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The Songhai Empire, also known as the Songhay Empire, was an African state of west Africa. From the early 15th to the late 16th century, Songhai was one of the largest African empires in history. This empire bore the same name as its leading ethnic group, the Songhai. Its capital was the city of Gaomarker, where a small Songhai state had existed since the 11th century. Its base of power was on the bend of the Niger River in present day Nigermarker and Burkina Fasomarker.

The Songhai Kings

The Songhai state has existed in one form or another for over a thousand years if one traces its rulers from the first settlement in Gao to its semi-vassal status under the Mali Empire through its continuation in Niger as the Dendi Kingdom.

The Songhai are thought to have settled at Gao as early as 800 AD, but did not establish it as the capital until the 11th century, during the reign of Dia Kossoi. However, the Dia dynasty soon gave way to the Sunni, proceeding the ascension of Sulaiman-Mar, who gained independence and hegemony over the city and was a forbearer of Sunni Ali Ber. Mar is often credited with wresting power away from the Mali Empire and gaining independence for the then small Songhai kingdom.

Imperial Songhay

In 1340, the Songhay took advantage of the Mali Empire's decline and successfully asserted its independence. Disputes over succession weakened the Mali Empire, and many of its peripheral subjects broke away. The Songhai made Gao their capital and began an imperial expansion of their own throughout the western Sahel. And by 1420, Songhai was strong enough to exact tribute from Masina. In all, the Sunni dynasty would count 18 kings.

Sunni Ali Ber

The first great emperor of Songhai was Sonni Ali, reigning from about 1464 to 1493. Ali was a Muslim like the Mali kings before him. He was also an efficient warrior who, in the 1460, conquered many of the Songhai's neighboring states, including what remained of the Mali Empire. Sonni Ali quickly established himself as the empire's most formidable military strategist and conquer. He took advantage of the decline of the Mali empire, leading his armies on a series of conquests. His empire expanded to eventually eclipse Mali, covering a kingdom that encompassed more landmass than all of western Europe and, to date, was the largest empire that Africa has ever seen. With his control of critical trade routes and cities such as Timbuktumarker, Sonni Ali brought great wealth to the Songhai Empire, which at its height would surpass the wealth of Mali.

During his campaigns for expansion, Sonni Ali conquered many lands, repelling attacks from the Mossi to the south and overcoming the Dogon people to the north, before ultimately annexing Timbuktu in 1468, after Islamic leaders of the town requested his assistance in overthrowing marauding Tuaregs who had taken over the city subsequent to the decline of Mali. Sonni however, immediately met stark resistance after setting his eyes on the wealthy and renowned trading town of Djennemarker. After much persistence and a seven-year siege, he was able to forcefully incorporate it into his vast empire in 1473, but only after having starved them into surrender, allowing no entrance into or exit out of the city.

While a Muslim in faith, Ali did not impose Islamic policy on non-Islamic peoples and instead allowed and acknowledged the observance of their own form of African traditional religion and practices. Mainly due to his violent sack of Timbuktumarker, in many Islamic accounts, he was described as an intolerant tyrant. Islamic historian, Al-Sa'df expresses this sentiment in describing his incursion on Timbuktu:

In oral tradition, he is often known as a powerful magician and great military commander. Whatever the case may have been, Sonni's legend consists of him being a fearless conqueror who united a great empire, sparking a legacy that is still intact today. Under his reign, Djennemarker and Timbuktumarker were on their way to becoming great centers of learning.

Askia Muhammad the Great

Tomb of Askia
Sonni Ali was followed by an emperor named Muhammad Ture commonly thought to have been from the Soninke people, who would preside over Songhai's golden age. He was called an Askiya or usurper, and he adopted the name as his title and name of his dynasty. Whereas Ali brought conquests, Muhammad brought political reform and revitalization. He set up a complex bureaucracy with separate departments for agriculture, the army, and the treasury, to each of which he appointed supervising officials. A devout Muslim, Muhammad not only completed a pilgrimage to Mecca like Mansa Musa before him, but opened religious schools, constructed mosques, and opened up his court to scholars and poets from throughout the Muslim world.

The time of Muhammad's birth is cause for much speculation and the exact date is unknown. Assumed by most Africanists to have been of a Soninke background, it has also been hypothesized that Muhammad could have been of Tukulor origin, descended from a Senegalese family who settled in Gaomarker, based on Arabic spellings of his name (Ture, or Towri). Oral tradition of the Griots however, hold that he was the nephew of Sonni Ali. Muhammad began to establish himself as a significant force directly proceeding the reign of Sonni Ali. In 1493, he began a campaign to relieve power from the rightful heir to the throne, Sonni Baru, son of Ali. A battle ensued at Anfao, where his troops were victorious. The throne then passed to Ture, under the title of Askia.

During his reign, Askia Muhammad was revered as a devout Muslim and respected statesman. He set up administration through out the various lands previously conquered by his predecessor, Sonni Ali; decisions were motivated by his strict adherence to Islam. While not renowned to the degree of his predecessor as a dominant military tactician, he initiated many warring campaigns, notably declaring Jihads against the neighboring Mossi, whom he could not get to convert to Islam, even after achieving success in eventually subduing them. His army consisted of war canoes, expert cavalry, protective armor, iron tipped weapons, and an organized militia. Muḥammad also increased organization and stability, creating the positions of director of finance, agriculture, justice, interior, protocol, waters and forests, among others. Under the rule of Muhammad Ture, it can be undoubtably stated that the empire reached its Zenith.

