Following the fall of Dynastic Egypt, Carthage, and Numidia, the pride of Africa centered on the outstanding West African empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay. At the core of the empires were the great cities of Gao, Timbuktu, and Jenne. Gao, founded in the seventh century, was a major terminus for the great caravans crossing the Sahara. Timbuktu was the great intellectual nucleus of West Africa. Jenne was a vital commercial hub as well as an important learning center. Each of these three cities enjoyed an exceptionally high status and wielded considerable influence.
The Songhai Empire (sometimes spelled Songhay) is regarded by scholars and laymen alike as one of Africa’s greatest empires. The Songhai Empire rose to particularly lofty heights in the late 1400s during the magnificent rule of Sunni Ali. During the reign of Sunni Ali most of what was formerly the Ghanaian and Mali Empires were incorporated into the Songhai Empire.
Sunni Ali marched on Timbuktu and captured it along with its great University of Sankore, which had thousands of students from many parts of the world. During the waging of a seven year war Sunni Ali captured the great city of Jenne. Sunni Ali would marry the queen of Jenne, Queen Dara, and they would reign together splendidly. Sunni Ali eventually gained control over the entire middle Niger region.
Sunni Ali, in addition to restoring order to the Sudan (the Arabic expression for West Africa), was also a brilliant administrator. He divided the Songhai Empire into separate provinces and placed each province under the control of its own governor. Much to his credit Sunni Ali developed new methods of farming and created for Songhai a professional navy. Sunni Ali embraced and respected the Islamic faith of his trading partners, which accounted for much of his success as a ruler. By the time of his death in 1492 the Songhai Empire under Sunni Ali had surpassed the greatness of the other West African empires (including Ghana and Mali) that preceded it and became the greatest empire in West Africa.
Following the death of Sunni Ali, his son, Sunni Baru, ascended to the throne for a short time before he was in turn overthrown by the person who would lead the Songhai Empire to the pinnacle of its greatness, Askia Muhammad Toure. Askia Muhammad Toure had been a general under Sunni Ali and was successful as a ruler largely as the result of his acceptance of Islam. He appointed Islamic leaders to the larger districts of his empire and applied Islamic law in place of Songhai’s traditional laws.
Askia Muhammad Toure greatly improved the learning centers of the Songhai by encouraging scholars to come from other parts of Africa (as well as Europe and Asia) to settle in Timbuktu and Jenne, and built as many as 180 Koranic schools in Timbuktu alone. Indeed, the Sankore University in Timbuktu developed a reputation for scholarship in rhetoric, logic, Islamic law, grammar, astronomy, history, and geography.
During Askia Muhammad Toure’s brilliant reign, the Songhai Empire was characterized by order, stability, and prosperity. His most important innovation was to open up the ranks of government service. Previously, the status of the leaders of the empire was determined upon the basis of birth. Under Askia Muhammad Toure, however, men could achieve high office based upon their scholarship and intellect regardless of their social position. Askia Muhammad Toure also organized and established a permanent professional army which enabled him to expand the territory of Songhai and turn the Songhai Empire into the largest empire every known in the Western and Central Sudan.
*Juanda Honore is a long time member of the Global African Presence and a strong and ardent believer in African economic self-empowerment. She is an active member of MATAH and the founder of the Songhai International’s Virtual Trade Center. For further information Juanda can be reached via the Internet at firstname.lastname@example.org
By: Juanda Honore
African Glory, by J.C. Degraft-Johnson
Timbucktoo the Mysterious, by Felix DuBois
Introduction to African Civilizations, by John G. Jackson