's Ancient Civilizations of the World/The Kingdom of Ghana

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

Ghana empire map

The Ghana Empire or Wagadou Kingdom (existed before c. 830 until c. 1235) was located in what is now southeastern Mauritania, and Western Mali. Complex societies had existed in the region since about 1500 BCE, and around Ghana's core region since about 300 CE. When Ghana's ruling dynasty began is uncertain, it is first mentioned in documentary sources around 830 CE by Persian scholar Al-Kwarizmi. The first written mention of the kingdom comes from Arabic-language sources some time after the conquest of North Africa by Muslims, when geographers began compiling comprehensive accounts of the world known to Islam around 800. The sources for the earlier periods are very strange as to its society, government or culture, though they do describe its location and note its commercial relations. The empire's capital is believed to have been at Koumbi Saleh on the rim of the Sahara desert.

Remember that the modern country of Ghana is named after the ancient empire, though there is no territory shared between the two states. Traditional stories show linkages between the two, with the northern Mande groups of Ghana: namely the Soninke, Dyula, Ligby and Bissa, known collectively by neighboring Gur and Akan groups as Wangara sharing histories of migration to the area around the time of the empire's descent.

History[edit | edit source]

Origin[edit | edit source]

Peoples of western and central Sudan began developing centralized states when long-distance trade across the Sahara was made possible by the introduction of the camel. Among these new states participating in the trans-Saharan trade was Ghana. The kingdom gets its name from the title of its ruler and was established by Mande-speakers from the western Sudan. In the eleventh century Ghana extended from the Senegal to the Niger.

The origins of Ghana have often been marred by contradictions between ethno-historic interpretations, as well as ethno historic accounts and archaeology. The earliest discussions of their origins are found in the Sudanese chronicles of Mahumd Kati and Abd al-Rahman as-Sadi. According to Kati's Tarikh al-Fettash in a section probably composed by the author around 1580, twenty kings ruled Ghana before the advent of the Prophet, and the empire extended until the century after the prophet (i.e. c. 822 CE). In addressing the rulers origin, the Tarikh al-Fettash, provides three different opinions, one that they were Wa'kuri (i.e. Soninke), another that they were Wangara (i.e. Mande), and a third that they were Sanhaja, a desert tribe of Amazinghy (Berbers), an interpretation which al-Kati favored in view of the fact that their genealogies linked them to this group, and adds "What is certain is that they were not blacks" (min al-sawadin).

While the 16th century versions of genealogies might have linked Ghana to the Sanhaja, earlier versions, for example as reported by the 11th century writer al-Idrisi and the 13th century writer ibn Said, noted that rulers of Ghana in those days traced their descent from the clan of the Prophet Muhammad either through his protector abi Talib, or through his son in law Ali. Al-Sadi (who wrote in the 1660s), for his part, only notes that they were "white" (bidan, which referred to the culture rather than the skin-colour) and did not know their exact origin. He says that 22 kings ruled before the Hijra and 22 after. While these early views lead to many exotic interpretations of a foreign origin of Wagadu, these views are generally disregarded by scholars. Levtzion and Spaulding for example, argue that al-Idrisi's testimony should be looked at very critically due to demonstrably gross miscalculations in geography and historical chronology, while themselves associating Ghana with the local Soninke. In addition, the archaeologist and historian Raymond Mauny argues that al-Kati's and al-Sadi's view of a foreign origin cannot be regarded as reliable. He argues that the interpretations were based on the later presence (after Ghana's demise) of nomadic interlopers in the assumption that they were the historic ruling caste, and that the writers did not address contemporary accounts such as those of al-Yakqubi (872 CE) al-Masudi (c. 944 CE), Ibn Hawqal (c. 977 CE), al-Biruni (c. 1036 CE), as well as al-Bakri all describing the population and rulers of Ghana as "negroes."

In the late nineteenth century, as French forces occupied the region in which ancient Ghana lay, colonial officials began collecting traditional accounts, including some manuscripts written in Arabic somewhat earlier in the century. Several such traditions were recorded and published. While there are variants, these traditions pointed toward Ghana having been founded by a nomadic group from northern Africa. More recent work, supported by archaeological research, claims that foreign trade was vital to the empire's foundation. Researchers now believe that local developments, stimulated by trade from North Africa were crucial in the development of the state.

Decline[edit | edit source]

Ghana successor map 1200 ru

By the twelfth century Ghana was in decline. Berber nomads put pressure on vassal states causing provinces to revolt and local rulers asserted independence.

