Description of Clothing in the Ghana Empire

Below is a description of clothing in the ancient Ghana Empire: Great and Magnificent Ancient Kingdom of Africa, in the 10th century in the West Africa. This clearly shows that the narrative of naked Africans is quite recent and wrong!!!

Map of the Ghana Empire, ca 300 – 1200

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Of the people who follow the king’s religion, only he and his heir presumptive, who is the son of his sister, may wear sewn clothes. All the other people wear clothes of cotton, silk, or
brocade
, according to their means. All men shave their beards and women shave their heads
.”

The Ghana Empire: A Short Video

I found this very short video about the Ghana Empire which I am sharing below. This is just to wet your appetite. There are quite a few really good documentaries out there on the Ghana Empire. Two of them stand out to me, Lost Kingdoms of Africa, Episode 4: Western Africa by Gus Casely-Hayford, and The History of Africa, Episode 10: Desert Empires by Zeinab Badawi based on UNESCO‘s General History of Africa, which I cited earlier.

Description of the King of the Ghana Empire

Below are accounts from Al-Bakri, the 11th century geographer, who described the court of the Ghana Empire: Great and Magnificent Ancient Kingdom of Africa. As you read, notice that this was a very wealthy state, and also very well organized with great hierarchy. Enjoy! This is from the Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West Africa, Levtzion, N., Cambridge Press (1981).

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Chinguetti, a town which was part of the Ghana Empire (Wikipedia)

The king has a palace and a number of domed dwellings all surrounded with an enclosure like a city wall. Around the king’s town are domed buildings and groves …

The King adorns himself like a woman wearing necklaces round his neck and bracelets on his forearms and he puts on a high cap decorated with gold and wrapped in a turban of fine cotton. He holds an audience in a domed pavilion around which stand ten horses covered with gold-embroidered materials…and on his right, are the sons of the vassal kings of his country, wearing splendid garments and their hair plaited with gold.

Map of the Ghana Empire ca 300 -1200

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.

The Ghana Empire: Great and Magnificent Ancient Kingdom of Africa

Map of the Ghana Empire ca 300 -1200

Let me tell you about one of the greatest Ancient kingdoms of Africa, the Ghana Empire, a place known to its northern neighbors as the “Land of Gold“. No, I am not talking about the modern-day country of Ghana, which used to be called the Gold Coast and was named in honor of the great long-gone Ghana Empire by its first president, Kwame Nkrumah.  

The Ghana Empire predates the modern-day country of Ghana by almost a millennium; it went from ca 300 to 1100 AD. It was a West African empire located in the area of present-day southeastern Mauritania, and western Mali. As you can see today, the Ghana Empire was actually located about 400 miles northwest of current Ghana, and was significantly bigger.

Folio from the Tarikh al-Fattash at the Mamma Haidara Library (Timbuktu, Mali) where Mahmud Kati chronicles the early years of the Ghana Empire

Its real name was Wagadou, but is known mostly by the title given to its ruler, the Ghana. It is not clear when the Ghana Empire ruling dynasty started, but explorer Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī gave us the first written records in 830, while in the 11th century the Cordoban scholar Al-Bakri traveled to the region and gave a detailed description of the kingdom. According to contemporary accounts such as those by al-Yakqubi (872  AD) al-Masudi (c. 944  AD), Ibn Hawqal (c. 977  AD), al-Biruni (c. 1036  AD), as well as Abu-Ubayd al-Bakri, the empire was a purely African kingdom, founded, and ruled by Africans, Soninke people. Ghana was said to be a sophisticated state with advanced methods of administration and taxation, large armies, large population, and lots of gold.

Chinguetti, a town which was part of the Ghana Empire (Wikipedia)

Its capital was Koumbi-Saleh, on the edge of the Sahara desert (when the Sahara was not as arid as today). According to the description of the town left by Al-Bakri in 1067/1068, the capital was actually two cities 10 kilometres (6 miles) apart from each other but, “between these two towns are continuous habitations“, so that they might be said to have merged into one. The king’s residence, known as El-Ghaba, was the major part of the city. It was protected by a stone wall; very similar to the Tata of Sikasso: an African Fortifying Wall. Like in many African states today, the city contained a sacred grove of trees where the priests lived. The king’s palace was the grandest structure in the city, surrounded by “domed buildings.” The other section of the city, which was the primary business district, was surrounded by wells with fresh water, where vegetables were grown. It was inhabited almost entirely by Muslims along with twelve mosques. During the time span of the Ghana Empire, Islam was introduced to the area. The king of the Soninke people who founded Ghana never fully embraced Islam, but had very good relations with Muslims. 

