Kingdoms of Gold


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The two following Youtube sites for interesting/informative video clips on the Kingdoms of Gold; they are optional
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Good summary of Ghana, Mali, Songhay
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And again, a vivid Prezi presentation on the Kingdoms of Gold with interesting youtube
clips on the importance of gold and salt
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created by Tuscaloosa High School history teacher Brian Roberts, November, 2013


By about 1000 CE, thriving West African societies emerged in the Western Sudan basing their prosperity, to a large extent, on the gold-salt trade across the Sahara. West African gold went North to the Mediterranean coast while Islamic Berber-Tuareg merchants transported salt from Saharan mines, worked primarily by slave labor. The first of the Kingdoms of Gold was Ghana. Its location between the sources of gold and salt gave it an early advantage, though other kingdoms or centers emerged as well.

(Duiker and Spielvogel 7.4)

Women harvesting salt on the left (Spielvogel, 261); in the old days, this salt was mined in huge slabs (Davidson, 97)
and carried by the Berber-Tuaregs or other Arab traders on camel caravans
South to the Kingdoms of Gold
(Davidson 93).

West African civilizations emerged due to a coincidence of geography, trade (gold-salt,), and religion (Islam).
Lacking useful or convenient ports on the West coast, the Sahelian (located in the sahel) or Sudanic kingdoms faced or looked
inward into Africa for trade. Trade flowed on a North-South axis, notably in camel caravans across the Sahara.
Islamic Arab or Tuareg-Berber traders tapped into the gold and tropical products of Bilad al Sudan (Land of the Blacks.)

Modern scholars estimate that Africans exported between two and three tons of gold a year, and probably mined but kept for their own (or their monarch's) use an equal amount. (Koslow 28) Without modern hydraulic equipment, they dug shafts, extracted the gold, and hauled it out with sheer own muscle power. One scholar of West Africa suggests the construction of almost half a million shafts. (Koslow 28) As early as the 8th century CE, Tuareg-Berber merchants brought their faith along with goods. Gao, East of Timbuktu on the great bend of the Niger River, adopted Islam in the 10th century, though Ghana did not. Islam wended its way from North Africa to the Sahelian/Sudanic kingdoms by means of the Trans-Sahara Gold-Salt network.

The camel caravans crossing the Sahara on well-traveled trade routes made possible the wealth of the West African Kingdoms of Gold. While gold, salt, slaves, ivory, dates, horses, traveled over the Saharan caravan routes on a North-South axis, local, intra-African commerce flourished along the Niger River. The media of exchange in the local trade comprised cowries and kola nuts.
In these local markets,sometimes run by women, cowries and kola nuts represented money and status. As you know, cowrie shells were used as decoration and ornamentation, while kola nuts played a role in social discourse in West African communities.
In the ancient Kingdoms of Gold--Ghana, Mali, Songhay--the Trans-Sahara gold-salt trade represented one level of intra-African trade, while the Niger River served as a major artery for local trade. Today, travel on the Niger appears not to have changed that much since the "olden days."

image source < >

You can see from the 2 maps below how Africa--north of the Tropical Rain Forest--
was criss-crossed by commercial networks. The Sahara (the "great sand sea") was traversed
by camels (the "ships of the desert.") The presence of cowrie shells in West Africa illustrates
that Africa was part of "global commercial networks," as cowrie shells come from the Indian Ocean,
were brought to East Africa by Arab dhows, and passed over the trade routes to West Africa.

(?--can't remember, maybe ucalgary) (Craig 190)

For a clear, concise summary of the Kingdoms of Gold, visit
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Ghana ("Land of Gold")

The ancient Kingdom of Ghana, has only its name in common with the present African nation, which coopted it upon independence in the 1960's. "Ghana"--meaning war chief or ruler--was the title given to or adopted by the kings of the area indicated in purple on the map. They also held the title kaya-magha or "Master of the gold" (Koslow 31). The capital of Kumbi (later Kumbi Saleh)--in present-day Mauretania--enjoyed an ideal location from which to dominate the gold-salt trade of the Tuareg-Berber caravans and to take advantage of the Niger traffic as well. Founded and dominated by Soninke people, the empire thrived for about two hundred years, until smashed to bits in wars and Islamic Almoravid invasions of the late 11th century.

(Craig, et al. 499)

Information about Ghana derives from archeological sources and written records of travelers and observers,
who named it "the land of gold." Its Soninke founders had a rich oral tradition passed on by griot story tellers
but did not develop an alphabet or written language. Al Kati, a Soninke who converted to Islam, left an account of ancient Ghana,
describing a king of legendary wealth who owned a thousand horses, could field an army of 200,000, and maintained
guard dogs that wore collars of gold and silver
(Brooks 113-115).

