The Ghana Empire was a powerful kingdom, flourishing in West Africa between approximately 300 and 1200 CE.
Who was the Ghana Empire?
The Ghana Empire was a powerful kingdom, flourishing in West Africa between approximately 300 and 1200 CE. They were rich in gold, and for several centuries, they dominated trade routes across the Saharan desert.
Of all the medieval civilizations, the Ghana Empire is one of the least understood. They did not keep any written sources, which makes it hard for historians to study the finer details of Ghanaian culture. Most of what we know comes from Arabic travelers who visited the empire from the 8th century onwards.
Modern Ghana is named after the empire, but they do not share any common territory. Instead, the Ghana Empire’s territory roughly aligned with the modern-day countries of Mauritania, Mali, and Senegal.
Lack of sources
Studying the Ghana Empire is a difficult task for historians. They probably lacked a writing system, which means historians must rely on sources written by Arabic travelers, combined with evidence discovered at archaeological sites.
For example, in the 11th century, al-Bakri described the Ghana capital: “The king has a palace and a number of domed dwellings.” In the 1900s, archaeologists found the ruined city of Koumbi Saleh in Mauritania. They thought it might have been the Ghana capital – then they realized the site does not match al-Bakri’s descriptions.
Comparing Arabic sources, with archaeological remains, is a slow and difficult process. But historians are making progress – we know a lot more now about the Ghana Empire than we did a couple of decades ago.
The origins of the Ghana Empire
Arabic travelers only encountered Ghana in the 8th century, which means everything before that – the origins of the empire – are extremely hard to study.
According to local oral legends, the civilization first appeared at the start of the 4th century, but there is no way to confirm this date. These legends say that the first Ghanaians migrated from the Middle East, but archaeological evidence says otherwise – they probably descended from native West African cultures.
The Soninke people were one of these cultures. They are the ones whose oral legends still speak about Ghana’s origins. Over time, these cultures may have come together into a unified state, and laid the foundations of an empire.
Camels and trade
At some point near the start of the Ghana Empire, they started to domesticate camels. This was a monumental development, and changed the course of their history.
After taming and training these animals, they were able to transport valuable goods across the Sahara Desert on a level never seen before. They established long-distance trade networks with North Africa and the Middle East, massively upgrading the slow and irregular trading networks which existed in the ancient era.
They mainly traded in gold. As an empire, they were lucky enough to control three major gold fields, and foreign traders began to refer to Ghana as the ‘Land of Gold’. They also traded iron, copper and ivory, often in return for salt.
Lords of gold
The Ghana Empire was the ‘Land of Gold’, while its kings were known as the ‘Lords of Gold’. The entire empire grew rich in this period, and the leaders claimed most of the wealth.
There was a rule in the empire, where every gold nugget found in a mine was the property of the current king. Gold dust was allowed to be sold and traded, but nuggets went straight to the palace. This helped the kings to pay for armies, and protect the empire’s borders.
Al-Bakri wrote an evocative account about an unknown Ghanaian king: “He sits in audience […] in a domed pavilion around which stand ten horses covered with gold-embroidered materials. At the door of the pavilion are dogs […] Around their necks they wear collars of gold.”
Not much is known about religious beliefs in the Ghana Empire. By 1154, the empire seems to have converted to Islam; that is what is written by al-Idrisi, an Arabic traveler who spent time in the empire at that time.
Before that, they probably practiced a native, animist religion, which may also have included ancestor worship. Al-Bakri wrote about it: “Around the king’s town are domed buildings and groves and thickets where the sorcerers of these people, men in charge of the religious cult, live.”
The conversion to Islam was probably due to the influence of North African traders, who brought their faith with them when they came to trade. Travelers like al-Bakri were Muslims themselves, and may have introduced the faith to Ghana’s Lords of Gold.
The decline of the Ghana Empire
Just like so many aspects of the Ghana Empire, the cause of their decline is hard to pin down, but most historians have blamed it on the rise of neighboring states.
In the 11th century, a confederation of Saharan Muslims attacked the empire. The Almoravids, as they were known, successfully claimed some of Ghana’s cities, and destabilized desert trade routes. This was probably some kind of holy war; it may even have led to the empire’s conversion to Islam.
The Almoravids were shaken off again a few years later, but the Ghana Empire never recovered its former strength. Some of their subjects began to rise up, and one rebel, Sundiata, dethroned the final Lord of Gold in 1240 CE.
The legacy of the Ghana Empire
When the Ghana Empire finally fell, it brought an end to this wealthy civilization whose history spanned the majority of the medieval period. The Byzantine Empire, in Constantinople, only outlived the Ghanaians by a couple of hundred years.
The legacy of Ghana was far-reaching. The rebel, Sundiata, built the Mali Empire in its place, which generally picked up where the Ghana Empire left off. The Mali emperors were even richer than the Lords of Gold. In the 1300s, Mansa Musa made a pilgrimage to Mecca, gifting handfuls of gold to people he passed along the way.
The region’s prosperity sharply declined in the 1400s, when Europeans colonized West Africa, and stripped the region’s gold fields. In 1957, modern-day Ghana gained independence from Europe, and adopted the Ghana Empire’s name as a symbol of national pride.