Part II: African Empires
AD / CE  1st - 15th centuries
African Timelines Table of Contents History, Orature, Literature, & Film
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Short Cuts on this web page to brief Discussions on: Axum [Ethiopia] | Advent of Islam |
[Glossary: sahel, Sub-Saharan Africa, & savanna] | Trans-Saharan Cross-Cultural Contact |
Mali Empire | Sundjata Keita, Griots, Nyama & the Nyamakawa |
Early Written Literature of Sub-Saharan West Africa | Zimbabwe | Swahili Cities
Great Zimbabwe
| East African Literature Emerges |
Beginning of European Slave Trade in Africa & Slavery in AfricaTimbuktu

"Let's face it -- think of Africa, and the first images that come
to mind are of war, poverty, famine and flies.
How many of us really know anything at all about
the truly great ancient African civilizations, which in their day,
were just as splendid and glorious as any on the face of the earth?"

--Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Wonders of the African World 
(PBS Online,1999):

ca. 300
(to 700)
Rise of Axum or Aksum (Ethiopia) and conversion to Christianity.
(By CE 1
st century, Rome had conquered Egypt, Carthage, and other North African areas; which became the granaries of the Roman Empire, and the majority of the population converted to Christianity). Axum spent its religious zeal carving out churches from rocks, and writing and interpreting religious texts.
ca. 600
Bantu migration extends to southern Africa; Bantu languages will predominate in central and southern Africa. Emergence of southeastern African societies, to become the stone city-states of Zimbabwe, Dhlo-Dhlo, Kilwa, and Sofala, which flourish through 1600.


Advent of Islam

Khalif Omar conquers Egypt with Islamic troups.



Islam sweeps across North Africa; Islamic faith eventually extends into many areas of sub-Saharan African (to ca. 1500)

Arab Slave Trade, from A.D./C.E. 700 to 1911:  Estimates place the numbers of Africans sold in this system somewhere around 14 million: at least 9.6 million African women and 4.4 African men The Forgotten Holocaust: The Eastern Slave Trade KAMMAASI / Sankofa Project Guide, 1999: 

740 Islamicized Africans (Moors) invade Spain, and rule it unti1 1492. The Moors brought agriculture, engineering, mining, industry, manufacturing, architecture, and scholarship, developing Spain into the center for culture and learning throughout Europe for almost 800 years until the fall of Granada in 1492.
(to 1100)
[Glossary]: Growth of trans-Sahara gold trade across the sahel ("sahel" is Arabic for "shore" or "coast") at southern boundary of the Sahara Desert, which was likened to a sea. The desert was not an impossible barrier; many trade routes cross it from early times. The sahel was the intensive point of contact and trade between sub-Saharan Africa (Africa south of the Sahara Desert), and North Africa and the world beyond, along with contact and trade along Atlantic and Indian Ocean seacoasts. In western Africa a number of black kingdoms emerge whose economic base lay in their control of trans-Saharan trade routes. Gold, kola nuts, and slaves were sent north in exchange for cloth, utensils, and salt. This trade enabled the rise of the great empires—Ghana, Mali, and Songhai--of the savanna ("savanna" refers to a treeless or sparsely forested plain.)
Trans-Saharan Cross-Cultural Contact: "Not only people and goods move across the Sahara [from 800-1100] but also ideas" (Prof. Pekka Masonen, Dept. of History, Univ. of Tampere, Finland; African Timelines web contribution, 17 October 2002). After "...Arab merchants...first connected sub-Saharan Africa with their vast commercial network, reaching from Spain and Russia to the Far East," available evidence  suggests "that some black Africans were observing the wider world, including Europe, outside their home villages rather keenly long before Western geographers knew anything about the true course of the Niger or the Nile" (Masonen, "Trans-Saharan Trade").   "The voluntary traffic of West Africans to the Mediterranean began with the adoption of the Muslim faith. Pilgrimage to Mecca is one the five pillars of Islam, . . . an obligation for all Muslims" (Masonen, "Trans-Saharan Trade").  West African Muslims with the economic means--most notably West African rulers Mansa Musa of the Mali empire (in 1324) and Askia Muhammad of the Songhay Empire (in 1496-98)--made the long journey to Mecca and Egypt, and "[p]ilgrimage by common people became more general from the fourteenth century onwards . . ." (Masonen, "Trans-Saharan Trade").  Via " commercial, intellectual and physical contacts with Northern Africa through the trans-Saharan trade and pilgrimage, we may conclude that West Africans certainly knew more than something about the Mediterranean and perhaps a little about Europe too, before the beginning of the Portuguese discoveries in 1415—some individuals may even have possessed quite a detailed picture of their contemporary world," though "this knowledge was restricted to a narrow group only, consisting mostly of rulers, scholars, noblemen, and wealthy merchants, who all had a practical need for accurate information of the wider world and means to achieve it . . . " (Masonen, "Trans-Saharan Trade").
  • "Trans-Saharan Trade and the West African Discovery of the Mediterranean," by Prof. Pekka Masonen (Dept. of History, Univ. of Tampere, Finland).  [Web article is revised version of original article published in M'hammad Sabour & Knut Vikor (eds.), Ethnic Encounter and Culture Change. Papers from the Third Nordic Conference on Middle Eastern Studies, Bergen 1997, pp. 116-142]:

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ca 1000 Ghana Empire of Soninke peoples (in what is now SE Mauritania) at height of power. The earliest of the 3 great West African states (emerging ca. 300 CE), Ghana equipped its armies with iron weapons and became master of the trade in salt and gold, controlling routes extending from present-day Morocco in the north, Lake Chad and Nubia/Egypt in the eat, and the coastal forests of western Africa in the south. By the early 11th century, Muslim advisers were at the court of Ghana.
1076 According to traditional historical interpretations, a Berber army from Morocco led by militant religious reformers called Almoravids attacked Ghana, led it into a period of internal conflicts and disorganization, then by 1087, lost control of the empire to the Soninkes.  Several smaller states emerged, including Kangaba out of which the empire of Mali arose.

Modern historians, however, have seriously challenged the hypothesis of Almoravid military conquest and political influence over the medieval Ghana Empire, as an unsubstantiated "myth" of colonialist "European creation" (Pekka Masonen [Dept. of History, Univ. of Tampere, Finland], and Humphrey J. Fisher [School of Oriental and African Studies]). "We know only that Islam was spreading in Ghana by the time of Almoravids (1054-1147), which is confirmed by Arabic sources, . . ."  [Masonen and Fisher, Note 7 ]; and Prof. Masonen concludes, "It seems more probable that Islam spread to Sudanic Africa peacefully and gradually through trans-Saharan trade" (African Timelines web contribution, 17 October 2002).

  • "Not Quite Venus from the Waves: The Almoravid Conquest of Ghana in the Modern Historiography of Western Africa" (Pekka Masonen [Dept. of History, Univ. of Tampere, Finland], and Humphrey J. Fisher [School of Oriental and African Studies]):

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13th c. Rise of the Mali Empire of the Mande (or Mandinka) peoples in West Africa.. The Mali Empire was strategically located near gold mines and the agriculturally rich interior floodplain of the Niger River. This region had been under the domination of the Ghana Empire until the middle of the 11th century. As Ghana declined, several short-lived kingdoms vied for influence over the western Sudan region.
1235 The small state of Kangaba, led by Sundjata Keita, or Sundiata Keita, defeated the nearby kingdom of Susu at the Battle of Kirina in 1235. The Susu had been led by king Sumanguru Kante. The clans of the heartland unified under the vigorous Sundjata, now king of the vast region that was to become the Mali Empire, beginning a period of expansion. The rulers of Mali nominally converted to Islam, though this did not preclude belief and practice of traditional Mande religions.
1260 Death of Sundjata Keita, Mali’s "Lion Prince."
Sundjata Keita, Old Mali, and the Griot Tradition: The Mali Empire, centered on the upper reaches of the Sénégal and Niger rivers, was the second and most extensive of the three great West African empires.. The Mali Empire served as a model of statecraft for later kingdoms long after its decline in the 15th and 16th centuries.. Under Sundjata and his immediate successors, Mali expanded rapidly west to the Atlantic Ocean, south deep into the forest, east beyond the Niger River, and north to the salt and copper mines of the Sahara. The city of Niani may have been the capital. At its height, Mali was a confederation of 3 independent, freely allied states (Mali, Mema, and Wagadou) and 12 garrisoned provinces. The king reserved the right to dispense justice and to monopolize trade, particularly in gold. Sundjiata Keita is the cultural hero and ancestor of the Mande (or Mandinka) peoples, founder of the great Mali Empire, and inspiration of the great oral epic tradition of the griots or professional bards (like Djeliba in the Hum 211 film Keita: The Heritage of the Griot ), keepers of tradition and history, trusted and powerful advisors of kings and clans.

Nyama & the Nyamakalaw: These oral artists are specialists of the spoken/sung word and the great power--called nyama, among the Mande--it releases. They may belong to special castes (nyamakalaw - handlers of nyama) and/or inherit their calling through generations of the same family, for example, in Mande (or Mandinka) West African cultures.