Although he never visited Ghana, the Spanish Muslim geographer al-Bakri described it in the 11th century before its collapse.
The main city supported twelve mosques though the indigenous Soninke elites retained their traditional religion.
Like Al Kati, al-Bakri described the wealth of the empire as well as its efficient, functioning,
hierarchical governmental and social systems.

Ghana flourished, more or less, between the 8th and 11th centuries CE and comprised parts of the present nation-states of
Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal. Its kings and its wealth derived from its mastery of iron technology,
which enabled the authorities to monitor and tax the volume of trade
that passed through Kumbi. The kings of Ghana, however, controlled neither the source of the salt
nor that of the gold, which lay to the South. Other trade goods included kola nuts; the medium of exchange--
when not barter--was cowrie shells (originating in islands in the Indian Ocean.)
An extended period of dessication produced invasions by pastoral herders, notably
the militantly Islamic Almoravids, and a downward slide for ancient Ghana.

For more on the Kingdom of Ghana, visit "Ghana", site has flown, visit instead
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A group of students, not unlike you, entered a Thinkquest contest and created this site
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Wikipedia has done an adquate job of presenting the ancient kingdom of Ghana
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Mali ("Where the King Dwells")

The magnificent empire of Mali emerged in the aftermath of the twilight of Ghana and in a way as its successor.
Living South of the Ghanian capital of Kumbi, the Mandinke elites embraced Islam; under the leadership
of their ruthless leader, Sumanguru, they administered the fatal blow to the last vestiges of Ghana.

The somewhat ridiculous Crash Course in World History introduces Mali
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Sundiata, "the lion of Mali" and a great hero in Mali's folklore and oral tradition, used his magical powers to overthrow Sumanguru at the battle of Kirina in 1235; he went on to establish Mali as the most powerful Sudanic/Sahelian state. Sundiata expanded his empire to control both Sahara lands to the North and the Wangara goldfields to the South. Consider Sundiata as the "heroic founder" of the Kingdom of Mali.
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For more on Sundiata and his legend, visit Mr. Dowling's page. He is a middle school teacher
who created lessons for his students.

Timbucktu emerged as a thriving center of Malian trade and culture. Evidence of West Africa's integration into a larger commercial-cultural context that included the Mediterranean and the Middle East can be seen in the adoption of Islam by Mali elites, including Sundiata and his more famous descendant, Mansa Musa.

(Bulliet, et. al. 432)

As the graphic above above indicates, Mali was linked not only to the Maghreb (North Africa/Barbary Coast) but to Egypt
and the eastern Mediterranean, with trade connections to the central Sudanic Hausa States and Bornu near Lake Chad.
In the 14th century, West Africa was more closely tied to the Eurasian markets and cultural mainstreams than were the
feudal kingdoms of Europe. Many historians describe Europe as peripheral and West Africa as central to the rhythms
of 14th century global commerce and culture. Mali reached its apogee during the reign of Mansa Musa (1312-1337).
A 14th Spanish century map, the Catalan Atlas, below, identifies Mansa Musa meeting up with a camel-riding
(left) and sitting on his throne holding an orb of gold (right.)

(TCI, 2.2C--left;
The following links will take you to youtube videos on Kingdoms of Gold and Mansa Musa
Dang--Millennium site is gone < >

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Here's another--a little basic? < >
This site (above) was created by teacher James Sanders for his middle school students
at a KIPP charter school in San Francisco

Islam came to the Sahelian Sudan in several waves of invasion, one of which essentially destroyed ancient Ghana. By the time of Mali and Songhay, elites practiced Islam, as evidenced in the mud mosque that survives to this day. This one, still standing in Djenne, one of the important cultural, political, commercial centers of Mali, dates from the 14th century CE.

Deeply devout, Mansa Musa made his pilgrimage to Mecca (1324-1325) and with it a huge
impact on every area or kingdom he visited, traveling as he did with his multiple wives, 60,000 porters,
"80 packages of gold weighing 122 ounces (3.8 kilograms) each" in addition to 500 slaves each carrying a
4 pound bar of gold;each of the 100 camels in the caravan carried 100 pounds of gold dust"
(TCI, 2.2, Bulliet, et al. 433). Needless to say, Mansa Musa made an impression.
Mansa Musa's hajj led him to move aggresively to spread Islam in his empire;
he built mosques and schools in Djenne, Timbucktu, Niani, and other cities.,5716,30108+asmbly%5Fid,00.html

