Songhai Empire – History, Accomplishments and Major Facts

History and Facts about the Songhai Empire

The Songhai Empire was a massive, multicultural West African state that spanned between the 15th and 16th centuries CE. With an area primarily covering western Sahel, Songhai kings rose to prominence as the Mali Empire dwindled in the 15th century. From a centralized base in the capital Gao, famous and wise Songhai kings such as Sunni Ali and Mohammad I were phenomenal in turning the empire into a dominant force in trade, education, science and military.

At its greatest hour, and with wealth and fame surpassing that of the Mali Empire, the Songhai Empire was unquestionably the largest and mightiest empire to ever exist in sub-Saharan Africa. This pre-colonial empire stretched from territories along the Niger River to places such as present-day Mali, Chad, Niger, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and Senegal and Gambia along the Atlantic coast.

Here, presents a comprehensive history and major facts about the Songhai Empire, the greatest empire to ever exist in sub-Saharan Africa.

Origins of the Songhai People

The origin of the Songhai tribe, also known as “Songhay”, can be traced to the eastern parts of the Niger River. Historians believe that the Songhai tribe had existed since the 9th and 10th centuries. Thus, they emerged during the reign of another old empire called Ghana Empire (6-13th century CE).

As a tribe, the Songhai people were amalgamation different groups such as the Sorko and Gow people. It is commonly believed that the Sorko people first settled along the river banks of the Niger River. Their primary source of sustenance was fishing. They were expert boat makers as well.

The next major group that made the Niger River banks their home were the Gow people — a tribe primarily made up of hunters. Soon, similar and smaller groups of people, including tribes of farmers and animal breeders, moved into the area. As time went by, the settlers then began trading among themselves. This gave rise to the use of a common language, and with this came a common identity – the Songhai people.

Early Songhai Kings and Leaders

As a result of the growth in size and population of the Songhai people, kings and influential leaders emerged. This phenomenon started between the 10th and 11th centuries.

The first few rulers of the Songhai people were called Malik or Zuwa, which translates into “king”. Their queens were called Malikah or Melike. Many of their titles were derived from Arabic words.

According to accounts from the Tarikh al-Sudan (the History of the Sudan), the Great Za was considered one of the earliest Songhai kings. King Za most likely hailed from the second early dynastic rulers of Songhai. Some historians have claimed that Za wasn’t even a Songhai by blood. It is believed that he was born in Yemen but later moved across Africa into the Songhai tribe. King Za turned out to be a very wise and powerful ruler. He was responsible for laying the foundations of what would become a colossal empire centuries later.

Some influential, early Songhai kings and tribe leaders also came from the Sanhaja tribes, commonly called the Tuareg. This tribe were predominantly a camel-riding group that crisscrossed and knew the Sahara Desert like it was the back of their hands. Over time, they made camps and settlements along the Niger River. It is likely that some of them went on to rule the early Songhai people.

All in all, the diverse groups and culture that settled along the Niger River bend helped foster a strong Songhai tribe. They also benefited from trading with North African tribes. Trading hubs and spots began to spring up along the Niger River. The most traded goods back then would certainly have been gold, kola nuts, dates, leather, salt and slaves.  That’s right, slaves! Long before the pre-colonial Europeans and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, slave trade was not uncommon in Africa.

The City of Gao

The most famous Songhai trading hubs was in the city of Gao. Such was Gao’s importance that the city would eventually become the capital city of the Songhai Empire. Gao leaders profited immensely from goods that came all over Africa.

There were frequent oral tales about the splendid, vast number of goods in Gao. To Arabic scholars and traders, Gao was known as Kawkaw or Kuku. And according to a famous 9th century Arabic scholar, Al-Yaqubi, Gao had a very powerful king by name Al-Kawkaw. Yaqubi stated that several chiefs and kings from far and wide came to Gao in order to pay homage to Gao kings.

Gao’s prosperity and popularity were just some of the reasons why the Mali Empire drooled over it during the late 13th century.  Eventually, Gao and large parts of the Songhai tribe along the Niger bend were brought under the sphere of the Mali Empire. Malian rulers such as Mansa Musa and Mansa Sulayman were swift to quench any Songhai uprising instigated by the old rulers of Gao or say the Tuareg camel riders.

