Songhai Empire

The Songhai Empire (also transliterated as Songhay) was a state that dominated the western Sahel in the 15th and 16th century. At its peak, it was one of the largest states in African history. The state is known by its historiographical name, derived from its leading ethnic group and ruling elite, the Songhai. Sonni Ali established Gao as the capital of the empire, although a Songhai state had existed in and around Gao since the 11th century. Other important cities in the empire were Timbuktu and Djenné, conquered in 1468 and 1475 respectively, where urban-centered trade flourished. Initially, the empire was ruled by the Sonni dynasty (c. 1464–1493), but it was later replaced by the Askia dynasty (1493–1591).

During the second half of the 13th century, Gao and the surrounding region had grown into an important trading center and attracted the interest of the expanding Mali Empire. Mali conquered Gao towards the end of the 13th century. Gao would remain under Malian hegemony until the late 14th century. As the Mali Empire started to disintegrate, the Songhai reasserted control of Gao. Songhai rulers subsequently took advantage of the weakened Mali Empire to expand Songhai rule.

Under the rule of Sonni Ali, the Songhai surpassed the Malian Empire in area, wealth, and power, absorbing vast areas of the Mali Empire and reached its greatest extent. His son and successor, Sonni Bāru (1492–1493), was a less successful ruler of the empire, and as such was overthrown by Muhammad Ture (1493–1528; called Askia), one of his father's generals, who instituted political and economic reforms throughout the empire.

A series of plots and coups by Askia's successors forced the empire into a period of decline and instability. Askia's relatives attempted to govern the empire, but political chaos and several civil wars within the empire ensured the empire's continued decline, particularly during the brutal rule of Askia Ishaq I (1539–1549). The empire experienced a period of stability and a string of military successes during the reign of Askia Daoud (1549–1582/1583). Ahmad al-Mansur, the Moroccan sultan at the time, demanded tax revenues from the empire's salt mines.

Askia Daoud responded by sending a large quantity of gold as gift in an attempt to appease the sultan. Askia Ishaq II (1588–1591) ascended to power in a long dynastic struggle following the death of Askia Daoud. He would be the last ruler of the empire. In 1590, al-Mansur took advantage of the recent civil strife in the empire and sent an army under the command of Judar Pasha to conquer the Songhai and to gain control of the Trans-Saharan trade routes. After the disastrous defeat at the Battle of Tondibi (1591), the Songhai Empire collapsed. The Dendi Kingdom succeeded the empire as the continuation of Songhai culture and society.

Songhai Empire

c. 1464–1591
The territorial extent of the Songhai Empire in c. 1500.
The territorial extent of the Songhai Empire in c. 1500.
Common languagesSonghai, Malinké, Mandinka, Fulani, Bozo, Soninke, Hausa, Mooré
Islam, African traditional religion
Dia (King) 
• 1464–1492
Sunni Ali
• 1492–1493
Sonni Bāru
• 1493–1528
Askia the Great
• 1529–1531
Askia Musa
• 1531–1537
Askia Benkan
• 1537–1539
Askia Isma'il
• 1539–1549
Askia Ishaq I
• 1549–1582/1583
Askia Daoud
• 1588–1592
Askia Ishaq II
Historical eraPostclassical Era
• Songhai state emerges at Gao
c. 1000
• independence from Mali Empire
c. 1430
• Sunni Dynasty begins
• Askiya Dynasty begins
• Songhai Empire falls
• Dendi Kingdom continues
1500[2]1,400,000 km2 (540,000 sq mi)
1550[3]800,000 km2 (310,000 sq mi)
Currency(Cowry shells, and gold coins)
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Mali Empire
Gao Empire
Saadi dynasty
Pashalik of Timbuktu
Dendi Kingdom


Pre-imperial Songhai

In ancient times there were several different groups of people that collectively formed the Songhai identity. Among the first people to settle in the region of Gao were the Sorko people, who established small settlements on the banks of the Niger River. The Sorko fashioned boats and canoes from the wood of the cailcedrat tree and fished and hunted from their boats and provided water-borne transport for goods and people. Another group of people that moved into the area to live off of the Niger's resources were the Gow people. The Gow were hunters and specialized in hunting river animals such as crocodile and hippopotamus.

