Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

12.6: The Ghana Empire

  • Page ID
    72299
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    Learning Objective

    • Describe the Ghana Empire and the source of its wealth

    Key Points

    • The Ghana Empire, called the Wagadou (or Wagadu) Empire by its rulers, was located in what is now southeastern Mauritania, western Mali, and eastern Senegal. There is no consensus on when precisely it originated. Different traditions identify its beginnings between as early as 100 CE and the 9th century, with most scholars accepting the 8th or 9th century.
    • Ghana’s economic development and eventual wealth was linked to the growth of regular and intensified trans-Saharan trade in gold, salt, and ivory, which allowed for the development of larger urban centers and encouraged territorial expansion to gain control over different trade routes.
    • The empire’s capital is believed to have been at Koumbi Saleh on the rim of the Sahara desert. According to the description of the town left by Al-Bakri in 1067/1068, the capital was actually two cities, but “between these two towns are continuous habitations,” so they might have merged into one.
    • The Ghana Empire lay in the Sahel region to the north of the West African gold fields, and was able to profit by controlling the trans-Saharan gold trade, which turned Ghana into an empire of legendary wealth.
    • Ghana appears to have had a central core region and was surrounded by vassal states. One of the earliest sources notes that “under the king’s authority are a number of kings.” These “kings” were presumably the rulers of the territorial units often called kafu in Mandinka.
    • Although scholars debate how and when Ghana declined and collapsed, it is clear that it was incorporated into the Mali Empire around 1240.

    Terms

    Koumbi Saleh

    The site of a ruined medieval town in southeast Mauritania that may have been the capital of the Ghana Empire.

    the Soninke people

    A Mandé people who descend from the Bafour and are closely related to the Imraguen of Mauritania. They were the founders of the ancient empire of Ghana c. 750–1240 CE. Subgroups include the Maraka and Wangara.

    the Almoravids

    A Berber imperial dynasty of Morocco that formed an empire in the 11th century that stretched over the western Maghreb and Al-Andalus. Founded by Abdallah ibn Yasin, their capital was Marrakesh, a city they founded in 1062. The dynasty originated among the Lamtuna and the Gudala, nomadic Berber tribes of the Sahara, traversing the territory between the Draa, the Niger, and the Senegal rivers.

    Disputed Origins of the Ghana Empire

    The Ghana Empire, called the Wagadou (or Wagadu) Empire by its rulers,  was located in what is now southeastern Mauritania, western Mali, and eastern Senegal. There is no consensus on when precisely it originated, but its development is linked to the changes in trade that emerged throughout the centuries after the introduction of the camel to the western Sahara (3rd century). By the time of the Muslim conquest of North Africa in the 7th century, the camel had changed the earlier, more irregular trade routes into a trade network running from Morocco to the Niger River. This regular and intensified trans-Saharan trade in gold, salt, and ivory allowed for the development of larger urban centers and encouraged territorial expansion to gain control over different trade routes.

    The Ghana ruling dynasty was first mentioned in written records in 830, and thus the 9th century is sometimes identified as the empire’s beginning. In the medieval Arabic sources the word “Ghana” can refer to a royal title, the name of a capital city, or a kingdom. The earliest reference to Ghana as a town is by al-Khuwarizmi, who died around 846. Research on the site of Koumbi Saleh (or Kumbi Saleh), a ruined medieval town in southeast Mauritania that may have been the capital of the Ghana Empire, suggests earlier beginnings. The earliest author to mention Ghana is the Persian astronomer Ibrahim al-Fazari, who, writing at the end of the eighth century, refers to “the territory of Ghana, the land of gold.” From the 9th century, Arab authors mention the Ghana Empire in connection with the trans-Saharan gold trade. Al-Bakri, who wrote in the 11th century, described the capital of Ghana as consisting of two towns six miles apart, one inhabited by Muslim merchants and the other by the king of Ghana. According to the tradition of the Soninke people, they migrated to southeastern Mauritania in the 1st century, and as early as around 100 CE created a settlement that would eventually develop into the Ghana Empire. Other sources identify the beginnings of the empire some time between the 4th century and the mid-8th century.

    image
    The Ghana Empire at its greatest extent. When the Gold Coast in 1957 became the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to regain its independence from colonial rule, it was renamed in honor of the long-gone empire from which the ancestors to the Akan people of modern-day Ghana are thought to have migrated.