From Anthropology students' webwork at Franklin and Marshall College:
The World of the Mande: History, Art and Ritual In the Mande Culture 

(student webwork, 1997 - 1999): n. pag. Online. Anthropology/Africana Studies 269 and Anthropology/Africana Studies 267 (Prof. Mandy Bastian, Anthropology Dept., Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, PA). 
[last accessed Dec. 2001].
Caste Systems in Mande Society:  
The Role of the Nyamakala in the Epic of Sundiata: 

"The Mande see nyama as a hot, wild energy that is the animating force of nature. Nyama is present in all the rocks, trees, people and animals that inhabit the Earth. It is similar to the Western notion of the soul but is more complete than that. It controls nature, the stars and the motions of the sea. Nyama is truly the sculptor of the universe. While nyama molds nature into its many forms, the nyamakalaw can shape nyama into art. The nyamakalaw spend their entire lives perfecting special secret skills that are passed down from generation to generation. The nyamakalaw are the only people in Mande that can use magic
and are often skilled as sorcerers, blacksmiths, leather workers or bards."
--from Magic & Art in West Africa 

Links updated to this point-LL080503

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ca. 1250
Zimbabwe (meaning "stone house" or building), some of which are massive, constructed in southeastern Africa by ancestors of the Shona peoples of modern Zimbabwe.
1260 Ife-Ife, Yoruban culture of non-Bantu Kwa-speakers, flourished in western Africa, producing remarkable terra cotta and bronze portrait heads, continuing Nok creative traditions.


1324 -1325 Mali Emperor Mansa Musa's sensational pilgrimage to Mecca, spreads Mali’s fame across Sudan to Egypt, the Islamic and European worlds. ["Mansa" means "emperor."] He brought with him hundreds of camels laden with gold. Under Mansa Musa, diplomatic relations with Tunis and Egypt were opened, and Muslim scholars and artisans brought into to the empire; and Mali appeared on the maps of Europe. .Islam penetrated Mali’s elaborate court life and thrived in commercial sahel centers such as Jenne and Tombouctou or Timbuktu, on the great bend of the Niger River. Mali's legacy is the enduring cultural affiliation shared by the Mande peoples (especially Malinke, Bambara, and Soninke speakers) who today occupy large parts of West Africa.

Early written literature of Sub-Saharan West Africa was influenced by Islamic writings, in both form and content, as transmitted by North Africans.

After 1400 Court intrigue and succession disputes sapped the strength of the extended Mali Empire, and northern towns and provinces revolted, making way for the Empire of Songhai to emerge from the vassal state of Gao. One of the first peoples to become independent, the Songhai, began to spread along the Niger River. Much of Mali fell to the Songhai Empire in the western Sudan during the 15th century.


14th c. Complex, advanced lake states, located between Lakes Victoria and Edward, were established, including kingdoms ruled by the Bachwezi, Luo, Bunyoro, Ankole, Buganda, and Karagwe--but little is known of their early history. Engaruka, a town of 6,000 stone houses in Tanzania, played a key role in the emergence of Central African empires. Bunyoro was the most powerful state until the second half of the 18th century, with an elaborate centralized bureaucracy: most district and subdistrict chiefs were appointed by the kabaka ("king"). Farther to the south, in Rwanda, a cattle-raising pastoral aristocracy founded by the Bachwezi (called Bututsi, or Bahima, in this area) ruled over settled Bantu peoples from the 16th century onward.

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ca. 1400 Swahili cities flourish on east African coast of Indian Ocean; trading esp. in ivory, gold, iron, slaves. Indonesian immigrants reached Madagascar during the 1st millennium CE bringing new foodstuffs, notably bananas, which soon spread throughout the continent, and Arab settlers colonized the coast and established trading towns. By the 13th century a number of significant Zenj city-states had been established, including Mogadishu, Malindi, Lamu, Mombasa, Kilwa, Pate, and Sofala. An urban Swahili culture developed through mutual assimilation of Bantu and Arabic speakers. The ruling classes were of *mixed Arab-African ancestry; the populace was Bantu, many of them slaves. These mercantile city-states were oriented toward the sea, and their political impact on inland peoples was virtually nonexistent until the 19th century.
14th -
to 15
th centuries
Great Zimbabwe, impressive stone construction of the Karanga--ancestors of the Shona peoples of southeastern Africa--is the center of Bantu peoples that controlled a large part of interior southeast Africa. The Karanga peoples formed the Mwene Mutapa Empire, which derived its wealth from large-scale gold mining. At its height in the 15th century, its sphere of influence stretched from the Zambezi River, to the Kalahari, to the Indian Ocean and the Limpopo River.
East African Literature Emerges: An early known example of East African literature, dated 1520 and written in Arabic, is an anonymous history of the city-state of Kilwa Kisiwani. Soon after, histories of East African city-states written in Swahili appeared, as well as "message" poems, usually written from a moral/religious viewpoint.

In 1728, the earliest known work of (imaginative) literature is written in original Swahili: the epic poem Utendi wa Tambuka (Story of Tambuka). Swahili epic verse writers borrowed from the romantic traditions surrounding the Prophet Muhammad, then freely elaborated to meet tastes of their listeners and readers.