The other group of people known to have inhabited the area were the Do people. They were farmers who raised crops in the fertile lands bordering the river. Sometime before the 10th century, these early settlers were subjugated by more powerful, horse-riding Songhai speakers, who established control over the area. All these groups of people gradually began to speak the same language and they and their country eventually became known as the Songhai.[4]


The earliest dynasty of kings is obscure and most of the information about this dynasty comes from an ancient cemetery near a village called Saney, close to Gao. Inscriptions on a few of the tombstones in the cemetery indicate that this dynasty ruled in the late 11th and early 12th centuries and that the rulers from this dynasty bore the title of Malik. Other tombstones mention a second dynasty, whose rulers bore the title zuwa. There is only myth and legend to describe zuwa origins.[5] The Tarikh al-Sudan (the History of the Sudan), written in Arabic around 1655, provides an early history of the Songhai as handed down through oral tradition. The Chronicle reports that the legendary founder of the Za or the Zuwa dynasty was called Za Alayaman, who originally came from Yemen and settled in the town of Kukiya.[6] What happened to the Zuwa rulers is not recorded.[7]

Pre-imperial kingdom

The camel-riding Sanhaja tribes were among the early people of the Niger bend region. They were locally known as the Tuareg. These tribes rode out of the great Sahara Desert and established trading settlements near the Niger. As time passed, North African traders crossed the Sahara and joined the Tuaregs in their Niger bend settlements. They all conducted business with the people living near the river. As trade in the region increased, the Songhai chiefs took control of the profitable commerce around what was to later become Gao. Between 750 and 950, as the Ghana Empire prospered as the "land of gold" far to the west, the trading centre at Gao became an increasingly important terminus for trade across the Sahara.

The trade goods included gold, salt, slaves, kola nuts, leather, dates, and ivory. And by the 10th century, the Songhai chiefs had established Gao as a small kingdom, taking control of the people living along the trade routes. At around 1300, Gao had become so prosperous that it attracted the attention of the Mali Empire and its rulers. Gao was subsequently conquered by them and Mali profited from Gao's trade and collect taxes from its kings until about the 1430s. Troubles in the Mali homelands made it impossible to maintain control of Gao.[8] Ibn Battuta visited Gao in 1353 when the town was a part of the Mali Empire. He arrived by boat from Timbuktu on his return journey from visiting the capital of the empire:

Then I travelled to the town of Kawkaw, which is a great town on the Nīl [Niger], one of the finest, biggest, and most fertile cities of the Sūdān. There is much rice there, and milk, and chickens, and fish, and the cucumber, which has no like. Its people conduct their buying and selling with cowries, like the people of Mālī.[9]

Imperial Songhai

Following the death of Mansa Sulayman in 1360, disputes over the succession weakened the Mali Empire. Furthermore, the ruinous reign of Mari Djata II left the empire in bad financial shape, but the empire itself passed intact to Musa II. However, the real power in the empire was in the hands of Mari Djata, Musa's kankoro-sigui. He put down a Tuareg rebellion in Takedda and attempted to quell the Songhai rebellion in Gao. While he was successful in Takedda, he did not manage to re-subjugate Gao, and so the Songhai effectively retained their independence.[10] During his reign, Sonni Ali would be the one to expand the small kingdom of Gao into an enormous empire.[11]

Sonni Ali

Sonni Ali was the first king of the Songhai Empire and the 15th ruler of the Manay dynasty. He worked his hardest to get the Songhai empire out of its rocky start. The Muslim leaders of Timbuktu asked him to drive out the invaders. Once Sunni Ali drove them out, he took this chance and took over Timbuktu. Soon, he had almost all the trading cities along the Niger River.

Imperial Songhai

In the decades following the death of, disputes over succession weakened the Mali Empire, and in the 1430s Songhai, previously a Mali dependency, gained independence under the Sonni Dynasty. Around thirty years later Sonni Sulayman Dama attacked Mema, the Mali province west of Timbuktu, paving the way for his successor, Sonni Ali, to turn his country into one of the greatest empires Saharan Africa has ever seen.[12]

Sunni Ali

Sonni Ali reigned from 1464 to 1492, after the death of Sulayman Dama. Like Songhai kings before him, Ali was a Muslim. In the late 1460s, he conquered many of the Songhai's neighboring states, including what remained of the Mali Empire. Sonni Ali was considered the empire's most formidable military strategist and conqueror. Under his rule Songhai reached a size of over 1,400,000 square kilometers.

During his campaigns for expansion, Ali conquered many lands, repelling attacks from the Mossi to the south and overcoming the Dogon people to the north. He annexed Timbuktu in 1468, after Islamic leaders of the town requested his assistance in overthrowing marauding Tuaregs who had taken the city following the decline of Mali.[13] However, Ali met stark resistance after setting his eyes on the wealthy and renowned trading town of Djenné (also known as Jenne). After a persistent seven-year siege, he was able to forcefully incorporate it into his vast empire in 1473, but only after having starved its citizens into surrender.