Imperial Songhai Culture

At its peak, the Songhai city of Timbuktu became a thriving cultural and commercial center. Arab, Italian, and Jewish merchants all gathered for trade. A revival of Islamic scholarship also took place at the university in Timbuktu. However, Timbuktu was but one of a myriad of the cities throughout the empire. By 1500, the Songhai Empire covered over 1.4 million square km.


Safe economic trade existed throughout the Empire, due to the standing army stationed in the provinces. Central to the regional economy were the gold fields of the Niger River. The Songhai Empire would trade with these nearby but independent gold fields; salt was so precious in the region that the people of West Africa would sometimes be prepared to trade gold for equal quantities of salt. Eighty percent of the people lived on small, family-owned farms no more than large. The trans-Saharan trade consisted primarily of gold, salt, but not slaves unlike Europe. The Julla (merchants) would form partnerships, and the state would protect these merchants and the port cities on the Niger. It was a very strong trading kingdom, known for its production of practical crafts as well as religious artifacts.

The Songhai economy was based on a system. The clan a person belonged to ultimately decided their occupation. The most common were metalworkers, fishermen, and carpenters. Lower caste participants consisted of mostly non-farm working immigrants, who at times were provided special privileges and held high positions in society. At the top were noblemen and direct descendants of the original Songhai people, followed by freemen and traders. At the bottom were war captives and European slaves obligated to labor, especially in farming. James Olson describes the labor system as resembling modern day unions, with the empire possessing craft guilds that consisted of various mechanics and artisans.

Criminal justice

Criminal justice in Songhai was based mainly, if not entirely, on Islamic principles, especially during the rule of Muhammad Ture. In addition to this was the local qadis, whose responsibility was to maintain order by enforcing Sharia law under Islamic doctrine, according to the Qur'an. An additional qadi was noted as a necessity in order to settle minor disputes between immigrant merchants. Kings usually did not judge a defendant; however, under special circumstances, such as acts of treason, they felt an obligation to do so and thus exert their authority. Results of a trial were announced by the "town crier" and punishment for most trivial crimes usually consisted of confiscation of merchandise or even imprisonment, since various prisons existed throughout the empire.

Qadis worked at the local level and were positioned in important trading towns, such as Timbuktumarker and Djennemarker. The Assara-munidios, or "enforcers" worked along the lines of a police commissioner whose sole duty was to execute sentencing. Jurists were mainly composed of those representing the academic community; professors were often noted as taking administrative positions within the empire and many aspired to be qadis.


Upper classes in society converted to Islam while lower classes often continued to follow traditional religions. Sermons emphasized obedience to the king. Timbuktumarker was the educational capital. Sonni Ali established a system of government under the royal court, later to be expanded by Askia Muhammad, which appointed governors and mayors to preside over local tributary states, situated around the Niger valley. Local chiefs were still granted authority over their respective domains as long as they did not undermine Songhai policy.

Tax was imposed onto peripheral chiefdoms and provinces to ensure the dominance of Songhai, and in return these provinces were given almost complete autonomy. Songhai rulers only intervened in the affairs of these neighboring states when a situation became volatile; usually an isolated incident. Each town was represented by government officials, holding positions and responsibilities similar to today's central bureaucrats.

Under Askia Muhammad, the empire saw increased centralization. He encouraged learning in Timbuktumarker by rewarding its professors with larger pensions as an incentive. He also established an order of precedence and protocol and was noted as a noble man who gave back generously to the poor. Under his policies, Muhammad brought much stability to Songhai and great attestations of this noted organization is still preserved in the works of Maghrebin writers such as Leo Africanus, among others.


Following Dauoud's death, a civil war of succession weakened the Empire, leading Saadi Sultan Ahmad I al-Mansur Saadi of Morocco to dispatch an invasion force under the eunuch Judar Pasha. Judar Pasha was a Spaniardmarker by birth, but had been captured as an infant and educated at the Saadi court. After a cross-Saharan march, Judar's forces razed the salt mines at Taghazamarker and moved on Gaomarker; when Askia Ishaq II (r. 1588-1591) met Judar at the 1591 Battle of Tondibi, Songhai forces were routed by a cattle stampede triggered by the Saadi's gunpowder weapons despite vastly superior numbers. Judar proceeded to sack Gao, Timbuktu, and Djenné, destroying the Songhai as a regional power. Governing so vast an empire proved too much for the Saadi dynasty, and they soon relinquished control of the region, letting it splinter into dozens of smaller kingdoms.

See also




  • Cissoko, S. M., Timbouctou et l'empire songhay, Paris 1975.
  • Hunwick, J., Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire, Leiden 2003.
  • Lange, D., Ancient Kingdoms of West Africa, Dettelbach 2004 (the book has a chapter titled "The Mande factor in Gao history", pp. 409-544).

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