Mightiest African Empires of All Time and their Achievements
For centuries African empires have been wrongly and unfairly shrugged off as insignificant and backward societies with hardly any contribution to the history of the world. It is only in the recent past century that close attention has been paid to the history and culture of Africa, exposing to the rest of the world just how impressive those African empires were.
Take the example of Carthage, a North African empire that not only dominated the Mediterranean but was on so many occasions a thorn in the flesh of the mighty Roman Republic. And then there was the Mali Empire, a truly colossal medieval African empire that produced mighty kings, including Sundiata Keita and Mansa Musa. The latter ruler is often hailed as the richest man to ever live.
Starting from the bottom and working our way up, here are the 10 greatest African Empires of all time.
The Kingdom of Zimbabwe
We begin our list of mightiest African empires with the Great Zimbabwe, a sub-Saharan African empire that rose to prominence in the Middle Ages. Also known as the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, the Great Zimbabwe started taking shape when people from the declining South African Kingdom of Mapungubwe moved into the southeastern hills of present-day Zimbabwe around the mid-11th century CE (Common Era). About a century later, the Kingdom of Zimbabwe was founded with the Great Zimbabwe serving as its capital and commercial hub.
The rulers deployed the region’s vast rich minerals into the transformation of the kingdom. The kingdom also benefited a lot from the numerous trading routes that connected the city to port cities on the Indian Ocean. According to the Zimbabwean historian David Norman Beach (1943-1999), the Great Zimbabwe could afford to put up magnificent boulders, stone towers and massive defensive walls due to the wealth obtained from gold fields in the region. Buoyed on by those well-connected trading routes, the Great Zimbabwe is said to have prospered from the 13th century to the mid-16th century. At its peak, the capital city had about 20,000 inhabitants.
It is hard to pinpoint what exactly caused the decline of this empire. Some of the possible reasons for its decline include a series of political instability and prolonged famine, which was triggered by the change in climate at the time. Some historians have also noted that the decline of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe could have been caused by the exhaustion of gold mines in the region, causing trading activities in the empire to move elsewhere. Another possible explanation for its decline was overpopulation as more mouths had to survive on the kingdom’s fast shrinking resources.
In any case, by the late 15th century, the Great Zimbabwe had been eclipsed by the Kingdom of Mutapa in the north. The Great Zimbabwe is considered by many as one of the largest and most culturally important archaeological sites in Africa; its ruins were designated a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site in 1986.
Did you know: Prior to archeological evidence coming to fore, it was long held that the rock citadel located in Great Zimbabwe was the home of Queen of Sheba from the Bible?
Located in modern-day western Nigeria and eastern Benin, the Oyo Empire was a Yoruba Empire most famous for being the largest and most powerful Yoruba state. This West African empire was able to remain significant for large parts of its history, which spanned from the mid-7th century to the late 18th century. Its advanced organizational and administrative prowess allowed it to justify its hegemony over other kingdoms in the Yorubaland.
The Oyo Empire peaked around the late 17th century CE, when it controlled over 150,000 square kilometres, raking in huge wealth from its vast trading networks in the region. By the end of the 19th century, the Oyo Empire had virtually collapsed due to decades of internal political strife and power struggle.
Old Ghana Empire
Known for being one of the first West African empires to begin the trans-Saharan trade, the Old Ghana Empire benefited tremendously from the vast trade routes, which in turn allowed it to expand its borders to include areas in present-day southeastern Mauritania, Senegal and western Mali.
Old Ghana Empire, also known as Wagadu, primarily relied on the trade of Kola nuts, gold and salt. Trading activities in the region was boosted following the introduction of camels in the 3rd century CE. Some scholars opine that it was around this time that Old Ghana Empire began to form.
At some point in time, its capital city, Koumbi Saleh, was said to be the largest city south of the Sahara Desert. At its peak, the empire had over 20,000 people who spoke languages like Soninke, Malinke and Mande. With trade network all the way up into North Africa, Old Ghana Emperors like Ghana Bassi, Kaya Magan Cissé, and Soumaba Cisse were able to maintain the empire’s dominance in West Africa.
Over time Old Ghana Empire would succumb to the might (in the mid-13th century) of the rising Mali Empire, thus becoming the vassal of the Mali Emperors.
Did you know: The West African country of Ghana, a former British colony, named itself in honor of the Ghana Empire?