The invasion of Sonni Ali and his forces caused harm to the city of Timbuktu, and he was described as an intolerant tyrant in many African accounts. According to The Cambridge History of Africa the Islamic historian Al-Sa'df expresses this sentiment in describing his incursion on Timbuktu:

Sunni Ali entered Timbuktu, committed gross iniquity, burned and destroyed the town, and brutally tortured many people there. When Akilu heard of the coming of Sonni Ali, he brought a thousand camels to carry the fuqaha of Sankore and went with them to Walata..... The Godless tyrant was engaged in slaughtering those who remained in Timbuktu and humiliated them.[14]

The Timbuktu Manuscripts, with Arabic writings about mathematics and astronomy.

Sonni Ali conducted a repressive policy against the scholars of Timbuktu, especially those of the Sankore region who were associated with the Tuareg. With his control of critical trade routes and cities such as Timbuktu, Sonni Ali brought great wealth to the Songhai Empire, which at its height would surpass the wealth of Mali.[15]

In oral tradition, Sonni Ali is often known as a powerful politician and great military commander. Whatever the case may have been, his legend consists of him being a fearless conqueror who united a great empire, sparking a legacy that is still intact today. Under his reign Djenné and Timbuktu became great centers of learning.

Askia the Great

After taking the throne Muhammad is known as Askia the Great, even though he had no real right to be the king. Not only was he not in the royal family blood line, he did not hold the sacred symbols which entitled one to become a ruler. Furthermore, he was most likely a descendant of Soninke lineage rather than Songhai, which means that by Songhai standards his family background would have not allowed him to be King. But Askia managed to bypass that law and take the throne.

He organized the territories that Sonni Ali had previously conquered and extended his power as far to the south and east. He was not as tactful as Ali in the means of the military, but he did find success in alliances. Because of these alliances he was able to capture and conquer more vastly. Unlike Ali, however, he was a devout Muslim. Askia opened religious schools, constructed mosques, and opened up his court to scholars and poets from throughout the Muslim world. He sent his children to an Islamic School and enforced Islamic practices. Yet he was tolerant of other religions and did not force Islam on his people.

Like Mansa Musa, Askia also completed one of the Five Pillars of Islam by taking a hajj to Mecca, and, also like the former, went with an overwhelming amount of gold. He donated some to charity and used the rest for lavish gifts to impress the people of Mecca with the wealth of the Songhai. Islam was so important to him that, upon his return, he recruited Muslim scholars from Egypt and Morocco to teach at the Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu as well as setting up many other learning centers throughout his empire. Among his great accomplishments was an interest in astronomical knowledge which led to a flourishing of astronomers and observatories in the capital.[16]

While not as renowned as his predecessor for his military tactics, he initiated many campaigns, notably declaring Jihad against the neighboring Mossi. Even after subduing them he did not force them to convert to Islam. His army consisted of war canoes, expert cavalry, protective armor, iron tipped weapons, and an organized militia.

Not only was he a patron of Islam, he also was gifted in administration and encouraging trade. He centralized the administration of the empire and established an efficient bureaucracy which was responsible for, among other things, tax collection and the administration of justice. He also demanded that canals be built in order to enhance agriculture, which would eventually increase trade. More important than anything he did for trade was the introduction of weights and measures and the appointment of an inspector for each of Songhai's important trading centers. During his reign Islam became more widely entrenched, trans-Saharan trade flourished, and the Saharan salt mines of Taghaza were brought within the boundaries of the empire.


As Askia the Great grew older, his power declined. In 1528 his sons revolted against him and declared Musa, one of Askia's many sons, as king. Following Musa's overthrow in 1531, Songhai's empire went into decline. Following multiple attempts at governing the Empire by Askia's sons and grandsons there was little hope for a return to the power it once held.

Between the political chaos and multiple civil wars within the empire, it came as a surprise when Morocco invaded Songhai unexpectedly. The main reason for the Moroccan invasion of Songhai was to seize control of and revive the trans-Saharan trade in salt and gold. The Songhai military, during Askia's reign, consisted of full-time soldiers, but the king never modernized his army. The Empire fell to the Moroccans and their firearms in 1591.


At its peak, the Songhai city of Timbuktu became a thriving cultural and commercial center. Arab, Italian, and Jewish merchants all gathered for trade. A revival of Islamic scholarship also took place at the university in Timbuktu. However, Timbuktu was but one of a myriad of cities throughout the empire. By 1500, the Songhai Empire covered over 1.4 million square kilometers.[2][17]


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

Economic trade existed throughout the Empire, due to the standing army stationed in the provinces throughout the empire. Central to the regional economy were independent gold fields. The Julla (merchants) would form partnerships, and the state would protect these merchants and the port cities of the Niger. It was a very strong trading kingdom, known for its production of practical crafts as well as religious artifacts.