Given the scattered nature of the Arabic sources and the ambiguity of the existing archaeological record, it is difficult to determine when and how Ghana declined and fell. The earliest descriptions of the Empire are vague as to its maximum extent, though according to al-Bakri, Ghana had forced Awdaghast in the desert to accept its rule sometime between 970 and 1054. By al-Bakri's own time, however, it was surrounded by powerful kingdoms, such as Sila.

A tradition in historiography maintains that Ghana fell when it was sacked by the Almoravid movement in 1076–1077, although Ghanaians resisted attack for a decade. However, this interpretation has been questioned. Conrad and Fisher (1982) argued that the notion of any Almoravid military conquest at its core is merely perpetuated folklore, derived from a misinterpretation or naive reliance on Arabic sources. Dierke Lange agrees but argues that this doesn't preclude Almoravid political agitation, claiming that Ghana's demise owed much to the latter. Furthermore, the archaeology of ancient Ghana simply does not show the signs of rapid change and destruction that would be associated with any Almoravid-era military conquests.

While there is no clear cut account of a sack of Ghana in the contemporary sources, the country certainly did convert to Islam, for al-Idrisi, whose account was written in 1154, has the country fully Muslim by that date. Ibn Khaldun, a fourteenth century North African historian who read and cited both al-Bakri and al-Idrisi, does report an ambiguous account of the country's history as related to him by 'Uthman, a faqih of Ghana who took a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1394, that the power of Ghana waned as that of the "veiled people" grew, through the Almoravid movement. Al-Idrisi's report does not give any reason in particular to cause us to believe that the Empire was any smaller or weaker than it had been in the days of al-Bakri, seventy five years earlier, and in fact he describes its capital as "the greatest of all towns of the Sudan with respect to area, the most populous, and with the most extensive trade." It is clear, however, that Ghana was incorporated into the Mali Empire, according to a detailed account of al-'Umari, written around 1340, but based on testimony given to him by the "truthful and trustworthy shaykh Abu Uthman Sa'id al-Dukkali, a long term resident. In al'Umari/al-Dukkali's version, Ghana still retained its functions as a sort of kingdom within the empire, its ruler being the only one allowed to bear the title malik and "who is like a deputy unto him."

Economy[edit | edit source]

Trans-Saharan routes early

Most of our information about the economy of Ghana comes from merchants, and therefore we know more about the commercial aspects of its economy, and less about the way in which the rulers and nobles may have obtained agricultural products through tribute or taxation. The empire became wealthy because of their trading. The domestication of the camel, which preceded Muslims and Islam by several centuries, brought about a gradual change in trade, and for the first time, the extensive gold, ivory trade, and salt resources of the region could be sent north and east to population centers in North Africa, the Middle East and Europe in exchange for manufactured goods. The trans-Saharan trade produced an increasing surplus, allowing for larger urban centers. but it also encouraged territorial expansion to gain control over the lucrative trade routes.

The main center of trade was Koumbi Saleh. According to Andalusian historian, Al-Bakri, Ghanan merchants exported salt, for which they had to pay two gold dinars in taxes. Other exports included where copper, which paid a fixed due. Imports probably included products such as textiles, ornaments and other materials.

Government[edit | edit source]

Kings taxed imports and exports, maintained large courts at the royal palace, had a large mass of warriors at his disposal, and maintained extensive diplomatic relations with neighboring states and foreign merchants. Much testimony on ancient Ghana comes to us from Islamic writers. According to the, Ghana appears to have had a central core region and was surrounded by vassal states. One of the earliest sources to describe Ghana, al-Ya'qubi, writing in 889/90 (276 AH) says that "under his [the king of Ghana's] authority are a number of kings." These "kings" were presumably the rulers of the territorial units often called kafu in Mandinka. Al-Bakri, one of the most detailed sources, mentions that the king had officials (mazalim) who surrounded his throne when he gave justice, and these included the sons of the "kings of his country" which we must assume are the same kings that al-Ya'qubi mentioned in his account of nearly two hundred years earlier. Al-Bakri's detailed geography of the region shows that in his day, or 1067/1068, Ghana was surrounded by independent kingdoms, and Sila, one of them located on the Senegal River was "almost a match for the king of Ghana." Sama is the only such entity mentioned as a province, as it was in al-Ya'qubi's day. In al-Bakri's time, the rulers of Ghana had begun to incorporate more Muslims into government, including the treasurer, his interpreter and "the majority of his officials."

Attribution[edit | edit source]

"The Ghana Empire" (Wikipedia)