Aerial view of Oualata which was north west of Koumbi Saleh, and part of the Ghana empire. Ruins of the ancient city can be seen (Wikipedia)

The economy of the empire was based around gold, salt, copper, and other goods. The imports included textiles, ornaments, and other materials. Many of the handcrafted leather goods found in old Morocco also had their origins in the Ghana empire. As expected, the main center of trade was Koumbi Saleh. The introduction of the camel to the region around the 3rd century AD opened the way to increased and more efficient trans-Saharan trade. Today, Koumbi Saleh is being excavated, and many cities that were part of the Ghana Empire, such as Ouadane, Chinguetti,or Oualata, are also on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Ghana Empire and its Trans-Saharan trade routes (Wikipedia)

The empire’s wealth and power made for a rich and stable economy which lasted several centuries.  The Ghana Empire was very populated and had many people from outside the kingdom travel through in order to trade with those from the Kingdom of Ghana or to trade with other outsiders, making Ghana a focal point trading center. The Empire of Ghana had many trade routes, and a very well-trained military to protect them, which encouraged further safe commerce and exchanges in the region. Ghana was essentially a melting pot, spreading ideas, culture, technology and other aspects of what makes different societies what they were.

The Moorish nobleman who visited the empire in the 11th century, Al-Bakri, 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.

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. These “kings” were presumably the rulers of the territorial units often called kafu in Mandinka.

Ouadane old town – the city was part of the Ghana Empire (Wikipedia)

Al-Bakri mentioned 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 are presumably the same kings that al-Ya’qubi mentioned in his account 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.

The Senegal River according to Al-Bakri, which shows some sites of the Ghana Empire

 Eventually the Ghana Empire’s power declined. It was attacked by other kingdoms in need of their resources. The Ghana Empire eventually merged with the Mali Empire, which became one of the largest empires in African history and one of the richest as well.

To find out more, please check out these articles on BBC, and the Ghana Empire (Ancient History Encyclopedia), and the books General History of Africa, Vol. 3, Africa from the Seventh to the Eleventh Century, ed. El-Fasi, M., UNESCO (1998), Haut-Sénégal-Niger: Le Pays, les Peuples, les Langues; l’Histoire; les Civilizations. by Delafosse, Maurice (1912) in 3 Volumes, Paris, and the article The question of GhanaJournal of the International African Institute, Mauny R., 24 (3): 200–213.

Why the name: Bamako?

Map of Mali with its capital Bamako
Map of Mali with its capital Bamako

What does Bamako have in common with London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, or Madrid? Of course it is the capital of a country, Mali, like all those other cities. However, the real similarity, is that it is located on the banks of a major river (like all those cities): the third largest river on the African continent, the Niger River, also known as Joliba (or the river of blood), near the rapids that divide the upper and middle Niger valleys in the southwestern part of the country. The city first grew on the north banks of the river, and later spread to the south banks as well.

Flag of Mali
Flag of Mali

The name Bamako comes from the Bambara word Bàmakɔ̌ meaning “river of crocodile“. It was founded at the end of the 16th century by the Niaré people, also called Niakaté, who are Sarakolés. The crocodile being the fetish of Bamako, in the olden days, a virgin girl was offered to it every year… however this tradition was abandoned a long time ago. A hunter from Lambidou (Kayes region) by the name of Simballa Niakaté chose the city’s site. However, it was his eldest son Diamoussa Niakaté who founded the city Bamako. The 3 crocodiles which symbolize Bamako found their origin in the 3 creeks that crossed Bamako: Lido, Diafarana, and Bèlèsôkô. The creeks come together in the city to flow into the Niger river. Just as the city’s symbol is 3 crocodiles, and so 3 creeks/rivers, it also comprises 3 major bridges which link both banks of the Niger River.