The Songhai economy was based on a clan system. The clan a person belonged to ultimately decided one's occupation. The most common were metalworkers, fishermen, and carpenters. Lower caste participants consisted of mostly non-farm working immigrants, who at times were provided special privileges and held high positions in society. At the top were noblemen and direct descendants of the original Songhai people, followed by freemen and traders. At the bottom were war captives and slaves obligated to labor, especially in farming. James Olson describes the labor system as resembling modern day unions, with the Empire possessing craft guilds that consisted of various mechanics and artisans.[18]

Criminal justice

Criminal justice in Songhai was based mainly, if not entirely, on Islamic principles, especially during the rule of Askia Muhammad. The local qadis were in addition to this, with their responsibility being to maintain order by following Sharia law under Islamic domination, according to the Qur'an. An additional qadi was noted as a necessity in order to settle minor disputes between immigrant merchants. Kings usually did not judge a defendant; however, under special circumstances, such as acts of treason, they felt an obligation to do so and thus exert their authority. Results of a trial were announced by the "town crier" and punishment for most trivial crimes usually consisted of confiscation of merchandise or even imprisonment, since various prisons existed throughout the Empire.[19]

Qadis worked at the local level and were positioned in important trading towns, such as Timbuktu and Djenné. The Qadi was appointed by the king and dealt with common-law misdemeanors according to Sharia law. The Qadi also had the power to grant a pardon or offer refuge. The Assara-munidios, or "enforcers" worked along the lines of a police commissioner whose sole duty was to execute sentencing. Jurists were mainly composed of those representing the academic community; professors were often noted as taking administrative positions within the Empire and many aspired to be qadis.[20]


Upper classes in society converted to Islam while lower classes often continued to follow traditional religions. Sermons emphasized obedience to the king. Timbuktu was the educational capital. Sonni Ali established a system of government under the royal court, later to be expanded by Askia Muhammad, which appointed governors and mayors to preside over local tributary states, situated around the Niger valley. Local chiefs were still granted authority over their respective domains as long as they did not undermine Songhai policy.[21]

Tax was imposed onto peripheral chiefdoms and provinces to ensure the dominance of Songhai, and in return these provinces were given almost complete autonomy. Songhai rulers only intervened in the affairs of these neighboring states when a situation became volatile, usually an isolated incident. Each town was represented by government officials, holding positions and responsibilities similar to today's central bureaucrats.

Under Askia Muhammad, the Empire saw increased centralization. He encouraged learning in Timbuktu by rewarding its professors with larger pensions as an incentive. He also established an order of precedence and protocol and was noted as a noble man who gave back generously to the poor. Under his policies, Muhammad brought much stability to Songhai and great attestations of this noted organization are still preserved in the works of Maghrebin writers such as Leo Africanus, among others.


West Africa after the Moroccan invasion.

Following the death of Emperor Askia Daoud, a civil war of succession weakened the Empire, leading Sultan Ahmad I al-Mansur of the Saadi Dynasty of Morocco to dispatch an invasion force (years earlier, armies from Portugal had attacked Morocco, and failed miserably, but the Moroccan coffers were on the verge of economic depletion and bankruptcy, as they needed to pay for the defenses used to hold off the siege) under the eunuch Judar Pasha.[22]

Judar Pasha was a Spaniard by birth, but had been captured as an infant and educated at the Saadi court. After a march across the Sahara desert, Judar's forces captured, plundered, and razed the salt mines at Taghaza and moved on to Gao. When Emperor Askia Ishaq II (r. 1588–1591) met Judar at the 1591 Battle of Tondibi, Songhai forces, despite vastly superior numbers, were routed by a cattle stampede triggered by the Saadi's gunpowder weapons.[23]

Judar proceeded to sack Gao, Timbuktu and Djenné, destroying the Songhai as a regional power. Governing so vast an empire proved too much for the Saadi Dynasty, however, and they soon relinquished control of the region, letting it splinter into dozens of smaller kingdoms. The Songhai people themselves established the Dendi Kingdom.