As a result of weak political leadership and years of civil wars, Mali Empire experienced difficulties stamping its authority in Gao. The city therefore fell back into the hands of the Songhai people. The Malians left Gao as a slightly autonomous region; perhaps the Songhai leaders paid large sums of tributes to keep Mali kings in Timbuktu away from their lands.

Rise of the Songhai Empire

History and Facts about the Songhai Empire

Starting from the relatively autonomous regions in Gao, the Songhai people rose into prominence as the Mali Empire disintegrated around the 15th century CE.

The fall of Mali Empire was further hastened by frequent attacks carried out by Songhai-affiliated Tuareg tribes on Mali Empire trading routes. These groups were simply thorns in the flesh of the Mali Empire from the early 15th century CE onward.

The decline of Mali Empire allowed Songhai kings to seamlessly occupy the power vacuum created in major cities such as Timbuktu and Djenné (Jenne).

Songhai Empire during the reign of Sunni Ali

Leading the Songhai people was Sunni Ali, an influential leader from the Manay tribe. Also known as Sunni Ali Ber, Sunni Ali was initially a paid mercenary on the books of the Malian rulers in Timbuktu. After dutifully quelling invasions and incursions from Tuareg rebels on Timbuktu, Sunni Ali turned his sword against his employers.

Sunni Ali is generally regarded as the first real king of the Songhai Empire. He was a visionary who dreamed of expanding his empire across the length and breadth of the Atlantic coast line in West Africa. He worked extremely hard to realize majority of the goals that he set.

Sunni Ali the Great was also responsible for revolutionizing the army, an army which could boast of armored cavalry and several fleets of naval boats. During his reign, the Songhai army no longer went in for petty raids and incursions; they engaged in several wars in order to gain large areas all the way into some parts of North Africa.

By the time Sunni Ali had passed away in 1492, thus after a 28-year reign, the Songhai Empire were firmly in control of vast areas previously ruled by the Mali Empire. Legend has it that Sunni Ali was a gifted sorcerer, and it was his magical powers that struck the most fear in the hearts of his enemies. It is for this reason why he was commonly referred to as “Sunni the Merciless”.

However, for opponents that were willing to submit to his rule, Sunni Ali was kind and gentle with them, allowing the conquered to part of his Songhai Empire and army. Sunni Ali’s legacy lies in the fact that he was able to bring under his control virtually every trading post along the Niger River. His reign, as well as the ones in the Sonnni Dynasty, saw Songhai people rise to real prominence in the arts and science.

Anyanwu: The Igbo Sun Deity

Songhai Empire under Askia Muhammad the Great

After the death of Sunni Ali in c. 1492, Sonni Baru succeeded to the throne. Baru’s reign was an unmemorable one since he stayed on the throne for just over a year.

After Sonni Baru, Muhammad I was crowned king of Songhai Empire. The emperor was also commonly called Askia the Great.

Born, Abu Bakr Ture, Muhammad I was not even a member of the royal family. It has been said that he was not a Songhai, instead, he came from the Soninke tribe. Therefore, his rise to throne came a bit fortuitously.

Regardless of his questionable background, Askia the Great lived up to his title. His reign, which lasted from 1493 to 1528, saw him continue in the footsteps of Sunni Ali. He increased Songhai’s army strength by several folds. As a result of this, the Songhai Empire successfully expanded in all directions. He made sure that the empire had a standing army that was well trained and well-equipped. He even set up several separate ministries to handle trade, education and the military.

Aside from his military conquests, Askia was very much devoted to Islam. He was considered a very wise and tolerant Muslim ruler who allowed Islam to flourish in a very peaceful and nonthreatening way. By so doing, people of different faiths came to love the ruler.

Also, Askia the Great invested heavily in over 150 schools, Islamic learning centers, and mosques. Scholars in all fields across Arabia and other part of sub-Saharan African flocked into Askia the Great’s Songhai Empire. The king was very fascinated with subjects such as mathematics, astronomy and Islamic studies.

