During the latter half of the 14th century, the Songhai state slowly eclipsed the Mali Empire. One by one, the Songhai seized neighboring territories until it, too, became an empire. It dominated a portion of northwestern Africa for the next 200 years. The Songhai Empire fell in 1591 after years of ineffective rule and the invasion of the Moroccans. These events are recorded on the Bible Timeline Poster with World History during that time.
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The Rise of the Songhai State
The Songhai state owed its origins to the Do farmers, Gow hunters, and Sorko fishermen who occupied the southern banks of the Niger bend. These people came together and built their first town called Kukiya. During the 7th century AD, Berbers who fled persecution sought refuge in Kukiya. They were the ancestors of the Za Dynasty, and they succeeded in ruling Kukiya many years after their arrival.
During the 12th century, the Za Dynasty relocated the capital to the city of Gao. Its rulers controlled the area of Gao up to the Dendi region in the south. The state became wealthy after its rulers turned Gao into a major stop in the trans-Saharan trade. The Za Dynasty ruler Kossoi converted to Islam between 1009 and 1019, but the most of his people retained their native religion.
The Domination of the Mali Empire and the Rise of the Sonni Dynasty
Between 1275 and 1300, the Mandinka army of the Mali Empire conquered the Songhai state and its territories. The Za king became a Mali Empire tributary, while Mandinka governors administered the territory on the Mansa’s behalf. Around 1324 or 1325, the famed Mansa Musa built a mosque in the Songhai city of Gao.
During the domination of the Mali Empire, some Za Dynasty princes fled from the Mandinka rulers and founded the Sonni Dynasty. It was probably based in Kukiya or in Gao itself, but it gradually eclipsed the Za Dynasty in power. Just as the Mali Empire was declining, the Sonni Dynasty started to emerge as a powerful force in Songhai areas.
It was during the reign of the great Sonni Ali that the Songhai state became an empire. Sonni Ali reigned from 1464 to 1492 and Muslim chroniclers considered him to be a tyrant. He conquered the ancient cities of Jenne, Macina, and Timbuktu during his reign. Sonni Ali was accused of using magic to terrify and conquer neighboring peoples. He also repressed the Muslim scholars of Timbuktu. The Songhai people, however, considered him as the greatest ruler after he conquered the Bariba, Mossi, and Dogon peoples.
During his reign, the Songhai Empire stretched from Dendi in the south to Gao in the north. It controlled the trans-Saharan trade which contributed to its prosperity. Sonni Ali died in 1492, and his son, Sonni Ber, succeeded him. A civil war ensued after Sonni Ber refused to convert to Islam. One of his father’s generals, Muhammad Ture, defeated Sonni Ber and seized the Songhai throne in 1493. He was a Soninke from the city of a Takrur in the former Ghana Empire. Muhammad Ture took the title of askiya and became the first of the Islamic rulers of the empire.
The Askiya Dynasty
Askiya Muhammad was considered to be a good Muslim ruler. He continued the expansion of the empire and was noted for his pilgrimage to Mecca. He appointed a kadi (judge) for each town and encouraged Islamic scholarship. The Songhai Empire became prosperous during his reign, and it was known as the empire’s golden age. The Askiya Dynasty’s capital at that time was at Tindirma near Timbuktu.
One of his sons overthrew Askiya Muhammad when he grew old and blind. Some of his sons then took turns in ruling the Songhai Empire after Askiya Muhammad’s deposition. The empire’s decline, however, also started during their reign. One of his sons, Askiya Ishaq I, reigned from 1539 to 1549. His reign was marked by a conflict with the Moroccans who owned the salt mines of Taghaza. The Moroccan sultan Muhammad al-Shaykh (al-Arak) asked Ishaq I to give up the salt mines, but the Songhai king attempted to intimidate the Moroccans by invading the Dara Valley.
The conflict continued during the reign of Ishaq I’s son, Askiya Dawud (1549-1582/83). The Moroccan sultan continued to press his claims to the salt mines, but it was temporarily solved when Askiya Dawud sent him large quantities of gold as payment. The Moroccans, however, were far from pacified. They invaded during the reign of Askiya Muhammad III. The king died in 1586, but his successor could not beat back the Moroccans after civil war ensued in the Songhai Empire. By 1591, the Songhai Empire had collapsed.
Conrad, David C. Empires of Medieval West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009.
Ohaegbulam, Festus Ugboaja. Towards an Understanding of the African Experience from Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1990.
Netton, Ian Richard. The Encyclopedia of Islamic Civilization and Religion. London: Routledge, 2008.
Niane, Djibril Tamsir, and Joseph Ki-Zerbo. Africa From the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century. University of California Press, 1997.
Shillington, Kevin. History of Africa. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
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