See also



  1. ^ Bethwell A. Ogot, Africa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century, (UNESCO Publishing, 2000), 303.
  2. ^ a b hunwick 2003, pp. xlix.
  3. ^ Taagepera 1979, pp. 497.
  4. ^ Empires of Medieval West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay | David C. Conrad | Page 49
  5. ^ Empires of Medieval West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay | David C. Conrad | Page 49–50
  6. ^ Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire: Al-Sadi's Tarikh al-Sudan down to 1613 and other contemporary documents | John Hunwick | Page 35 (xxxv)
  7. ^ Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire: Al-Sadi's Tarikh al-Sudan down to 1613 and other contemporary documents | John Hunwick | Page 36 (xxxvi)
  8. ^ Empires of Medieval West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay | David C. Conrad | Page 50–51
  9. ^ Levtzion & Hopkins 2000, p. 300.
  10. ^ Stride, G.T & C. Ifeka: "Peoples and Empires of West Africa: West Africa in History 1000–1800". Nelson, 1971
  11. ^ "Sunni Ali." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. 27 Dec. 2014 | Chapter: Sonni Ali
  12. ^ "Empires of Medieval West Africa".
  13. ^ Sonni ʿAlī.(2007). Encyclopædia Britannica. Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica.
  14. ^ The Cambridge History of Africa, Vol 5: University Press, 1977, pp 421
  15. ^ Daniel, McCall; Norman, Bennett (1971). "Aspects of West African Islam". Boston University Library. pp. 42–45.
  16. ^ "Medieval Islamic Civilization: L-Z, index".
  17. ^ Malio 1990.
  18. ^ Olson, James Stuart. The Ethnic Dimension in American History. New York: St. Martin's Press, Inc., 1979
  19. ^ Lady Lugard 1997, pp. 199–200.
  20. ^ Dalgleish 2005.
  21. ^ Iliffe 2007, pp. 72.
  22. ^ History Files
  23. ^ History Files


Further reading

  • Isichei, Elizabeth. A History of African Societies to 1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Print.
  • Shillington, Kevin. History of Africa . 2nd . NY: Macmillan, 2005. Print.
  • Cissoko, S. M., Timbouctou et l'empire songhay, Paris 1975.
  • Lange, D., Ancient Kingdoms of West Africa, Dettelbach 2004 (the book has a chapter titled "The Mande factor in Gao history", pp. 409–544).
  • Gomez, Michael A., African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa. Princeton Universoty Press, 2018.

External links

Askia Daoud

Askia Daoud (also Askia Dawud) was ruler of the Songhai Empire from 1549 to 1582. Daoud came to power unopposed following the death of his brother Askia Ishaq I in 1549. The Empire continued to expand under Daoud's rule, and saw little internal strife.

He organised a series of military campaigns against tributary territories of his large empire. The Songhai forces were frequently successful, but in the 1561–1562 campaign against the Mossi, a number of his commanders were killed.In 1556–1557 troops of Mulay Muhammad al-Shaykh, the sultan of Marrakesh captured the salt mines of Taghaza but then withdrew. Soon after his accession in 1578 Sultan Ahmad I al-Mansur of Morocco demanded the tax revenues from the salt mines. Ashiya Dawud responded by sending a large quantity of gold as a gift.Daoud's 1582 death began a struggle for succession that critically weakened the Empire and prepared the way for the 1591 Moroccan invasion by the troops of Sultan Ahmad I al-Mansur Saadi.

Askia Ishaq I

Askia Ishaq I was ruler of the Songhai Empire from 1539 to 1549, elected Askia following the death of Askiya Ismail. He was the fifth ruler of the Askiya Dynasty which had the town of Gao as its capital.

Askiya Ishaq I was completely ruthless as a ruler and executed any official whom he considered as a threat. The Tarikh al-Sudan gives this description: "If he imagined anyone was making the least move against the throne, he would, without exception, have him killed or banished. This was his consistent practice."Askia Ishaq briefly occupied the Mali Empire capital in 1545/6.After a request from the Moroccan sultan Muhammad Al-Arak, to cede the salt mines of Taghaza, Ishaq I sent a group of 2000 mounted men to raid a market town in the Dara valley of southern Morocco with instructions to avoid killing anyone. This was intended as a show of strength.Askiya Ishaq I died in the town of Kukiya and was buried there. He was succeeded by his brother Askiya Dawud.

Askia Ishaq II

Askia Ishaq II was ruler of the Songhai Empire from 1588 to 1591.

Ishaq came to power in a long dynastic struggle following the death of the long-ruling Askia Daoud. Sensing the Empire's weakness, Moroccan Sultan Ahmad I al-Mansur Saadi dispatched a 4,000-man force under the Islamicized Spaniard Judar Pasha across the Sahara desert in October 1590. Though Ishaq assembled more than 40,000 soldiers to meet the Moroccans, his army fled the enemy's gunpowder weapons at the decisive Battle of Tondibi in March 1591; Judar soon seized and looted the Songhai capital of Gao as well as the trading centers of Timbuktu and Djenné, ensuring the Empire's destruction.