Similar to famous Mali Emperor Mansa Musa, Askia the Great was lavishly generous with his wealth. On his way to Mecca (for Hajj), he dashed out several gifts, mostly gold, to the people.

In short, you could say that Askia the Great tried as much as possible to emulate the liberal principles that Mansa Musa implemented during his reign. Never once did Askia suppress the religious beliefs of the people that he vanquished. This was what made him famous across the kingdom. Under Askia’s reign, trade, agriculture and education flourished in the empire.

Askia the Great’s successors tried their hardest to keep his good works running smoothly however; many of them failed miserably. This was partly due to brutal periods of civil wars and feuds over the throne. Starting around the late 16th century, the Songhai Empire gradually disintegrated. The vast areas that famous kings like Sunni Ali, Askia the Great and Askia Daoud conquered were up for the taking by the Moroccan Empire.

How Songhai Empire Fell

Some of the notable rulers include Sunni Ali Ber, Askia Muhammad (Askia the Great), Askia Musa, Askia Daoud, and Askia Ishaq II.

Songhai Empire’s decline did not necessarily start from outside, it came from within, right in the court yards of Askia the Great.

In 1528, the aging and frail Askia the Great was cowardly dethroned by his own children. The coup plotters could not even wait for their father to die. They rallied around one of Askia’s sons, Musa. With very little resistance, Musa was crowned Askia Musa, king of the Songhai Empire. However, Askia Musa’s reign was short-lived as he was in turn overthrown by some of his older siblings and cousins. The ensuing power struggle plunged the entire kingdom into a period of instability. The Songhai Empire’s glory days were far behind it by this time.

The Moroccans up north capitalized on the chaos and civil wars and brought the Songhai people under their control. Years and years of political strife had taken a huge toll on a once formidable Songhai army. And although the Songhai army had relatively higher number soldiers (about 40,000) than the Moroccans, the Moroccan leader, Ahmad al-Mansur al-Dhahabi (also known as ‘the Golden Conqueror’), easily brushed them aside with a well-oiled army of about 4,000 men. The Songhai Empire capitulated in the late 16th century.

Key Facts about the Songhai Empire

  • Aside from the fact that the Songhai Empire was relatively weak politically, the army was poorly trained and equipped during the dying years of the empire. They did have the numbers; they had about 35,000 infantry men and 10,000 cavalry, however, many of those soldiers fell to the swords of the Moroccans in 1590.
  • At its zenith, the Songhai Empire was drawing in several scholars from all over the world, including Arab, Jewish, Spanish, and Italians. The cities of Timbuktu and Gao were vibrant trading and cultural hubs. The most famous of these Songhai scholars were Mahmud Kati and Abd al-Sadi. The popular 16th century book, Tarikh al-Sudan (the “History of the Suda”) was authored by Abd al-Sadi. The book contains a very comprehensive history of the Songhai Empire and rulers.
  • Following in the footsteps of the learned Mali Empire rulers, the Songhai Empire made sure that learning institutions and universities were well stocked with books in all sorts of disciplines. For example, the university at Timbuktu was a very famous place where scholars from all over the kingdom went to share ideas.
  • The Songhai Empire grew extremely large to a point where it occupied about 1.4 million square miles. To put that into perspective, the Songhai Empire, at its peak, was about two times as large as present-day France. The Songhai Empire spanned about 8 present-day West African countries: Mali, Chad, Niger, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Senegal, and Gambia along the Atlantic coast.
  • Some Songhai Kings went as far into present-day Cameroon, a central African nation.
  • Gold and salt were the two major commodities that fueled Songhai Empire’s economy. The slave trade economy was also very much vibrant.
  • One interesting thing about the Songhai Empire was that the society was divided into classes of Muslims – predominantly the upper class living in the urban areas – and the lower class (predominantly farmers) that stuck to African traditional beliefs and pagan worship.
  • Songhai Empire under Askia the Great (Muhammad I) followed the Sharia law – a set of rules that were in accordance with the Qur’an. Askia appointed Qadis – Islamic magistrates and judges – in several big cities such as Timbuktu, Djenné and Gao. The jurists on legal cases were typically from the academic institutions and Islamic schools.
  • Emperor Askia Ishaq II was the last major emperor to seat on the throne. In 1590, Ishaq’s ill trained and ill-equipped army were vanquished by the Moroccans. The salt-rich city of Taghaza was plundered by the Moroccans. Shortly after that, they made their way deep into the heart of Timbuktu and Djenné. The Songhai Empire never recovered from the attack. The empire disintegrated into several tribes and small and powerless kingdoms.

