Civilizations in Africa

Ghana

   The single most important development in the history of northwestern Africa was the use of the camel as a transport vehicle. In ancient times, the Egyptians and Carthaginians engaged in just a trickle of commercial trade with west Africa, even though west Africa was rich in gold, precious metals, ivory, and other resources. The reason for this was the imposing barrier of the Sahara, which in Arabic simply means "The Desert." Around 750 AD, under the influence of Islamic peoples, northern and western Africans began to use the camel to transport goods across this forbidding terrain. Camels do several things exceptionally well: they can carry unbelievably heavy loads for impossibly long distances and they can keep their footing on sandy terrain. It was as if someone had invented sand ships and its effect on western African culture was just as profound as if they were sand ships. The most important developments occurred in the Sahel area just south of the Sahara; the Sahel provided southern terminal points for the goods being shipped across the Sahara. The Sahel is a dry, hot area with fertile areas and grasslands; all of the major north African kingdoms grew up in this area: Ghana, Mali, Songhay, and Kanem-Bornu: the Sahelian kingdoms.

   Since the Third Punic War, the Romans controlled all the coastline of northern Africa. In the fourth century, however, the Romans gradually pulled out of their northern African provinces and territories. The power vacuum that they left was filled by desert Berbers, an indigenous African people (Saint Augustine, born in Carthage, may have been part Berber). The Berbers were primarily a nomadic people and would eventually play a crucial role in the spread of Islam across northern Africa. In the fifth century, however, they formed a new kingdom, called Ghana or Awkar in an area that is now southeastern Mauretania. This Berber kingdom would form the model from which all the Sahelian kingdoms would be built.

   Although it originated in the late fourth century, Ghana only became a major regional power near the end of the millenium. Although the state was originally formed by Berbers, it was built on the southern edge of Berber populations. Eventually the state became dominated by the Soninke, a Mande speaking people living in the region bordering the Sahara. They built their capital city, Kumbi Saleh, right on the edge of the Sahara and the city quickly became the most dynamic and important southern terminus of the Saharan trade routes.

   The state was ruled by a hereditary king called the Ghana (this is why we now call the kingdom, Ghana). The kingship was matrilineal (as was all Sahelian monarchies to follow); the king's sister provided the heir to the throne. In addition to military power, the king appears to have been the supreme judge of the kingdom.

   Fueled by its economic vitality, the kingdom of Ghana rapidly expanded into an empire. It conquered local chieftaincies and required tribute from these subordinate states. This tribute, however, paled next to the wealth generated by the commerce of goods that passed from western Africa east to Egypt and the Middle East. This trade primarily involved gold, salt, copper, and even human beings.

   The kingdom of Ghana never converted to Islam, even though northern Africa had been dominated by the faith since the eighth century. The Ghanaian court, however, allowed Muslims to settle in the cities and even encouraged Muslim specialists to help the royal court administer the government and advise on legal matters.

   The Berbers who had originally formed the state ultimately proved to be its demise. Unlike the Ghanaians, the Berbers, calling themselves Almoravids, fervently converted to Islam and, in 1075, declared a holy war, or jihad, against the state of Ghana. We do not know exactly how this affected the kingdom. In one scenario, the Almoravids destroy the kingdom. In another, the Ghanaians also convert to Islam and join the Almoravids in their attempt to spread Islam across Africa. Nonetheless, Ghana ceases to be a commercial or military power after 1100; for a brief time (1180-1230), the Soso people, who were rabidly anti-Muslim, controlled a kingdom making up the southern portions of the Ghanaian empire, but the Almoravid revolution effectively halted the growth of kingdoms and empires in the Sahel for almost a century.
Contents






























Civilizations in Africa

Egypt: A Learning Module

Kush

Axum

The Iron Age South of the Sahara

Ghana

The Islamic Invasions

The Almoravids

Mali

Songhay

The Hausa Kingdoms

Kanem-Bornu

The Forest Kingdoms

The Swahili Kingdoms

Great Zimbabwe / The Mwenemutapa Empire

Internet Resources on Africa

About "Civilizations in Africa"

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 11-15-96