Askia Mohammad Benkan

Askia Mohammad Benkan, also Askiya Muhammad Bonkana, was the 3rd ruler of the Songhai Empire from 1531 to April 1537.

Mohammad Benkan assumed power after Askiya Musa (son of Askia Mohammad I) was assassinated. Musa was assassinated in the village of Mansur on Wed 24 April 1531, and on that same day, Mohammad Benkan became Askia.

Shocked by Musa's ruthless actions to eliminate rivals, his brothers conspired together and killed him. It was during this chaos that Benkan, the Kurmina-fari (the Kurmina Governor) and son of Umar Komadiakha (brother of Askia Mohammad), seized control of the throne despite opposition from Alu (one of the sons of Askia Mohammad) and took the position of Askia.

To secure his position Benkan then banished Askia Mohammad, his paternal uncle to the island of Kangaba, in the River Niger to the west of Gao. He appointed his brother Uthman to his former position as Kurmina-fari. The Tarikh al-Sudan contains this description of his court:

Askiya Muhammad Bonkana furbished the court splendidly, enlarging it, adorning it, and embellishing it with more courtiers than ever before. He supplied sumptuous garments, different types of musical instruments, and male and female singers. He gave out abundant largesse and benefactions. During his reign divine favours were bestowed, doors were opened, and blessings poured forth.

Benkan tried to reverse his uncle's policy of relying on the towns, preferring instead to gather support from the peasants. However, after a series of military failures, most notably suffering a terrible defeat at the hands of Muhammadu Kanta, the Sarkin of Kebbi. Muhammad Benkan was himself deposed in 1537, and was succeeded by Askiya Ismail son of Askiya al-hajj Muhammad. Muhammad Bonkana went blind before he died in around 1559.Kanta was once the Leka-fari and a Barde, one of the great captains of Askia Mohammed. However Kanta had revolted against Askia and with his followers moved into the territory of the Kebbawa taking control and establishing the independent state of Kebbi.

Askia Mohammad I

Askia Muhammad I (ca. 1443 – 1538), born Muhammad Ture or Mohamed Touré in Futa Tooro, later called Askia, also known as Askia the Great, was an emperor, military commander, and political reformer of the Songhai Empire in the late 15th century. He was from the Soninke ethnic group. Askia Muhammad strengthened his empire and made it the largest empire in West Africa's history. At its peak under his reign, the Songhai Empire encompassed the Hausa states as far as Kano (in present-day Nigeria) and much of the territory that had belonged to the Songhai empire in the west. His policies resulted in a rapid expansion of trade with Europe and Asia, the creation of many schools, and the establishment of Islam as an integral part of the empire.

After Sunni Ali Ber died, Sunni Baru, his son and intended successor, was challenged by Muhammad because he was not seen as a faithful Muslim. This gave one of Sunni Ali Ber's generals, Muhammad Ture, a reason to challenge his succession. General Ture defeated Baru and ascended to the throne in 1493.General Ture, later known as Askia Muhammad I or Askia the Great, subsequently orchestrated a program of expansion and consolidation which extended the empire from Taghaza in the North to the borders of Yatenga in the South; and from Air in the Northeast to Futa Djallon in Guinea. Instead of organizing the empire along Islamic lines, he tempered and improved on the traditional model by instituting a system of bureaucratic government unparalleled in Western Africa. In addition, Askia established standardized trade measures and regulations, initiated the policing of trade routes and also established an organized tax system. He was overthrown by his son, Askia Musa, in 1528.

Askia Musa

Askia Musa or Askiya Musa (ruled 1529–1531) was the 2nd Soninke ruler of the Songhai Empire.

Towards the end of his reign, Askia Muhammad had become increasingly dependant on Ali Fulan, the Hugu-koray-koi (Master of the Palace interior). On one occasion, Ali advised that his young son Balla be appointed to the vacant position of Benga-farma (governor of Benga). When the older sons of Askia heard about this, they were angered as the post of Benga was very prestigious. Musa (his son) in particular was angry at his father and with Ali Fulan, he claimed that Askia did nothing but what Ali told him.

The closeness arose because Askia had become blind, however none of the sons were aware of it because Ali Fulan stuck so close to his side as aid (at this time blindness would have disqualified a ruler as he would have been expected to lead his army into battle, as well as being a bad omen).

Musa resolved to depose his aging father Askia Mohammad I, this he achieved on 15 Aug 1529 in a bloodless coup. He then battled his kin to retain his position of power, in the process killing a number of his brothers and between 25 and 35 of his cousins. In 1531 a group of his brothers plotted against him and killed him.