    The Capital City: Koumbi Saleh

    The empire’s capital is believed to have been at Koumbi Saleh on the rim of the Sahara desert. According to the description of the town left by Al-Bakri in 1067/1068, the capital was actually two cities, but “between these two towns are continuous habitations,” so they might have merged into one. According to al-Bakri, the major part of the city was called El-Ghaba, and was the residence of the king. It was protected by a stone wall and functioned as the royal and spiritual capital of the empire. It contained a sacred grove of trees used for Soninke religious rites in which priests lived. It also contained the king’s palace, the grandest structure in the city. There was also one mosque for visiting Muslim officials. The name of the other section of the city is not recorded. It was surrounded by wells with fresh water, where vegetables were grown. It had twelve mosques, one of which was designated for Friday prayers, and had a full group of scholars, scribes, and Islamic jurists. Because the majority of these Muslims were merchants, this part of the city was probably its primary business district.

    Economy and Government

    Most of our information about the economy of Ghana comes from al-Bakri. He noted that merchants had to pay a one gold dinar tax on imports of salt and two on exports of salt. Al-Bakri mentioned also copper and “other goods.” Imports probably included products such as textiles and ornaments. Many of the hand-crafted leather goods found in old Morocco also had their origins in the Ghana Empire. Tribute was also received from various tributary states and chiefdoms at the empire’s periphery. The Ghana Empire lay in the Sahel region to the north of the West African gold fields, and was able to profit from controlling the trans-Saharan gold trade. The early history of Ghana is unknown, but there is evidence that North Africa had begun importing gold from West Africa before the Arab conquest in the middle of the 7th century.

    Much testimony on ancient Ghana comes from the recorded visits of foreign travelers, who, by definition, could provide only a fragmentary picture. Islamic writers often commented on the social-political stability of the Empire based on the seemingly just actions and grandeur of the king. Al-Bakri questioned merchants who visited the empire in the 11th century and wrote of the king hearing grievances against officials and being surrounded by great wealth. Ghana appears to have had a central core region and was surrounded by vassal states. One of the earliest sources, al-Ya’qubi, writing in 889/890 (276 AH), noted that “under the king’s authority are a number of kings.” These “kings” were presumably the rulers of the territorial units often called kafu in Mandinka. In al-Bakri’s time, the rulers of Ghana had begun to incorporate more Muslims into government, including the treasurer, his interpreter, and “the majority of his officials.”

    Decline

    Given scarce Arabic sources and the ambiguity of the existing archaeological record, it is difficult to determine when and how Ghana declined and fell. According to Arab tradition, Ghana fell when it was sacked by the Almoravid movement in 1076–1077, but this interpretation has been questioned. Conrad and Fisher (1982) argued that the notion of any Almoravid military conquest is merely perpetuated folklore, derived from a misinterpretation of or limited reliance on Arabic sources. Dierke Lange agreed with the original military incursion theory but argued that this does not preclude Almoravid political agitation, claiming that Ghana’s demise owed much to the latter. Sheryl L. Burkhalter
    argued that while the idea of the conquest was unclear, the influence and success of the Almoravid movement in securing West African gold and circulating it widely necessitated a high degree of political control. Furthermore, the archaeology of ancient Ghana does not show signs of the rapid change and destruction that would be associated with any Almoravid-era military conquests.

    It is assumed that the ensuing war pushed Ghana over the edge, ending the kingdom’s position as a commercial and military power by 1100. It collapsed into tribal groups and chieftaincies, some of which later assimilated into the Almoravids, while others founded the Mali Empire. Despite ambiguous evidence, it is clear that Ghana was incorporated into the Mali Empire around 1240.

    CC licensed content, Shared previously

    12.6: The Ghana Empire is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

    • Was this article helpful?