1439 Portugal takes the Azores and increases expeditions along northwest African coast, eventually reaching the Gold Coast (modern Ghana). The Portuguese explorations were motivated by a desire for knowledge, a wish to bring Christianity to what they perceived as pagan peoples, the search for potential allies against Muslim threats, and the hope of finding new and lucrative trade routes and sources of wealth. Wherever the Portuguese—and the English, French, and Dutch who followed them—went, they eventually disrupted ongoing patterns of trade and political life and changed economic and religious systems.
1441 Beginning of European slave trade in Africa with first shipment of African slaves sent directly from Africa to Portugal. With the complicity and blessings of the Catholic church. the Portuguese would come to dominate the gold, spice and slave trade for almost a century before other European nations became greatly involved.
  • African Diaspora (NiiCa Canada Ltd. - BlackRadio NiiFm La, Accra) 
    (Link Broken)
  • African Diaspora- Modern (Y!Geocities) (Link Broken)
  • The Origins & Nature of New World Slavery (David Brion Davis and Steven Mintz, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, good bibliography:
Slavery in Africa: It is true that African societies did have various forms of slavery and dependent labor before their interaction with Arabs and Europeans that invaded Africa, especially in nonegalitarian centralized African states, but scholars argue that indigenous slavery was relatively a marginal aspect of traditional African societies. Many forms of servitude and slavery were relatively benign, an extension of lineage and kinship systems. Slaves and servants were often well-treated and could rise to respected positions in households and communities. African social hierarchies and conditions of servitude were mitigated by complex, extended kinship relationships, based on community, group, clan, and family. Ethnic rivalries and hostilities did exist, as did ethnocentrism (a belief that one's group and its lifeways are superior to those of other groups), but the concept of race was a foreign import. Muslim conquests of North Africa and penetration in the south made slavery a more widely diffused phenomenon, and the slave trade in Africans—especially women and children--developed on a new scale. The adoption of Islamic concepts of slavery made it a legitimate fate for non-believers but an illegal treatment for Muslims. In the forest states of West Africa, such as Benin and Kongo, slavery was an important institution before the European arrival, African rulers seeking to enslave other African groups, rather than their own people, to enhance their wealth, prestige, and control of labor. However, the Atlantic Slave Trade opened up greatly expanded opportunities for large-scale economic trade in human beings--chattel slavery--on an unprecedented scale. Expanding, centralized African states on/near the coast became major suppliers of slaves to the Europeans, who mobilized commerce in slaves relatively quickly by tapping existing routes and supplies (adapted from Stearns, Adas, and Schwartz).


1468 Songhai (or Songhay) Empire, centered at Gao, dominates the central Sudan after Sunni Ali Ber’s army defeated the largely Tuareg contingent at Tombouctou (or Timbuktu, site of the famous University of Sankore, center of Islamic learning & book trade) and captured the city. An uncompromising warrior-king, Ali Ber extended the Songhai empire by controlling the Niger River with a navy of war vessels. He also refused to accept Islam, and instead advanced African traditions.
Civilizations in Africa: Songhay (Richard Hooker, World Civilizations, WSU):

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1480s First Europeans (Portuguese) visit Benin (Edo*-speaking ruling culture) and arrive at east coast of Africa, increasing trade in gold, ivory, and slaves (*and thanks to Paula Girshick Ben-Amos for the correction). According to Microsoft Encarta Africana 1998, "[b]etween the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Edo ruled the powerful kingdom of Benin. Today approximately 1 million people consider themselves Edo."
1481-2 El Mina is founded on the West African "Gold Coast," the most important of the chain of trading settlements hat the Portuguese established here. African gold, ivory, foodstuffs, and slaves were exchanged for ironware, firearms, textiles, and foodstuffs.


1492 The death of Sunni Ali Ber created a power vacuum in the Songhai Empire, and his son was soon deposed by Mamadou Toure who ascended the throne in 1492 under the name Askia (meaning "general") Muhammad, another subject of great oral epics. During his reign which ended in 1529, Askia Muhammad made Songhai the largest empire in the history of west Africa. He restored the previously discouraged tradition of Islamic learning to the University of Sankore, and Timbuktu (or Tombouctou, population 50,000) became known as a major center of Islamic learning and book trade. Askia Muhammad’s consolidation of Muslim power worked against encroaching Christian forces. The empire went into decline, however, after 1528, when the now-blind Askia Muhammad was deposed by his son.

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NEXT > Part III: African Slave Trade & European Imperialism 15th - early 19th centuries

COCC Home > Cora Agatucci Home > Classes > HUM 211 Home > African Timelines > Part II: African Empires

African Timelines Table of Contents History, Orature, Literature, & Film
Part I | Part II | Part III |
Part IV | Part V | Works Cited | Bibliography

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Last updated: 30 December 2009

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