The Songhai Empire flourished in the western Sahel region of Africa between AD 1400 and 1600. Sonni Ali, the paramount chief of the Sonni Dynasty, led the Songhai people in conquering the former territories of the Ghana and Mali Empires. The power, wealth, and influence of the Songhai Dynasty increased over the years, but it started to unravel during the chaotic reign of the Askia Dynasty. Finally, in 1591, the Songhai Empire fell to the hands of the army under the Saadi Dynasty of Morocco. This event is recorded on the Biblical Timeline with World History during that time.
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The Rise of an Empire
The Songhai Empire was built upon the ashes of the great Mali Empire when it disintegrated in the early 1400s. The Songhai state which was ruled by the Sonni Dynasty rose several years before the fall of the Mali Empire, but it emerged as a strong independent force when the empire finally crumbled. By the mid-1400s, the great city of Timbuktu was reduced to a tributary of the Tuareg who ruled the city through an appointed Berber governor. Across the Niger River, the Songhai people under the leadership of Sonni Ali (1464-1492) were already consolidating power.
The citizens of Timbuktu and the Songhai people lived side by side for many years until the Tuareg launched a bloody takeover of the city. The residents of Timbuktu soon appealed to Sonni Ali to deliver them from the Tuareg and offered their submission to the Songhai ruler in exchange for protection. Sonni Ali agreed to help them drive the Tuareg out and brought the ancient city into the orbit of the Songhai state.
After the conquest of Timbuktu, Sonni Ali launched a campaign to take the surrounding areas. He extended the state’s borders as far west as the Massina and Djenne Djenno areas through the Niger waterways and reduced the town of Oualata into a Songhai garrison. During the expansion, the Songhai army was able to decimate the Fula people and Tuareg-sympathizers. Although Sonni Ali claimed to be a Muslim, he still practiced paganism and did not hesitate to order the execution of any Muslim who sympathized with the Tuareg.
Sonni Ali spent most of his life conquering the areas along Niger River. Centered in the city of Gao, the Songhai state had been transformed into an influential and powerful empire with borders that extended into some portions of northern Nigeria. The people he conquered breathed a sigh of relief when he died in 1492.
His son, Sonni Baru, succeeded him as king but did not inherit his father’s talent and luck in war. He was defeated twice by Muhammad Ture (one of his father’s generals) who launched a rebellion against him. In November 1493, Sonni Ali went into exile and was succeeded by Muhammad Ture as ruler of the Songhai Empire.
The devout Muslim leader then adopted the name Askia Muhammad and soon transformed the empire into a haven for Islam in the western Sahel region. The king expanded the empire further into the Futa Tooro region in the west and as far east as Agadez. Sonni Ali treated the Tuareg as enemies, but the Askia reversed this by turning them into trade partners. They soon became the empire’s allies against Arab tribesmen and Moroccans who raided the valuable salt mines in Taghaza.
By 1515, the Songhai Empire had reached its peak, but it would soon enter into a decline. Askia Muhammad maintained numerous concubines and the equally numerous (and jealous) sons they produced played a part in the empire’s downfall. In 1528, a son named Musa rebelled against their elderly and blind father along with some of his brothers. Askia Muhammad was forced to abdicate so that his rebellious son, Askia Musa, could reign.
Askia Musa’s reign was off to a bad start when his own brothers rebelled against his rule. Battles raged between his troops and his brothers, but he still emerged as the victor. Those who were not killed in battle were driven into exile. He killed the rest of his brothers in Gao and ruled the empire until he, too, was killed in 1531.
A cousin named Askia Muhammad Benkan succeeded the tyrannical Askia Musa. Although not as evil as his cousin, the new Askia angered Askia Muhammad’s son Ismail when he sent the elderly ruler to an isolated island. He was deposed by Ismail, and he soon traveled to Mali to seek refuge.
Little is known of Ismail’s reign except that he restored his father in Gao. He died of natural causes in 1539 and was succeeded by another brother, Askia Ishaq I. Ishaq’s reign also became bloody because of his suspicious nature. He died a natural death and was succeeded by Askia Dawud in 1549.
The Songhai Empire experienced a renaissance during Askia Dawud’s reign. He subdued the Fula, Mossi, Borgu, and Gurma peoples. He also led a successful campaign in Mali and subdued the Arab tribesmen who lived near the empire. The Songhai Empire was at its most prosperous during his reign. A devout Muslim, Askia Dawud helped Timbuktu retain its title as the center of Islamic studies in the Sahel region during his reign.
Askia Dawud, with his numerous sons, was bound to repeat Askia Muhammad’s mistake. He died in 1582, and two of his sons immediately scrambled for the throne. His son, Askia Muhammad al-Hajj, emerged as the victor, but he was met with another rebellion led by his brother just one year into his reign. He ruled the Songhai Empire for another three years until he was deposed by his brothers in 1586.
The former emperor’s brothers then elected another brother named Muhammad Bani as the new Askia. He turned out to be not only foolish but also cruel. His brothers rebelled against him and plunged the Songhai Empire into civil war once again. Askia Muhammad Bani died in 1588, and his courtiers immediately announced another brother named Ishaq as the new Askia. The supporters of a rival brother named Sadiq declared him the new Askia, but he and his troops were quickly defeated by Ishaq.
The Moroccan Invasion and the Fall of the Songhai Empire
During the reign of Askia Muhammad al-Hajj, the Saadi sultan of Morocco Ahmad al-Mansur sent an influential merchant as a spy in Gao. While the civil war raged on in 1589, the merchant convinced one of Muhammad Bani’s brothers to leave the area and live in Morocco in peace. However, this misguided prince was immediately arrested when he reached Taghaza and was sent to Marrakesh as a prisoner. The Moroccan authorities then forced the prince to write a letter to the sultan, asking him to depose Askia Ishaq II and take over the Empire.
Sultan al-Mansur then sent an ultimatum to Askia Ishaq II, but was ignored. The Askia was in a campaign in a far-off province when news of the Moroccan invasion reached him. He scrambled to gather allied tribal chiefs, but his messengers were killed along the way. He went back to Gao and hastily assembled an army.
Ishaq ordered a herd of cattle to be released in the battlefield to confuse the Moroccan army. This strategy backfired and it was his troops instead who became confused during the melee. The Songhai troops were routed that day, and the survivors (military and civilians) had to flee for their lives to the other side of the Niger.
The Moroccan army entered the deserted Songhai capital of Gao soon after their victory in the Battle of Tondibi. Ishaq offered to become Morocco’s tributary—an offer which Judar Pasha wanted to accept. However, the sultan wanted the gold mines of the empire for himself and refused Ishaq’s offer when it reached him. Al-Mansur then recalled Judar Pasha and replaced him with another official as governor of the once-mighty Songhai Empire.
Ishaq was then deposed by his own people as Askia and replaced by a man named Muhammad Gao. The reduced Songhai state continued to be ruled by Askias even after the end of the independent empire.
Levtzion, Nehemiah. The Cambridge History of Africa: From c. 1050 to c. 1600. Edited by Roland Oliver. Vol. 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
Terdiman, Moshe. Encyclopedia of African American History. Edited by Leslie Alexander. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010.
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