The Ancient Songhai Empire
Posted October 19, 2011
• The Songhai empire at its peak covered 540,543 square miles, representing the largest African empire in history at its height, second only to the Mongolian empire worldwide.
• Songhai society was organized by an occupational caste system; occupation was related to particular clans. Noblemen were at the top, followed by freemen and merchants, while metalworkers, carpenters and other craftsmen occupied the middle tiers, each with their own craft guilds. War captives, slaves and agricultural laborers were on the bottom.
• Besides gold and salt, the empire also traded in copper, slaves, kola nuts and ivory from the south, and horses and cloth from North Africa. Cowry shells were the main currency.
• Timbuktu was a center of Islamic education, its Sankore University administered directly by the emperor. Arabic, Quranic studies and Islamic law were basic subjects, with classical “sciences” of grammar, mathematics, geography, history, physics, astronomy, and chemistry comprising higher degree levels.
• Timbuktu’s location on a major trade route enabled the university to acquire a wealth of books from throughout the Islamic world, and libraries abounded.
• After taking the hajj to Mecca, one emperor recruited Moroccan and Egyptian scholars to improve Islamic learning.
• The Sultan of Morocco invaded the Songhai empire in 1591, taking advantage of weakness caused by a civil war over succession. Morocco’s early gunpowder weapons overcame the Songhai’s superior numbers, and three major trade centers were sacked.
• While the empire never fully recovered, the Songhai people maintained a sizable kingdom that endured until the advent of European colonialism.