Mali Empire (Wikipedia)
Mali Empire (Wikipedia)

The area of the city has been continuously inhabited since the Palaeolithic era for more than 150,000 years. The fertile lands of the Niger River Valley provided the people with an abundant food supply and early kingdoms in the area grew wealthy as they established trade routes linking across West Africa, the Sahara, and leading to northern Africa and Europe. The early inhabitants traded gold, ivory, kola nuts, and salt. By the 11th century, the Empire of Ghana (this will be the subject of a post soon) became the first kingdom to dominate the area. Bamako had become a major market town, and a pathway to Timbuktu the center of knowledge via the Niger river. Later, the Mali Empire grew during the early Middle Ages and replaced the Empire of Ghana as the dominant kingdom in West Africa, dominating Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, and Mauritania. In the 14th century, the Mali Empire became increasingly wealthy because of the trade of cotton and salt. It was eventually succeeded by the Songhai Empire.

The Pink Market (Le Marche Rose) in Bamako ca 1900s
The Pink Market (Le Marche Rose) in Bamako ca 1900s

By the late 19th century, the French dominated much of western Africa, and in 1883, present-day Mali became part of the colony of French Sudan, and was its capital in 1908. Cotton and rice farming was encouraged through large irrigation projects and a new railroad connected Bamako to Dakar on the Atlantic coast. Mali was annexed then into French West Africa, a federation which lasted from 1895 to 1959. Bamako remained the capital of Mali after independence in 1960.

Bamako on the banks of the Niger River (Wikipedia)
Bamako, on the banks of the Niger River (Wikipedia)

Bamako is known as the crossroads of West Africa, since it is located 1000 km from Dakar (Senegal) and Abidjan(Côte d’Ivoire), 850 km from Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), and 120 km from the border with Guinea. With a population of 1.8 million, Bamako is viewed today as the fastest growing city in Africa and sixth-fastest in the world. It is a buoyant city full of life. Enjoy a visit to the “river of crocodiles,” the crossroad of West Africa, and don’t forget to bathe in the centuries’ old history of great West African kingdoms in Mali, and its rich traditions.

Kankan Musa: The Richest Man in World History

Kankan Musa (Source: Atlas Catalan, 1375)
Kankan Musa (Source: Atlas Catalan, 1375)

Today, I would like to talk about the richest man planet earth has ever seen… yes, you heard me right, the richest man whose fortune was estimated to be over 400 billion dollars, or 310 billion euros. Did you guess who that was ? If you thought Bill Gates, I am sorry to disappoint you. It is the great Emperor of Mali, Kankan Musa, also written Kankan Moussa, or Mansa Musa, or Mansa Moussa, or Kankou Moussa.

Kankan Musa was the tenth Mansa, King of Kings, or Emperor of the great Empire of Mali from 1312 to 1337. At the time of Musa’s accession to the throne, the Empire of Mali consisted of territories which had belonged to the Empire of Ghana and Melle, and surrounding areas.

Emperor Kankan Musa
Emperor Kankan Musa

His name, Kankan Musa or Kanga Musa meant « Musa, son of Kankou Hamidou », in reference to his mother (In those days, the Mandinka people were a matriarcal society). Kankan Musa is often referred to, in literature, as Mali-koy Kankan Musa, Gonga Musa, and Lion of Mali. He had lots of titles, including Emir of Melle, Lord of the Mines of Wangara, Conqueror of Ghanata, Fouta Djallon (also written Futa Jallon), and at least a dozen other areas.

Empire of Mali (Wikipedia)
Empire of Mali (Wikipedia)

He took the Empire of Mali to its peak, from the Fouta Djallon to Agadez (in northern Niger), including the ancient Ghana, and Songhai Empires. He established diplomatic relationships with Portugal, Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt. His reign corresponds to the golden era of the Malian Empire.

Assemblée constitutive de l'empire du Mandé (Source: Wikipedia.fr)
Assemblée constitutive de l’empire du Mandé (Source: Wikipedia.fr)

Kankan Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca made him popular in North Africa, and in the Middle East. Musa made his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, with a procession of 60,000 men, 12,000 servants who each carried four pounds of gold bars, heralds dressed in silks who bore gold staffs, organized horses and handled bags. Also in the train, were 80 camels, which carried between 50 and 300 pounds of gold dust each (Gold was the currency in Mali). He gave away gold to the poor along his route. Musa not only gave gold to the cities he passed on his way to Mecca, including Cairo and Medina, but he also traded gold for souvenirs. Moreover, he would also build a new mosque every Friday in any city he so happened to pass by. Musa’s journey was documented by several eyewitnesses along his route, who were in awe of his wealth and extensive procession, and records exist in a variety of sources, including journals, oral accounts and histories. Musa’s visit with the Mamluk sultan Al-Nasir Muhammad of Egypt in July 1324 is well-recorded.

Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu
Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu

Musa’s generosity, however, inadvertently devastated the economy of the region. In the cities of Cairo, Medina and Mecca, the sudden influx of gold devalued the metal for the next decade. Prices on goods and wares greatly inflated. To rectify the gold market, Musa borrowed all the gold he could carry from money-lenders in Cairo, at high interest. This is the only time recorded in history that one man directly controlled the price of gold in the Mediterranean. Imagine a single man controlling the economy of not only one country, but of an entire region!

Sankore University in Timbuktu
Sankore University in Timbuktu

Mansa Musa was a great builder. He had several mosques and madrasas built in Timbuktu and Gao. The most important of its constructions is the University of Sankore. In Niani, his capital, he built an Audience Hall, a building communicating directly with the royal palace through an interior door.  It was “an admirable Monument” surmounted by a dome, adorned with arabesques of striking colours. The windows of the upper floor were plated with wood and framed with silver, while those of a lower floor were plated with wood, framed in gold. This palace no longer exists. Like the Great Mosque, the Hall was built in cut stone. The Italian art and architecture scholar Sergio Domian said: “At the height of its power, Mali had at least 400 cities, and the interior of the Niger Delta was very densely populated.” Can you imagine that? In this day and age, how many countries in this world can boast 400 densely populated cities? Yet, the Mali of Kankan Musa claimed it all.

Manuscripts a Tombouctou (Mali) montrant de l'astronomie et mathematique
Manuscripts a Tombouctou (Mali) montrant de l’astronomie et mathematique

At the end of his life, in 1332 or 1337, the Empire of Mali limits were from the Atlantic Ocean to the Eastern shores of the Niger River, and to the forests of Taghaza in the middle of the Sahara. Kankan Musa was not only a rich man who gave to all, built mosques, and great places of worship, he was also a just conqueror, and a great builder. He took the Empire Mali to its peak, and made it the talk of places as far as the Middle East and Europe. Many Europeans and Middle Easterns would send delegations of architects, merchants, writers, astronomers, mathematicians and teachers, to study in his great university at Timbuktu. So next time someone asks you who was the richest man on planet earth, remember to tell them that before Bill Gates, there was Kankan Musa!

Azougui: First Capital of the Almoravid Dynasty

Azougui
Azougui

Map of Almoravid Empire
Map of Almoravid Empire

Azougui was a town in the northwestern part of Mauritania, lying on the Adrar Plateau, north west of Atar, 450 km north of Nouakchott.  In the 11th century, it was a base for the Almoravid dynasty (this will be the subject of another post), who conquered a territory stretching from the Ghana Empire to Morocco and the Iberian peninsula.  The chronicler Al-Zuhri, writing in the 1150s, called Azougui the “capital of the Almoravids.”

Azougui was an important transit place for the trans-Saharan trade route from Morocco and Ghana.  The birth/ apparition of the oasis is strongly linked to the creation of Azougui.  Today, this palm grove is the site for over 20,000 palm trees.  The archeological site was added to the UNESCO World Heritage tentative list on June 14, 2001.

Archaelogical Site of Azougui
Archaelogical Site of Azougui

An Almoravid Soldier
An Almoravid Soldier

Azougui, as the first capital of the Almoravids, was a stone fortress with a wall and several concessions.  This fortress was enlarged with time, which explains the urbanization inside the enclosure on an area expanding over several kilometers.  The site was reported in 1068 by Al Bakri, and mentioned by several Arabic chroniclers such as Ibn Said, El Kalakshandy, and Ibn Khaldun.  The Almoravid movement was a political formation at its origin, which was born in the midst of Sanhaja tribe of Lamtuna (or Lemtouna), and Gudala (Guedala) in Adrar, under the authority of a spiritual leader of extraordinary religious rigor, Abdallah ibn Yasin.  This movement was able to unify west Africa, the Maghreb, and the Iberian peninsula for several centuries, after investing the Empire of Ghana, the Idrissides, and the kingdom of Barghawata (or Berghouata).  The site’s excavation started in 1979, and continues until today.  Its excavation has shed light on the importance of Azougui in the trans-Saharan trade.