the rulers of Ghana had begun to incorporate more Muslims into government, including the treasurer, his interpreter and "the majority of his officials." [24]


Given the scattered nature of the Arabic sources and the ambiguity of the existing archaeological record, it is difficult to determine when and how Ghana declined and fell. The earliest descriptions of the Empire are vague as to its maximum extent, though according to al-Bakri, Ghana had forced Awdaghost in the desert to accept its rule sometime between 970 and 1054. [34] By al-Bakri's own time, however, it was surrounded by powerful kingdoms, such as Sila. Ghana was combined in the kingdom of Mali in 1240 marking the end of the Ghana Empire.

A tradition in historiography maintains that Ghana fell when it was sacked by the Almoravid movement in 1076–77, although Ghanaians resisted attack for a decade. [35] but this interpretation has been questioned. Conrad and Fisher (1982) argued that the notion of any Almoravid military conquest at its core is merely perpetuated folklore, derived from a misinterpretation or naive reliance on Arabic sources. [36] Dierke Lange agrees but argues that this does not preclude Almoravid political agitation, claiming that Ghana's demise owed much to the latter. [37] Sheryl L. Burkhalter(1992) was sceptical of Conrad and Fisher's arguments and suggested that there were reasons to believe that there was conflict between the Almoravids and the empire of Ghana. [38] [39] Furthermore, the archaeology of ancient Ghana simply does not show the signs of rapid change and destruction that would be associated with any Almoravid-era military conquests. [40]

While there is no clear-cut account of a sack of Ghana in the contemporary sources, the country certainly did convert to Islam, for al-Idrisi, whose account was written in 1154, has the country fully Muslim by that date. Ibn Khaldun, a fourteenth-century North African historian who read and cited both al-Bakri and al-Idrisi, does report an ambiguous account of the country's history as related to him report 'Uthman, a faqih of Ghana who took a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1394, that the power of Ghana waned as that of the "veiled people" grew, through the Almoravid movement. [41] Al-Idrisi's report does not give any reason in particular to cause us to believe that the Empire was any smaller or weaker than it had been in the days of al-Bakri, seventy five years earlier, and in fact he describes its capital as "the greatest of all towns of the Sudan with respect to area, the most populous, and with the most extensive trade." [28] It is clear, however, that Ghana was incorporated into the Mali Empire, according to a detailed account of al-'Umari, written around 1340, but based on testimony given to him by the "truthful and trustworthy shaykh Abu Uthman Sa'id al-Dukkali, a long term resident. In al-'Umari/al-Dukkali's version, Ghana still retained its functions as a sort of kingdom within the empire, its ruler being the only one allowed to bear the title malik and "who is like a deputy unto him." [42]

Aftermath and Sosso occupation

Ghana successor map 1200.png

According to Ibn Khaldun, following Ghana's conversion, "the authority of the rulers of Ghana dwindled away and they were overcome by the Sosso...who subjugated and subdued them." [41] Some modern traditions identify the Susu as the Sosso, inhabitants of Kaniaga. According to much later traditions, from the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Diara Kante took control of Koumbi Saleh and established the Diarisso Dynasty. His son, Soumaoro Kante, succeeded him and forced the people to pay him tribute. The Sosso also managed to annex the neighboring Mandinka state of Kangaba to the south, where the important goldfields of Bure were located.

Malinke rule

In his brief overview of Sudanese history, ibn Khaldun related that "the people of Mali outnumbered the peoples of the Sudan in their neighborhood and dominated the whole region." He went on to relate that they "vanquished the Susu and acquired all their possessions, both their ancient kingdom and that of Ghana." [43] According to a modern tradition, this resurgence of Mali was led by Sundiata Keita, the founder of Mali and ruler of its core area of Kangaba. Delafosse assigned an arbitrary but widely accepted date of 1230 to the event. [44] This tradition states that Ghana Soumaba Cisse, at the time a vassal of the Sosso, rebelled with Kangaba and became part of a loose federation of Mande-speaking states. After Soumaoro's defeat at the Battle of Kirina in 1235 (a date again assigned arbitrarily by Delafosse), the new rulers of Koumbi Saleh became permanent allies of the Mali Empire. As Mali became more powerful, Koumbi Saleh's role as an ally declined to that of a submissive state, and it became the client described in al-'Umari/al-Dukkali's account of 1340. [42]


