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The Kanem Empire (700 - 1376) was located in the present countries of Chadmarker and Libyamarker . At its height it encompassed an area covering not only much of Chad, but also parts of southern Libyamarker (Fezzanmarker) and eastern Nigermarker. The history of the Empire from the 14th century onwards is mainly known from the Royal Chronicle or Girgam discovered in 1851 by the German traveller Heinrich Barth.


The empire of Kanem began forming around AD 700 under the nomadic Tebu-speaking Zaghawa. According to the Girgam, the Zaghawa were forced southwest towards the fertile lands around Lake Chadmarker by political pressure and desiccation in their former range. The 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.

Duguwa Dynasty

Kanem was located at the southern end of the trans-Saharan trade route between Tripolimarker and the region of Lake Chad. The Zaghawa 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 (the word for "south" in the Teda language) grew in power and influence under Sef's son, Dugu. This transition marked the beginning of Duguwa Dynasty. 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.

Sayfawa Dynasty

The major factor that influenced the history of the state of Kanem was the early penetration of Islam. North African traders, Berbers and Arabs, brought the new religion. In 1085, a Muslim noble by the name of Hummay 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 Yemenitemarker hero Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan. Hence, it became customary to call the new ruling dynasty the Sayfawa instead of the Sefuwa.

Islam and Kanem

Islam offered the Sayfawa rulers the advantage of new ideas from Arabia and the Mediterraneanmarker world, as well as literacy in administration. But many people resisted the new religion favouring traditional beliefs and practices. 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 Bornu, west of lake Chad. Herders and farmers alike 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 Cairomarker to facilitate pilgrimages to Meccamarker. 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 Fezzanmarker region (in present-day Libya) fell under Kanem's authority, and the empire's influence extended westward to Kanomarker (in present-day Nigeria), eastward to Ouaddaï, and southward to the Adamawa grasslands (in present-day Cameroon). Portraying these 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 feuds 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.

So Resurgence

Between 1342 and 1352, the So whom had dominated Kanem prior to the Zaghawa killed four mais in battle. This proliferation of mais resulted in numerous claimants to the throne and led to a series of internecine wars.

Bulala Invasion

The death knell of Sayfawa power in Kanem was dealt by the Bulala, invaders from the area around Lake Fitrimarker 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.

See also



  • Kanem-Borno, in Thomas Collelo, ed. Chad: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1988.

Further reading

  • 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 expansionmarker)
  • 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), 84-106.

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