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Frequently Asked Questions about the Songhai Empire

The Songhai Empire, one of West Africa’s most influential pre-colonial empires, was ruled by a number of notable leaders.

Here are some of the most asked questions about the Songhai Empire:

Where was the Songhai Empire located?

The Songhai Empire was located in West Africa. It covered areas of present-day Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal, with its capital at Gao.

When did the Songhai Empire exist?

The Songhai Empire began its rise in the 15th century and reached its peak during the late 15th and 16th centuries. It declined after the late 16th century, especially following the Battle of Tondibi in 1591.

What led to the rise of the Songhai Empire?

The decline of the Mali Empire opened the door for Songhai to emerge as a dominant power. Leaders like Sunni Ali Ber and Askia Muhammad expanded its territories through military conquests and established strong administrative structures.

What was the religion of the Songhai Empire?

While traditional African religions were practiced initially, Islam became the dominant religion, especially during and after the reign of Askia Muhammad. The empire became a center for Islamic learning and culture.

How did the Songhai Empire come to an end?

The empire began to face internal divisions and external threats, particularly from the Moroccans. The Battle of Tondibi in 1591 against Moroccan forces marked the beginning of its decline, leading to its eventual disintegration.

Were the Songhai people traders?

Yes, the Songhai Empire was known for its involvement in the trans-Saharan trade. Major commodities included gold, salt, and slaves. Cities like Timbuktu became vital trade and learning centers.

What was the significance of Timbuktu in the Songhai Empire?

Timbuktu was a major city of trade, scholarship, and culture. It housed the famous Sankore University and was a center of Islamic learning.

Who were some of the major rulers of the Songhai Empire?

  1. Sunni Ali Ber (r. 1464-1492): Sunni Ali Ber, also simply known as Sunni Ali, was the first king of the Sunni dynasty. He embarked on many military campaigns, leading to the rapid expansion of the empire. His reign was marked by the conquest of key cities, such as Timbuktu and Djenné, which became vital to the Songhai Empire.
  2. Askia Muhammad I (Askia the Great) (r. 1493-1528): After Sunni Ali’s death, his general, Askia Muhammad (previously known as Muhammad Ture), overthrew Sunni Ali’s son to become the ruler. He is credited with organizing the Songhai Empire’s administrative and legal systems. Askia Muhammad also undertook a pilgrimage to Mecca, which solidified his commitment to Islam and bolstered the Islamic education and institutions within the empire. He expanded the empire further and made it the largest in West Africa’s history.
  3. Askia Musa (r. 1529-1531): He succeeded Askia Muhammad I and was the second ruler from the Askia dynasty. His reign was short-lived, characterized by internal disputes.
  4. Askia Daoud (r. 1549-1582/1583): He had a long and relatively peaceful reign, during which the empire saw significant prosperity and trade expansion. However, the later years of his rule experienced some internal strife and external threats.
  5. Askia Ishaq II (r. 1588-1591): He was one of the last powerful rulers of the Songhai Empire. During his reign, the empire started facing more pronounced internal divisions and external pressures, especially from the Moroccans.

What was the administrative structure of the empire?

The Songhai Empire had a centralized system with the emperor at the top. Provinces were governed by appointed officials. Askia Muhammad is credited with establishing an organized bureaucratic system and legal structures.

How did the Songhai Empire impact Africa’s history?

The Songhai Empire stands as one of West Africa’s largest and most powerful empires. It contributed to the spread of Islam, the development of trade routes, and the flourishing of African arts, culture, and scholarship.


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