Saturday, December 6, 2014

Ghana Empire: Land of Gold

Empire of Ghana
West Africa saw the rise of powerful and very wealthy kingdoms and even empire. Various terrain and environment existed within the African continent. But rivers provided fertile lands capable of supporting the rise of civilization. Already, during the time of the ancient, the Nile River permitted the rise of the Egyptian civilization in the Saharan desert of Africa. And in West Africa, the rivers of Senegal and Niger gave rise to several kingdoms as well. One of the first kingdoms that rose prominently in the region was the Ghana Empire.

Ghana Empire of the Soninke People dominated West Africa for centuries with its military and economy. The Ghana Empire was not located in modern day Ghana. It was situated further north, to the area of western Mali and Southern Mauritania, north of the Senagal and Niger River. The Ghana Empire occupied the lands between the Saharan desert in the north and forest region in the south. Its lands were part of the sahel and also savanna lands known as bilad-al-Sudan.

Much of the history and foundation of the Ghana Empire was shrouded in mystery. Only records of Muslim travelers and archaeological findings provided much of the information about the Empire. During the 8th century, Ibrahim al-Fazari mentioned Ghana as the “land of gold.” Then, in the 11th century, other Islamic geographers al-Bakri and ibn Hawkal recounts tales of travelers who had been in the Ghana Empire.

Nevertheless, it was accepted that the Soninke People dominated and ruled the fabled Empire of Ghana. The Soninke people occupied the Sudanese lands. They lived by farming and grazing, using the rivers and the grazing lands of the Savanna. How did the Soninke people established the Ghana? It was never clear. But by the 4th century, they were already a powerful and wealthy kingdom in the region.

The name Ghana came from the title of its ruler. The Empire had many names, to the Soninke People, it was known as the Wagadu. To the Arabs, they called it Aoukar. But it was better known to many as Ghana. Ghana was the greatest power in the Empire. Ghana meant war king or war chief. Later on, the title became synonymous to his domain.

The center of the Ghana Empire during its existence was Kumbi Saleh. Located southwest of Timbuktu and north of modern day capital of Mali, Bamoko, it was the center of commerce, religion, education, and government of the Ghana Empire. At its height during 1200, it became the home of about 15,000 people. Kumbi Saleh was divided into two parts, six miles apart. One side of the city was the Muslim section. It was the center of Islam in West Africa. Hosted 10 mosques and numerous Islamic schools. Islamic scholars and traders alike flocked the town to engage in commercial and intellectual activities. The Muslim section had stone houses habited by Muslim subjects of the empire. In the other side of Kumbi Saleh was the Soninke section of the city known as al Ghaba or forest because of wood teaks that served as fences of the town. It was the political center of the city and the Empire itself. The Ghana or the ruler resided in this part of the city. At its center was the palace of the Ghana made of stones with glass windows and surrounded by fences. But with the exception of the palace. Most Soninke still lived in their traditional mud-made huts. Officials and servants resided also in al-Ghaba. Also, al-Ghaba differ in religion in contrast to the Muslim section of Kumbi Saleh. In al-Ghaba traditional religion continued to be practice. Pagan worship of idols known as dakakir remained to be practice by the Ghana and other high officials.  

The military expansion of the Ghana Empire also was mysterious as its extent. But it was accepted that it was large enough to maintain a large army composed of 200,000 men. 40,000 of which were made of archers. It also had several cavalry units. This large army helped to maintain the Empire for centuries.

Another factor in keeping the empire was an efficient administrative system under the Ghana. Off course, the Ghana, the warlord of the Empire, must possess military, commercial and political skills. But the uniqueness of the Ghana laid in its succession order. In most other civilizations around the world, the eldest son of the King was the heir to throne. However, in Ghana, it was matrilineal. It meant that the eldest son of the eldest sister of the King would be the first in the line of succession. To managed different localities, the empire were divided into provinces known as a’mal. The Ghana relied on governors and local kings to rule efficiently. Local governors and king kept their position by working well and also keeping their loyalty to the Ghana.

Another secret of the Ghana Empire was its wealthy economy. Farming and grazing continued as a traditional source of livelihood, especially for the Soninke People. But most of its revenue came from the lucrative Trans-Saharan trade. Kumbi Saleh in particular laid in the western end of the trade route. Ghana controlled the trade of salt, gold, and iron. Iron, in particular, was vital to the strength of its Empire. It gave the advantage to Ghana to rise as a powerful empire. Evidence showed that by 400, Soninke developed its iron technology and had the capability to produce tools and weapons. Tools for mining and agricultural activities and for weapons for the military. But the most significant and well-known asset of the Ghana Empire was gold. Much of its gold mines were located south of the Empire, in the Wangara region. By law, the Ghana owned the mines and every single gold nugget from it. Only the gold dust was allowed for trade. With the control of trade and ownership of large amounts of gold, the Ghana as also known as the Kya Magan or Master of Gold and Ghana as the "land of gold." With extensive trade of many items, especially gold and salt, taxation also became a major source of revenue. Transit duties became a major factor to the wealth of Ghana. For every donkey loaded with salt being imported into Ghana must pay 1 dinar, while 2 dinar for donkey with salt leaving the Empire.

By the middle of the 11th century, Ghana continued to be the wealthiest kingdom in the whole continent. During the reign of Tunka Manin (reigning 1062 – 1076) saw high standards of living. Many in Kumbi Saleh wore exquisite clothes made of silk, cotton, and other types of textile traded along the Trans-Saharan trade routes. Stone houses dominated the capital city. However, the wealth of Ghana became the envy of many of its neighbors.

One in particular was the Almoravids from the neighboring Morocco in the north. For decades, under the predecessor of Tunka Manin fought the Almoravids with ferocity. However, in 1076, the Ghana army could not hold against the intensifying onslaught of the Almoravids. Kumbi Saleh fell to the hands of the Almoravids. And for the next ten years it became a dominion of the Almoravids. But when the Almoravids left in 1086, the age of glory and wealth also left. The whole Ghana Empire disintegrated into different principalities. The most prominent were the Susu people and the Peul. In 1200, the Susu invaded Kumbi Saleh. The Susu could not restore order because of constant war against its neighbors who also consolidated to different kingdoms. It was only in 1240, when Kumbi Saleh and Ghana itself was eclipsed by a new empire – the Empire of Mali.

Ghana was just a start of a line of civilization that rose in the West African region. Ghana was a testament that Africa was not a backwater in world history. But rather, should be treated equally because of its wealth that match like any other civilization during that time. Ghana’s wealth and prestige inspired the rise of many other civilization – the Mali Empire and later even the Songhai Empire.

See also:

Appiah, K. Encyclopedia of Africa. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Asante, M. The History of Africa: The Quest for Eternal Harmony. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Diagram Group. Encyclopedia of African People. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Imperato, P. & G. Imperato. Historical Dictionary of Mali. Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2008.

Shillington, K. (ed.). Encyclopedia of African History. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn Taylor, 2005.

Stearns, P. (ed.). World History in Documents: A Comparative Reader. New York: New York University Press, 2008.

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