The Ancient History of the Songhai Empire

The Songhai Empire (15th-16th centuries) was a vast West African kingdom, centered in Gao on the Niger River. Stretching from Senegal to Nigeria, it was renowned for trade, cultural fusion, and learning centers like Timbuktu. Influential leaders like Sunni Ali and Askia Muhammad shaped its prosperous history.

Songhai Empire Facts for Kids

  • West African empire from 1464-1591.
  • The capital city was Gao in Mali.
  • Sunni Ali was the first great leader.
  • Askia Muhammad ruled in 1493.
  • Controlled trade across Sahara.
  • Gold and salt main resources.
  • Merged culture, language, and religion.
  • Timbuktu is a center of learning.
  • Fell to Moroccan invasion in 1591.
  • Inspired African pride, and heritage.

The Songhai Empire became the most important state in West Africa following the decline of the Mali Empire in the late 1400s.

It originated as a small kingdom along the eastern side of the Niger River during 1000 C.E. and was under the rule of the Mali Empire.

It was located in the south of the Sahara Desert along the Niger River and stretches from the present-day country Niger to the Atlantic Ocean.

Even though they were conquered by the Mali Empire, the Songhai people proved to be powerful and troublesome for conquerors as they controlled the transport on the Niger River.

Himalaya Mountains

In fact, the Songhai Kings made several efforts to raid Mali centers during the early 15th century C.E. to fight for their independence. Ultimately, the Mali kings lost their grip on several smaller kingdoms.

The Songhai Empire first came into power under the leadership of Sunni Ali. Several historians believed that Sunni Ali was held a prisoner for political reasons by the Mali emperor before he escaped to the city of Gao.

Sunni Ali subsequently took control of the city and went on to establish the Songhai Empire at around 1464 C.E.

He began to conquer nearby towns including trading locations such as Djenne and Timbuktu that was considered important cities of the Mali Empire.

At around 1468 C.E., Sunni Ali deployed an army equipped with armored cavalry and a naval fleet within the Niger River to conquer the remnants of the old Mali Empire.

The Songhai immediately took control of the important trade port of the Timbuktu of the Niger River by 1469 C.E.

In addition, the Songhai Empire also centralized government systems with respect to the more federal arrangements of the earlier empires.

Oracle Bone Script

Even though rulers were considered as absolute monarchs and had 700 eunuchs at their court; the thrones of the Songhai kings were never secured.

As a matter of fact, six of the nine rulers of the Songhai Empire were either dead of violent deaths or dethroned in rebellions.

In most cases, kings of the Songhai Empire were killed by their uncles or brothers.

Interesting Facts about the Songhai Empire

  • The slave trade was an important component of the Songhai Empire. Slaves were utilized to help with the distribution of goods from the Sahara Desert to the Middle East and Morocco. Other than that, slaves were also sold to Europeans and Americans in exchange for goods, jewelry, and precious stones.
  • Gao was the capital city of the Songhai Empire. It was situated on the banks of Niger in modern-day Mali.
  • The Songhai Empire ruled the Western Sahel between 1500 and 1600. At its summit, the empire was considered one of the largest both in African and Islamic history.
  • The Songhai Empire was organized into five provinces. Each province was led by a governor.
  • Sunni Baru was named as the King of the Songhai Empire following the death of his father, Sunni Ali in 1492.
  • Sunni Baru ruled the empire for 40 months before being dethroned by Askia Muhammad in 1493.
  • Sunni Ali was a legendary character in the Songhai Empire. Oftentimes, he is portrayed as someone with magical powers.
  • During the reign of Askia Muhammad, all the town chiefs, governors, and judges were Muslims.

Why did the Songhai Empire fall?

The Songhai Empire lasted for 800 years before it started to weaken during the mid-1500s as a result of the civil war and internal strife.

Who conquered the Songhai Empire?

The Songhai Empire subsequently collapsed and was divided into smaller states in the early 16th century after the Moroccan army invaded and conquered the cities of Gao and Timbuktu.

What was Askia Muhammad known for?

Askia Muhammad was known for the promotion of Islamic scholarship, general tranquility, and commerce in the Songhai Empire.

How important was the city of Timbuktu in the Songhai Empire?

During the Songhai Empire, the city of Timbuktu was the center of education and trade.