Kanem Empire (700 - 1376) was located in the
present countries of Chad and Libya .
height it encompassed an area covering not only much of Chad, but
also parts of southern Libya (Fezzan) and eastern
The history of the Empire from the 14th
century onwards is mainly known from the Royal Chronicle or
discovered in 1851 by the
German traveller Heinrich
The empire of Kanem began forming around AD 700 under the nomadic Tebu
. According to the Girgam, the Zaghawa were forced southwest towards the
fertile lands around Lake
Chad by political pressure and desiccation in their former range.
area already possessed independent, walled city-states
belonging to the So culture
. Under the leadership of the Duguwa dynasty
, the Zaghawa would eventually
dominate the So, but not before adopting many of their customs. War
between the two continued up to the late 16th century.
One theory proposes that the lost state of Agisymba
(mentioned by Ptolemy
in the middle of the 2nd Century AD) was the
antecedent of the Kanem Empire.
located at the southern end of the trans-Saharan trade route between
Tripoli and the region of Lake Chad.
eventually abandoned their nomadic lifestyle and founded a capital
in 700 AD under the first documented Zaghawa king ("Mai") known as
Sef of Saif. The capital of N'jimi
for "south" in the Teda language
in power and influence under Sef's son, Dugu. This transition
marked the beginning of Duguwa
. The mais of the Duguwa were regarded as divine kings
and belonged to the ruling establishment known as the Magumi.
Despite changes in dynastic power, the Magumi and the title of Mai
would persevere for over a thousand years.
The major factor that influenced the history of the state of Kanem
was the early penetration of Islam
African traders, Berbers and Arabs, brought the new religion
. In 1085, a Muslim noble by the name of
removed the last Duguwa king Selma
from power and thus established the new
dynasty of the Sayfuwa.
The introduction of the Sayfuwa dynasty meant radical changes for
the Kanem Empire. First, it meant the Islamization of the court and
state policies. Second, the identification of founders had to be
redressed. After the 13th century, the empire began
associating Mai Sef with the legendary
Yemenite hero Sayf ibn Dhi
Hence, it became customary to call the new ruling
dynasty the Sayfawa
instead of the
Islam and Kanem
offered the Sayfawa rulers the advantage of new ideas from Arabia and the Mediterranean world, as well as literacy in
But many people resisted the new religion
favouring traditional beliefs
When Hummay had assumed power on the basis of his strong Islamic
following, for example, it is believed that the Duguwa/Sayfuwu
began some kind of internal opposition. This pattern of conflict
and compromise with Islam occurs repeatedly in Chadian history
By the 12th century, the Sayfawa ruled all over Kanem. At the same
time, the Kanembu people drew closer to the new rulers and
increased the growing population in Njimi. Even though the Kanembu
became the main power-base of the Sayfuwa, Kanem's rulers continued
to travel frequently throughout the kingdom and especially towards
, west of lake Chad. Herders
recognized the government's power and acknowledged their allegiance
by paying tribute
Mai Dunama Dabbalemi
Kanem's expansion peaked during the long and energetic reign
of Mai Dunama Dabbalemi
(ca. 1221–1259), also of
the Sayfawa dynasty
. Dabbalemi initiated
diplomatic exchanges with sultans in North Africa and apparently arranged for the
establishment of a special hostel in Cairo to
facilitate pilgrimages to Mecca.
During his reign, he declared jihad
against the surrounding tribes and initiated an extended period of
conquest. After consolidating their territory around
Lake Chad the Fezzan region (in
present-day Libya) fell under
Kanem's authority, and the empire's influence
extended westward to Kano (in
present-day Nigeria), eastward to
Ouaddaï, and southward to the
Adamawa grasslands (in present-day Cameroon).
boundaries on maps can be misleading, however, because the degree
of control extended in ever-weakening gradations from the core of
the empire around Njimi to remote peripheries, from which
allegiance and tribute were usually only symbolic. Moreover,
cartographic lines are static and misrepresent the mobility
inherent in nomadism and migration, which were common. The loyalty
of peoples and their leaders was more important in governance than
the physical control of territory.
Dabbalemi devised a system to reward military commanders with
authority over the people they conquered. This system, however,
tempted military officers to pass their positions to their sons,
thus transforming the office from one based on achievement and
loyalty to the mai
into one based on hereditary nobility
Dabbalemi was able to suppress this tendency, but after his death,
dissension among his sons weakened the Sayfawa Dynasty. Dynastic
degenerated into civil war
, and Kanem's outlying peoples soon
ceased paying tribute.
Fall of Kanem
After the death of Dunama II, Kanem quickly fell into a downward
spiral. By the end of the 14th century, internal struggles and
external attacks had torn Kanem apart.
Between 1342 and 1352, the So whom had dominated Kanem prior to the
Zaghawa killed four mais in battle. This proliferation of
resulted in numerous claimants to the throne and led
to a series of internecine wars.
knell of Sayfawa power in Kanem was dealt by the Bulala, invaders from the area around Lake Fitri to the east.
By 1376, the Bulala had driven
the Sayfawa from their capital. By 1388, they had taken Kanem
altogether. The Kanuri
were forced back into
their nomadic ways and migrated west of Lake Chad eventually
establishing a new empire in Bornu.
- Kanem-Borno, in Thomas Collelo, ed. Chad: A Country
Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1988.
- Barkindo, Bawuro, "The early states of the Central Sudan:
Kanem, Borno and some of their neighbours to c. 1500 A.D.", in: J.
Ajayi und M. Crowder (Hg.), History of West Africa, Bd. I,
3. Ausg. Harlow 1985, 225-254.
- Lange, Dierk, Ancient Kingdoms of West Africa:
Africa-Centred and Canaanite-Israelite Perspectives,
Dettelbach 2004. (the book suggests a pre-Christian origin of
Kanem in connection with the Phoenician expansion)
- Urvoy, Yves, L'empire du Bornou, Paris 1949.
- Lange, Dierk, "Immigration of the Chadic-speaking Sao towards 600
BCE" Borno Museum Society Newsletter, 72-75 (2008),