The indefatigable traveler and chronicler, Ibn Battuta, visited Mali in the reign of Mansa Musa's successor and commented favorably on the
wealth, stability, and safety of Mali, as well as on the beauty of its women and the justice of its administration. For more on Ibn Battuta, visit
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Mansa Musa's successors proved unable to hold his empire together.
Tuareg-Berbers attacked from the North while forest peoples raided from the South.
To the West, Songhay rose to challenge Mali's primacy.
Internal conflicts over the succession exacerbated Mali's problems and contributed to its fall.
For more on Mali, visit
gone, alas <


In the 15th century, Songhay, formerly under Malian rule, asserted its independence and replaced Mali as the leading commercial kingdom in the Western Sudan. Under "heroic founder" Sunni Ali, Songhay expanded to surpass in weath and size its two predecessors. Sunni Ali (1462-1492) captured Timbucktu, Djenne, Gao, and made his empire the most powerful state in Africa (Craig, et. al. 501). With a disciplined cavalry and a flotilla of war canoes, he drove back the Tuareg-Berbers. [An artist's rendering of Sunni Ali (left.)] Sunni Ali and his son Sunni Baare persecuted the Muslim faithful and tried to enhance the "African-ness" of Songhay. (site has flown away, alas)
Wikipedia take on Songhay < >
An African site on Songhay < >

Askia Muhammed (1493-1528) overthrew Sunni Ali's son and successor to bring Songhay to new heights;
he proclaimed Islam the empire's official religion.At Sankore and Djenne, Askia Muhammed encouraged
Islamic learning and invited scholars to lecture and carry on research in law, logic, astronomy,
history, and geography
(TCI 2.2) Muslim culture flourished as never before in West Africa, which
was closely integrated into an Islamic world (dar al-Islam) that stretched from Songhay to
Southeast Asia.
(Esler 406.) Askia Muhammed proved to be as devout as Mansa Musa of Mali and
made the hajj to Mecca, where he was hailed as "the Caliph of the western Sahara"
(Craig, et. al. 503).
Leo Africanus commented on the wealth of Timbucktu and the value its citizens placed on knowledge and books.

(Craig, et. al. 502) (

Leo Africanus, a chronicler almost as famous as Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo, described Timbuktu during the reign of
Askia Muhammed as a thriving metropolis with mud and thatched houses for the common people but with fabulous palaces
and mosques for the elites. Like Ibn Battuta in Mali, he was impressed with the devotion of the king and his court to Islam.

By the end of the 16th centuries, renewed pressures and threats to West Africa challenged Songhay's last rulers.
By this time, Portuguese explorers had begun to penetrate from the sea while Moroccan raiders attacked from the North.
Songhay war canoes and cavalry could not withstand the musket-wielding invaders from West and North.
In the 1580's, Morocco sent a military expedition of 4000 men, armed with 2500 muskets and transported/supported
by 10,000 camels, drove South against Songhay, reducing the former empire of Sunni Ali and Askia Muhammed
to a mere shadow of its former and greater self
(Bulliet, et al. 592). While the trans-Sahara trade declined
(simultaneous with the rise of Portugal and the other Atlantic nations of Europe,)
nevertheless, close to 1,000,000 slaves were transported to the Mahgreb and points elsewhere

For more on Songhay, visit "Songhay"


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Background: Brooks, Lester. "African Trade Routes." Great Civilizations of Ancient Africa. New York: Four Winds Press, 1972, ix.

kente cloth line--

Abel. "Kings and Queens of Africa." Online available.

Bulliet, Richard, et. al. The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

Craig, Albert, et. al. The Heritage of World Civilizations, 5th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Davidson. Basil. African Kingdoms. Alexandria: Time-Life Books, 1971.

Dowling, Mike. "The Electronic Passport to Mansa Musa." January, 2000. Online available.

Duiker, William, and Jackson Spielvogel. Map Acetates and Commentary to Accompany World History. Minneapolis: West Publishing Co., 1994.

Education Place. Sundiata: Lion King of Mali. Houghton Mifflin, 1997. Online available.

Koslow, Philip. Ancient Ghana: the Land of Gold. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1995.

Esler, Anthony. The Human Venture. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1996.

Shaffer, Tanya. "The Incredible True Story of One Woman's Journey up Africa's Niger River to the Legendary City of Timbucktu."

Spielvogel, Jackson. World History: The Human Odyssey. Cincinnati: West Educational Publishing, 1998.

Teachers' Curriculum Institute. Empires and Kingdoms of Sub-Saharan Africa.Palo Alto: Teachers Curriculum Institute, 1993