The Golden Age of West Africa

February 25, 2014

African American History Breakthrough Series

We are proud to celebrate the history of African Americans, highlighting the breakthrough series of ideas, theories, events, and technological inventions, which changed and shaped the lives of African Americans, and Americans in general, and the world. To be sure, Kujichagulia, the second principle of Kwanzaa, stresses the importance and critical need for African Americans to know their history.

The Golden Age of West Africa

The Golden Age of West Africa spans from the start of the eight century to the end of the eighteenth century and highlights the overlapping great trading empires of: Ghana  (700-1200), Mali (1200-1500), and Songhai (1350-1600).

The Western Sudanic trading empires of Ghana (5th century), Mali (13th and 14th century), and Songhai (15th and 16th century) illustrate the profound achievements of Africa- production of cooper and gold mines and long-distant trade routes. The camel caravans, which entered on either side of the Sahara desert or commonly known as ports, were called the “ships of the Sahara”. Walter Rodney asserts, “In practice trans-Saharan trade was as great an achievement as crossing an ocean.”

ghana_empireThe Ghana Empire produced large amounts of gold for trade across the Sahara. Islamic scholar and historian al-Bakri asserted that Ghana was so “rich in gold that dogs there had golden collars, and the rulers of the empire was called ‘Lord of the gold.’ Ghana had a strong central and efficient administration which accounted for its longevity and prosperity.

The Ghana Empire was also renown for its metal processing and manufacturing, developing craftsmen who specialized as blacksmiths, goldsmiths, and silversmiths. Moreover, the mining, processing, and manufacturing of gold and metals was source of its material wealth and paved the way for establishing the first of the major trade routes in the western Sudan and establishing the empire of  Ghana as a primary source and reference for trade and commerce during the 5th century.

MaliThe empire of Mali followed the Ghana Empire and gained control over the salt and gold trade. A hallmark of the Mali Empire was the conversion of its war to peace initiative through the expansion of agricultural which converted soldiers to famers. The “soldiers-famers” were also trained and skilled at raising poultry and cattle, making this empire into a agricultural giant.

The cities—Niani, Walata, Gao, and Timbuktu– of Mail were bustling with trade, commerce and scholarship. This empire, with a standing army of 100,000 men and a well-administered government, built a strong and prosperous merchant sector. Thus, commerce, scholarship, and trade were the defining features of the Mali Empire.

The Songhai Empire continued the age of great achievement centered around Timbuktu, the epicenter of commerce and culture. Timbuktu was the “seat of the celebrated University of Sankore, which attracted scholars and students from near and distant lands.”

timbuktu-SankoreFor a 16th century seeker of knowledge who wanted to excel in scholarship and literacy, Sankore University would be a top preference. Sankore University was one of three ancient centers of learning in Timbuktu, Mali, West Africa. During the 14th-16th century, Sankore University enrolled  thousands of foreign students.

With the financial help of a female philanthropist from Mandika, and support of Mansa Musa (1307-1302 AD) and the Askia Dynasty (1493-1591 AD), Sankore University established itself as the leader in religious and secular education, attracting several thousand foreign students from around the world.

The diverse and rigorous curriculum Sankore University made it a model of learning and scholarship.  The curriculum was intense and comprehensive, including religious and secular subjects, including astronomy and mathematics. The university was composed of several independent schools or colleges, each run by a single instructor or Imam. Students learned from a single teacher and classes took place in the open courtyards of mosques or private residences.

There were four levels of degrees offered by Sankore University. On graduation day, students were awarded Turbans. The turban symbolized divine light, wisdom, knowledge and high moral conduct. It represented a demarcation line between knowledge and ignorance. The knots and circles of the turban depicted the name Allah, which implied that the student was now obligated to share his knowledge and expertise with fellow human beings in an honorable fashion.

It is the celebration of the University of Sankore as one of the world’s significant seats of learning and as a community of matchless Muslim scholars, during the 14th-16th century that makes the Songhai Empire a major marker in world history.


Jackson, John G, Introduction to African Civilization

Appiah, Kwame Anthony and Gates, Henry Louis, The Dictionary of Global Culture

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