Askiya Dynasty

The Askiya Dynasty, also known as the Askia Dynasty, ruled the Songhai Empire at the height of that state's power. It was founded in 1493 by Askia Mohammad I, a general of the Songhai Empire who usurped the Sonni Dynasty. The Askiya ruled from Gao over the vast Songhai Empire until its defeat by a Moroccan invasion force in 1591. After the defeat, the dynasty moved south back to its homeland in the Dendi region of modern Niger. There they established the Dendi Kingdom and ruled until the beginning of the 20th century.

Battle of Tondibi

The Battle of Tondibi was the decisive confrontation in Morocco's 16th-century invasion of the Songhai Empire. Though vastly outnumbered, the Moroccan forces under Judar Pasha defeated the Songhai Askia Ishaq II, guaranteeing the Empire's downfall.

Dendi Kingdom

The Dendi Kingdom (1591–1901) was a West African state in modern-day Niger founded by the Dendi people after the collapse of the Songhai Empire. It was conquered by France in 1901.

History of Mali

Mali is located in Africa.

The history of the territory of modern Mali may be divided into:

Pre-Imperial Mali, before the 13th century

the history of the eponymous Mali Empire and of the Songhai Empire during the 13th to 16th centuriesThe borders of Mali are those of French Sudan, drawn in 1891. They are artificial, and unite part of the larger Sudan region with parts of the Sahara.

As a consequence, Mali is a multiethnic country, with a majority of its population consisting of Mandé peoples.

Mali's history is dominated by its role in trans-Saharan trade, connecting West Africa and the Maghreb. The Malian city Timbuktu is exemplary of this: situated on the southern fringe of the Sahara and close to the River Niger, it has played an important role in the trans-Saharan trade from the 13th century on, with the establishment of the Mali Empire.

Judar Pasha

Judar Pasha (Arabic: جؤذر باشا‎) was a Spanish military leader and the conqueror of the Songhai Empire.

Born as Diego de Guevara in Cuevas del Almanzora (Crown of Castile), Judar had been captured by Muslim slave-raiders as a baby. As a young boy he joined the service of Moroccan Sultan Ahmad I al-Mansur Saadi. Like many of Ahmad's officers, Judar was a eunuch, having been castrated as a boy by his owners.

In 1590, Ahmad I made Judar a pasha and appointed him the head of an invasion force against the Songhai Empire of what is now Mali. In October of that year, Judar set out from Marrakesh with a force of 1,500 light cavalry and 2,500 arquebusiers and light infantry. He also carried eight English cannon in his supply train, and assembled eighty Christian bodyguards for his personal detail.

After an arduous crossing of the Sahara desert, Judar razed the desert salt mines of Taghaza and advanced on the Songhai capital of Gao.

Meanwhile, Songhai ruler Askia Ishaq II assembled a force of more than 40,000 men and moved north against the Moroccans; the two armies met at Tondibi in March 1591. Despite their far inferior numbers, the Moroccan gunpowder weapons easily carried the day, resulting in a rout of the Songhai troops. Judar sacked Gao and then moved on to the trading centers of Djenné and Timbuktu.According to Martin Meredith, "To quell resistance in Timbuktu, the Moroccans sent leading scholars to Marrakesh in chains. The wealth of Timbuktu, Gao, and Jenne was also stripped. Huge quantities of gold dust were shipped across the desert. When Judar Pasha returned to Morocco in 1599, his caravan included thirty camel-loads of gold valued by an English merchant at £600,000."Despite Judar's gains, sporadic battles continued with the Songhai army, leading to his replacement several years after his victory.

Judar was subsequently put to death in December 1606 on the orders of Mulay Abd Allah, son of Mullay al-Shaykh in the course of struggles over the Moroccan throne. This was mainly set up by the Battle of Tondibi.

Songhai people

The Songhai people (also Songhay or Sonrai) are an ethnic group in West Africa who speak the various Songhai languages. Their history and lingua franca is linked to the Songhai Empire which dominated the western Sahel in the 15th and 16th century. Predominantly a Muslim community, the Songhai are found primarily throughout Mali in the Western sudanic region (not the country). The name Songhai was historically neither an ethnic nor linguistic designation, but a name for the ruling caste of the Songhay Empire. Speakers in Mali have adopted it as an ethnic designation but other Songhay-speaking groups identify themselves by other ethnic terms such as Zarma (or Djerma, the largest subgroup of the Songhai) or Isawaghen. The dialect of Koyraboro Senni spoken in Gao is unintelligible to speakers of the Zarma dialect of Niger, according to at least one report. The Songhay languages are commonly taken to be Nilo-Saharan but this classification remains controversial: Dimmendaal (2008) believes that for now it is best considered an independent language family.

