The Prosperity and Power of the Ghana Empire Flourished on the Trans-Saharan Trade Route
The Ghana Empire was the first of the great West African empires that existed during the Middle Ages. The history of the Ghana Empire is obscure and much of what we know about it is derived from Arab sources, in particular, the Book of Highways and of Kingdoms by Al-Bakri. It is also from this source that the story of Tunka Manin (also spelled as Tenkamenin), the last Soninke ruler of Ghana is found.
The Formation of the Ghana Empire
Although referred to as the Ghana Empire today, this Medieval West African state was known by its subjects as Wagadou, which means ‘Land of Herds’. Ghana, as a matter of fact, was the title of its ruler. According to oral tradition, the Ghana Empire was founded by Diabe Cissé, a younger son of Dinga, who is considered to be the ancestor of the Soninke people. As Dinga approached death, he decided to bequeath his chiefly powers to his eldest son. As the elderly man was blind by then, Diabe Cissé disguised himself as his brother and received his father’s chiefly powers. Diabe Cissé then left his home and ended up at a place called Koumbi Saleh, which is located in modern day Mauretania, on its southern border with Mali. It was there that Wagadou was founded, with Koumbi Saleh serving as its capital.
The Ghana empire rose to power mainly by capitalizing from the gold trade, as well as copper, iron-smelting & salt. (HomeTeam History / YouTube)
The first written references to the Ghana Empire were made during the 8 th century by Arab writers. By this time, the Ghana Empire had grown powerful and rich, thanks to the trans-Saharan trade. Caravans bringing salt came from the north, while those from the south transported gold. As the trade route passed through the territory of the Ghana Empire, tariffs were levied on these goods, and this contributed greatly to the wealth of the empire.
The Ghana Empire Grew Into One of the Richest Kingdoms
The prosperity and power of the Ghana Empire continued well into the 10 th century. For example, Al-Ya’qubi, an Arab geographer and historian living in the 9 th century, wrote that Ghana was one of the two most powerful kingdoms in Western Sudan, and that its ruler had other kings under his authority. Another Arab writer, the geographer Muhammad ibn Hawqal, wrote in 988 that the ruler of Ghana was the richest king in the world.
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The Ghana Empire at its greatest extent. (Luxo / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The most detailed description of the Ghana Empire, however, is found in Al-Bakri’s Book of Highways and of Kingdoms. Al-Bakri was a historian and geographer who lived during the 11 th century. The Book of Highways and of Kingdoms is one of Al-Bakri’s that has survived till today (though in fragmentary form) and is an important source of information for the history of West Africa. It is perhaps somewhat ironic that Al-Bakri never travelled to this region and spent his entire life in Al-Andalus. Instead, his description of the Ghana Empire and West Africa is based on the accounts of others who have traveled there.
Insights Into the Ghana Empire
Al-Bakri provides his readers with some interesting insight about the Ghana Empire. For instance, he reports that all the gold nuggets from the empire’s mines were reserved for the king, whereas the people are allowed to collect gold dust. Nevertheless, gold dust was collected to such great quantities that its value was lost. Al-Bakri also wrote that the Ghanaian adorn themselves with ornaments made of gold. The strength of the empire’s army is also mentioned, up to 200,000 men could be fielded in times of war.
The Ghanaian adorned themselves with ornaments made of gold. (HomeTeam History / YouTube)
As for the government of the empire, Al-Bakri mentions that the kingship is inherited by the son of the king’s sister. The rationale for this is that the while a king may have doubts if his son is in fact his son, it is certain that the son of his sister would be his sister’s son. Additionally, Al-Bakri notes that the king’s interpreters, the official overseeing the treasury, as well as the majority of his ministers are Muslims. Despite the fact that the king himself is a pagan, he is recorded as being friendly towards Muslims.
Traditionally, the fall of the Ghana Empire is dated to 1076, nine years a after the Book of Highways and of Kingdoms was written. Al-Bakri reports that in 1067, the ruler of the Ghana Empire was Tunka Manin, who had ascended the throne in 1063. He succeeded his maternal uncle, Bassi, who had come to the throne at the age of 85. Apart from that, Al-Bakri merely states that “This Tunka Manin is powerful, rules an enormous kingdom, and possesses great authority.”
Tunka Manin, the last ruler of the Ghana Empire. (Afrakan Science / YouTube)
Tunka Manin is said to be the last ruler of the Ghana Empire, and therefore was the one who had to deal with the Almoravid invasion. The Ghanaians were defeated and the Almoravids ruled over the region for about a decade before being expelled. The Almoravids were replaced by the Sosso, who submitted to the Mali Empire, the next great empire in the history of West Africa, around 1240.
Top image: The civilization called Wagadou, better known as the Ghana Empire, was a Sonniki state. Source: solarey.
By Wu Mingren
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Conrad, D. 2005. Great Empires of the Past: Empires of Medieval West Africa. New York, NY: Facts On File, Inc.
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The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2018. Ghana. [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Ghana-historical-West-African-empire
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