Kingdom of Aksum
Also known as the Aksumite Empire, the Kingdom of Aksum is reasoned to have existed from around 100 CE to 940 CE. However, some historians claim that its origins could be traced way beyond 100 CE to the era of the Sabaeans, an Old South Arabian tribe that lived in present-day Yemen.
The Kingdom of Aksum occupied a region of what is now Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. However, its influence reached into places like present-day southern Saudi Arabia and western Yemen. The kingdom reached its peak around the 4th and 5th centuries CE when it conquered the Kingdom of Kush in 350 CE.
Aksum, the administrative and religious capital of the kingdom, was situated in northern Ethiopia. From Aksum, the emperors deployed the proceeds from the vast trading networks into the development and expansion of the kingdom. Due to its strategic location and its access to the Red Sea and the Upper Nile, the kingdom served as an interconnecting trading hub between India and the Mediterranean.
Moreover, all of that commerce and trade (in gold, silk, tortoise shell, and ivory) were facilitated by the fact that the Aksumites had their own writing script known as the Ge’ez alphabet. The empire also benefited immensely from the fact that it minted its own currency.
Around 520 CE, the Aksumate King Kaleb is believed to have dispatched his army to what is now Yemen to fight the Jewish Himyarite King Dhu Nuwas who was infamous for persecuting the Christian/Aksumite community in the region.
Such was the might of Aksum that it was considered one of the greatest empires at the time, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Rome and Persia. The people of Aksum could boast of having their own architectural style with magnificent stone obelisks scattered around the capital city.
At the height of its power, which was around the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the Kingdom of Aksum in effect served as a vital link between the Far East and ancient Europe, including Rome and Constantinople. It was also around this period that the kingdom’s emperor, Ezana, made Christianity the official religion of the state. As a matter of fact, the present-day Ethiopian Orthodox Church can be considered the religious legacy of Ezana’s decision to convert to Christianity.
Coupled with the rise of the Islamic Empire and bad climatic conditions, the power of the Aksumite began to decline around the 7th century CE.
Kingdom of Kush
Located in Northeast Africa, the Kingdom of Kush was a powerful ancient African civilization popularly known as Nubia. Similar to ancient Egypt, Kush benefited tremendously from the Nile River as the empire was situated just south of Egypt. As a result, the Kushites were able to dominate the regions in and around what is now present-day Sudan and other parts of Northeast Africa.
After gaining its independence from the Egyptian pharaohs around the late 11th century BCE, the Nubians would go on to last for about 1400 years. That period of dominance also includes the time that it briefly held control of Egypt until they were booted out of Egypt by the Assyrians.
In addition to iron and gold, the Kingdom of Kush’s economy relied on the trade of slaves, ivory, incense, and wild animal hides. From the iron, Nubian rulers equipped the empire’s soldiers with weapons that allowed them to dictate affairs in Northeast Africa for centuries until its steady decline following Rome’s conquest of Egypt. By the 4th century CE, the Nubian Empire had collapsed.
The Benin Empire
Spanning from the late 12th century C.E. to the late 20th century C.E., the Benin Empire, also known as the Edo Kingdom, was a West African empire that covered large parts of what is now southern Nigeria. For the period that it existed, the rulers (known as Oba) of Benin Empire were extremely powerful and revered in an almost god like manner.
From its very famous capital city of Edo (modern-day Benin City), the Benin Empire actively encouraged artisans to produce many artworks from iron, ivory and bronze. This empire was also most known for being one of the longest and oldest West African Empires.
Following the Europeans arrival to West Africa, the Benin rulers traded extensively with the Portuguese. In exchange for the firearms that were received from Portugal and Britain, the Benin Empire supplied Europe with palm oil, ivory and pepper. Over time, the British Empire was able to have a strong hold over the Benin Empire and completely annexed it in the late 20th century.
The Mali Empire, an empire most famous for its extremely wealthy rulers, is said to have begun around the 12th century CE. From a small and largely insignificant Mandika kingdom, the Mali Empire began to take shape, gradually rising in dominance amidst the decline of the Ghana Empire (Wagadu) in the north.
Due to lack of proper and precise accounts, it is popularly held that Sundiata Keita (c. 1214-c. 1255) was the founder of the Mali Empire. The Malian ruler holds this honor because there isn’t any accurate written account of the Mali rulers that existed before him. According to Arab sociologist and historian Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) and Muslim Moroccan explorer and historian Ibn Battuta (1304-1369), Sundiata Keita was a very astute military commander who led a coalition of smaller kingdoms to end the tyrannical reign of Sourmaoro Kanté of the Sosso Empire.