Songhay languages

The Songhay or Songhai languages ([soŋaj] or [soŋoj]) are a group of closely related languages/dialects centred on the middle stretches of the Niger River in the West African countries of Mali, Niger, Benin, Burkina Faso and Nigeria. In particular, they are spoken in the cities of Timbuktu and Gao. They have been widely used as a lingua franca in that region ever since the era of the Songhai Empire. In Mali, the government has officially adopted the dialect of Gao (east of Timbuktu) as the dialect to be used as a medium of primary education.Some Songhay languages have little to no mutual intelligibility between each other. For example, Koyraboro Senni, spoken in Gao, is unintelligible to speakers of Zarma in Niger, according to Ethnologue. However, Songhay, Zarma and Dendi have high mutual intelligibility within Niger.For linguists, a major point of interest in the Songhay languages has been the difficulty of determining their genetic affiliation; they are commonly taken to be Nilo-Saharan, as defined by Greenberg in 1963, but this classification remains controversial. Linguist Gerrit Dimmendaal (2008) believes that for now it is best considered an independent language family. Roger Blench argues that the Songhay and Saharan languages form a Songhay-Saharan branch with each other within the wider Nilo-Saharan linguistic phylum.Historically, the name Songhay was neither an ethnic nor a linguistic designation, but a name for the ruling caste of the Songhai Empire. Under the influence of French language usage, speakers in Mali have increasingly been adopting it as an ethnic self-designation; however, other Songhay-speaking groups identify themselves with other ethnic terms, such as Zarma (Djerma) or Isawaghen.

A few precolonial poems and letters composed in Songhay and written in the Arabic script exist in Timbuktu. However, Songhay is currently written in the Latin script.

Sonni Ali

Sunni Ali, also known as The Giraffe, was born Ali Kolon. He reigned from about 1464 to 1492. Sunni Ali was the first king of the Songhai Empire, located in Africa and the 15th ruler of the Sunni dynasty. Under Sunni Ali's infantry and cavalry many cities were captured and then fortified, such as Timbuktu (captured in 1468) and Djenné (captured in 1475). Sunni conducted a repressive policy against the scholars of Timbuktu, especially those of the Sankore region who were associated with the Tuareg whom Ali expelled to gain control of the town.

Sunni Ali organized a fleet to the Niger river. During his reign, Songhai surpassed the height of the Mali Empire, engulfing areas under the Mali Empire (and the Ghana Empire before it). His death, in late 1492, is a matter of conjecture. According to the Tarikh al-Sudan, Ali drowned while crossing the Niger River. Oral tradition believes he was killed by his sister's son, Askia Muhammad Ture. He was succeeded by his son, Sunni Baru, who was challenged by Askia because Baru was not seen as a faithful Muslim. Askia succeeded to the throne. According to the Tarikh al-Sudan it is believed that this action caused Sonni Ali's daughters to shout out "A si kiya!" a more modern phrasing would be “A si tiya” or (he shall not be it), at the news of this take over.Sunni Ali ruled over both urban Muslims and rural non-Muslims at a time when the traditional co-existence of different beliefs was being challenged. His adherence to African animism while also professing Islam leads some writers to describe him as outwardly or nominally Muslim.

Sonni Baru

Sonni Bāru, also known as Sonni Abū Bakr Dao was the 16th and last king of the Sonni Dynasty to rule over the Songhai Empire located in west Africa. His rule was very short, from November 1492 to April 1493. The dates of his birth and death are unknown.

He succeeded his father Sonni Ali on the latter's death on 6 November 1492. However, one of Sonni Ali's generals, Muhammad Ture, plotted to take power. Baru was challenged by Muhammad because he was not seen as a faithful Muslim. As soon as he had made his arrangements, he attacked Sonni Bāru on 18 February 1493. Sonni Bāru's army was defeated. There was another, more decisive battle on 12 April 1493, after which Sonni Bāru fled into exile. The usurper then took power as Askia Muhammad Ture.

Sonni Dynasty

The Sonni Dynasty or Sunni Dynasty was a dynasty of rulers of the Songhai Empire of medieval West Africa. The first ruler of the dynasty, Sunni Ali Kulun probably reigned at the end of the fourteenth century. The last ruler, Sonni Baru, ruled until 1493 when the throne was usurped by the Askiya Muhammad I, the founder of the Askiya Dynasty.

Za Dynasty

The Za Dynasty or Zuwa Dynasty were rulers of a medieval kingdom based in the towns of Kukiya and Gao on the Niger River in what is today modern Mali.


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