The word ghana means warrior or war chief and was the title given to the rulers of the original kingdom whose Soninke name was Ouagadou. Kaya Maghan (lord of the gold) was another title for these kings. [45] The extraordinary renown of the Ghana empire induced Kwame Nkrumah, the political leader of the Gold Coast, to name his country Ghana when it attained independence in 1957, [46] although the country is not in the same location as the old empire.


Soninke rulers ("Ghanas") of the Cisse dynasty

Almoravid occupation

Sosso rulers

Rulers during Kaniaga occupation

Ghanas of Wagadou Tributary

See also

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  16. African Studies Association, History in Africa, Vol. 11, African Studies Association, 1984, University of Michigan, pp. 42-51.
  17. Cornevin, Robert, Histoire de l'Africa, Tome I: des origines au XVIe siècle (Paris, 1962), 347-48 (reference to Delafosse in Haut-Sénégal-Niger vol. 1, pp. 256-257)
  18. Delafosse 1912, pp.  215–226 Vol. 1.
  19. Mauny 1961, pp. 72–74, 508–511.
  20. Levtzion 1973, pp. 8–17.
  21. Munson 1980.
  22. Kevin McDonald, Robert Vernet, Dorian Fuller and James Woodhouse, "New Light on the Tichitt Tradition" A Preliminary Report on Survey and Excavation at Dhar Nema," pp. 78–80.
  23. Levtzion 1973, pp. 22–26.
  24. 1 2 3 4 al-Bakri (1067) in Levtzion and Hopkins, Corpus, p. 80.
  25. al-Bakri, 1067 in Levtzion and Hopkins, Corpus, pp. 79–80.
  26. Thomassey & Mauny 1951.
  27. Berthier 1997.
  28. 1 2 al-Idrisi in Levtzion and Hopkins, Corpus, pp. 109–110.
  29. Chu, Daniel and Skinner, Elliot. A Glorious Age in Africa, 1st ed. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965.
  30. al-Bakri in Levtzion and Hopkins, eds. and trans. Corpus, p. 81.
  31. "The Story of Africa- BBC World Service". Retrieved 13 September 2018.
  32. al-Ya'qubi in Levtzion and Hopkins, eds. and trans. Corpus, p. 21.
  33. al-Bakri in Levtzion and Hopkins, eds. and trans., Corpus, pp. 77–83.
  34. al-Bakri in Levtzion and Hopkins, eds. and trans. Corpus, p. 73.
  35. For example, Levtzion, Ghana and Mali, pp. 44–48.
  36. Masonen & Fisher 1996.
  37. Lange 1996, pp. 122–159.
  38. "Listening for Silences in Almoravid History: Another Reading of “The Conquest that Never Was” Camilo Gómez-Rivas
  39. "Law and the Islamization of Morocco under the Almoravids” Camilo Gómez-Rivas
  40. Insoll 2003, p. 230.
  41. 1 2 ibn Khaldun in Levtzion and Hopkins, eds. and trans. Corpus, p. 333.
  42. 1 2 al-'Umari in Levtzion and Hopkins, eds. and trans. Corpus, p. 262.
  43. ibn Khaldun in Levtzion and Hopkins, Corpus, p. 333.
  44. Delafosse 1912, p.  291 Vol. 1.
  45. Willie F. Page; R. Hunt Davis, Jr., eds. (2005), "Ghana Empire", Encyclopedia of African History and Culture, 2 (revised ed.), Facts on File, pp. 85–87
  46. R. Cornevin (1991), "GHĀNA", The Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2 (2nd ed.), Brill, pp. 1001–1003


Further reading

Coordinates: 15°40′N8°00′W / 15.667°N 8.000°W / 15.667; -8.000