As the first mansa (i.e. king) of Mali, Sundiata Keita is believed to have united the various small kingdoms under his rule. He was also responsible for developing the trans-Saharan trade routes that he inherited from the declining Ghana Empire.
At its peak, the Mali Empire was the largest empire in West Africa, completely dominating the region in all spheres, in laws, language and culture. Much of its wealth came from the gold mines that it held across its territories which included present-day Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Ivory Coast.
It’s been said that 50% of the world’s gold supply as at the 1200s came from the Mali Empire. As a result of all those vast gold reserves, it comes as no surprise that one of its rulers, Mansa Musa (reign – c. 1312 to c. 1337), is generally considered the richest man to ever live.
Kingdom of Punt
Firmly placed third on our list of greatest African empires is the Kingdom of Punt. The Land of Punt was an ancient East African empire most known for being the trading partner of ancient Egyptians for several centuries. A known producer and exporter of gold, the Kingdom of Punt was said to have been the destination of many ancient Egyptian trade expeditions. The kingdom was also known for trading in other items such as aromatic resins, ebony and wild animals.
Although it was described in Egyptian records as the “land of the Gods”, the Kingdom of Punt still raises a lot of questions in the minds of modern historians and scholars. For example, it remains unclear where exactly Punt was located with some scholars suggesting present-day places like Somalia, Ethiopia, southeast Egypt and Eritrea. The commonly held view is that the kingdom’s origins date to around the 3rd millennium BCE. Lasting until around 980 BCE, the kingdom’s sphere of influence reached all the way into the Horn of Africa and Southern Arabia.
According to Egyptian records, Queen Hatshepsut dispatched a large trade expedition to the Kingdom of Punt around the 15th century BCE.
Often times, historians marvel at the remarkable military, economic and cultural achievements of Rome, however, they forget that Carthage, a North African empire, was once an equal to the Roman Empire in so many aspects. For about half a millennium, from around the 8th or 9th century BCE to the 2nd century BCE, Carthage is said to have dominated affairs in North Africa. It was truly a massive commercial hub in the region, with its sphere of influence stretching to other parts of Mediterranean.
The Carthage Empire began as small Phoenician settlement in present-day Tunisia before growing into a powerful seafaring empire that was known for its rich trade networks. At its peak, the capital city had more than half a million inhabitants. It dominated the textile, gold, silver and copper trade, having built docking bays that could accommodate up to 220 ships.
Carthage’s continued expansion, militarily and economically, brought it into direct confrontation with the Roman Republic, another superpower of the era. Between 264 BCE and 146 BCE, Carthage and the Roman Republic locked horns in what historians like to term as the Punic Wars. In the final and third Punic War, the Romans made sure to permanently end the threat posed by Carthage by completely destroying the North African empire. The ruins of its capital, Carthage, can be seen in today in the Tunisian city of Tunis.
Coming in at number one on the list of greatest African Empires is the Songhai Empire. Lasting from the 10th century to the 16th century, the Songhai Empire was said to be the successor to the Mali Empire. The Songhai city of Timbuktu was undoubtedly one of the greatest cities in the world at the time. The city was famed for being a hub of culture, religious education and learning. It attracted scholars from all over the known world, including from places as far as Spain. Other famous cities in the empire included Gao, the capital city, and Djenné.
At its peak, the Songhai Empire held territories in over 10 present-day West African countries: Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Benin, Nigeria, and Niger. At that size, which is larger than Western Europe combined, the Songhai Empire was considered one of the largest empires in the world at the time.
For a period the rulers of Songhai Empire could hold its vast territories together simply because of the huge returns they made from the trans-Saharan trade. The empire also had a well-organized administrative system that kept track of affairs in the various provinces.
The Songhai Empire is believed to have reached its peak in the 16th century, during the reign of King Muhammad I Askia (Askia the Great). Aside from forming a strong alliance with the Muslim Caliph in Egypt, Askia is also credited with modernizing the city of Timbuktu. Following the death of Askia, the empire gradually descended into chaos due to the rampant coups. The ensuing civil war and political strife created a perfect opportunity for Ahmad al-Mansur, the Sultan of Morocco, to invade the Songhai Empire in the late 1500s.
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