The Songhai Empire (also transliterated as Songhay) was a state that dominated the western Sahel in the 15th and 16th century. At its peak, it was one of the largest states in African history. The state is known by its historiographical name, derived from its leading ethnic group and ruling elite, the Songhai. Sonni Ali established Gao as the capital of the empire, although a Songhai state had existed in and around Gao since the 11th century. Other important cities in the empire were Timbuktu and Djenné, conquered in 1468 and 1475 respectively, where urban-centered trade flourished. Initially, the empire was ruled by the Sonni dynasty (c. 1464–1493), but it was later replaced by the Askiya dynasty (1493–1591).
During the second half of the 13th century, Gao and the surrounding region had grown into an important trading center and attracted the interest of the expanding Mali Empire. Mali conquered Gao towards the end of the 13th century; Gao would remain under Malian hegemony until the late 14th century. But as the Mali Empire started to disintegrate, the Songhai reasserted control of Gao. Songhai rulers subsequently took advantage of the weakened Mali Empire to expand Songhai rule. Under the rule of Sonni Ali, the Songhai surpassed the Malian Empire in area, wealth, and power, absorbing vast areas of the Mali Empire and reached its greatest extent. His son and successor, Sonni Bāru (1492–1493), was a less successful ruler of the empire, and as such was overthrown by Muhammad Ture (1493–1528; called Askia), one of his father's generals, who instituted political and economic reforms throughout the empire.
A series of plots and coups by Askia's successors forced the empire into a period of decline and instability. Askia's relatives attempted to govern the empire, but political chaos and several civil wars within the empire ensured the empire's continued decline, particularly during the brutal rule of Askia Ishaq I (1539–1549). However, the empire experienced a period of stability and a string of military successes during the reign of Askia Daoud (1549–1582/1583). Ahmad al-Mansur, the Moroccan sultan at the time, demanded tax revenues from the empire's salt mines. Askia Daoud responded by sending a large quantity of gold as gift in an attempt to appease the sultan. Askia Ishaq II (1588–1591) ascended to power in a long dynastic struggle following the death of Askia Daoud. He would be the last ruler of the empire. In 1590, al-Mansur took advantage of the recent civil strife in the empire and sent an army under the command of Judar Pasha to conquer the Songhai and to gain control of the Trans-Saharan trade routes. After the disastrous defeat at the Battle of Tondibi (1591), the Songhai Empire collapsed. The Dendi Kingdom succeeded the empire as the continuation of Songhai culture and society.
In ancient times there were several different groups of people that collectively formed the Songhai identity. Among the first people to settle in the region of Gao were the Sorko people, who established small settlements on the banks of the Niger River. The Sorko fashioned boats and canoes from the wood of the cailcedrat tree and fished and hunted from their boats and provided water-borne transport for goods and people. Another group of people that moved into the area to exploit the Niger's resources were the Gow people. The Gow were hunters and specialized in hunting river animals such as crocodile and hippopotamus. The other group of people known to have inhabited the area were the Do people. They were farmers who raised crops in the fertile lands bordering the river. Sometime before the 10th century, these early settlers were subjugated by more powerful, horse-riding Songhai speakers, who established control over the area. All these groups of people gradually began to speak the same language and they and their country eventually became known as the Songhai.
The earliest dynasty of kings is obscure and most of the information about this dynasty comes from an ancient cemetery near a village called Saney, close to Gao. Inscriptions on a few of the tombstones in the cemetery indicate that this dynasty ruled in the late 11th and early 12th centuries and that the rulers from this dynasty bore the title of malik. Other tombstones mention a second dynasty, whose rulers bore the title zuwa. There is only myth and legend to describe zuwa origins. The Tarikh al-Sudan (the History of the Sudan), written in Arabic around 1655, provides an early history of the Songhai as handed down through oral tradition. The chronicle reports that the legendary founder of the Za or the Zuwa dynasty was called Za Alayaman, who originally came from Yemen and settled in the town of Kukiya. What happened to the Zuwa rulers is not recorded.
The camel-riding Sanhaja tribes were among the early people of the Niger bend region. They were locally known as the Tuareg. These tribes rode out of the great Sahara Desert and established trading settlements near the Niger. As time passed, North African traders crossed the Sahara and joined the Tuaregs in their Niger bend settlements. They all conducted business with the people living near the river. As trade in the region increased, the Songhai chiefs took control of the profitable commerce around what was to later become Gao. Between 750 and 950, as the Ghana Empire prospered as the "land of gold" far to the west, the trading centre at Gao became an increasingly important terminus for trade across the Sahara. The trade goods included gold, salt, slaves, kola nuts, leather, dates, and ivory. And by the 10th century, the Songhai chiefs had established Gao as a small kingdom, taking control of the people living along the trade routes. At around 1300, Gao had become so prosperous that it attracted the attention of the Mali Empire and its rulers. Gao was subsequently conquered by them and Mali profited from Gao's trade and collected taxes from its kings until about the 1430s. Troubles in the Mali homelands made it impossible to maintain control of Gao. Ibn Battuta visited Gao in 1353 when the town was a part of the Mali Empire. He arrived by boat from Timbuktu on his return journey from visiting the capital of the empire:
Then I travelled to the town of Kawkaw, which is a great town on the Nīl [Niger], one of the finest, biggest, and most fertile cities of the Sūdān. There is much rice there, and milk, and chickens, and fish, and the cucumber, which has no like. Its people conduct their buying and selling with cowries, like the people of Mālī.
Following the death of Mansa Sulayman in 1360, disputes over the succession weakened the Mali Empire. Furthermore, the ruinous reign of Mari Djata II left the empire in bad financial shape, but the empire itself passed intact to Musa II. However, real power in the empire was in the hands of Mari Djata, Musa's kankoro-sigui. He put down a Tuareg rebellion in Takedda and attempted to quell the Songhai rebellion in Gao. While he was successful in Takedda, he did not manage to re-subjugate Gao, and so the Songhai effectively retained their independence. During his reign, Sonni Ali would be the one to expand the small kingdom of Gao into an enormous empire.
Sonni Ali was the first king of the Songhai Empire and the 15th ruler of the Manay dynasty. He worked his hardest to get the Songhai empire out of its rocky start. The Muslim leaders of Timbuktu asked him to drive out the invaders. Once Sunni Ali drove them out, he took this chance and took over Timbuktu. Soon, he had almost all the trading cities along the Niger River.
In the decades following the death of, disputes over succession weakened the Mali Empire, and in the 1430s Songhai, previously a Mali dependency, gained independence under the Sonni Dynasty. Around thirty years later Sonni Sulayman Dama attacked Mema, the Mali province west of Timbuktu, paving the way for his successor, Sonni Ali, to turn his country into one of the greatest empires Saharan Africa has ever seen.
Sonni Ali reigned from 1464 to 1492, after the death of Sulayman Dama. Like Songhai kings before him, Ali was a Muslim. In the late 1460s, he conquered many of the Songhai's neighboring states, including what remained of the Mali Empire. Sonni Ali was considered the empire's most formidable military strategist and conqueror. Under his rule Songhai reached a size of over 1,400,000 square kilometers.
During his campaigns for expansion, Ali conquered many lands, repelling attacks from the Mossi to the south and overcoming the Dogon people to the north. He annexed Timbuktu in 1468, after Islamic leaders of the town requested his assistance in overthrowing marauding Tuaregs who had taken the city following the decline of Mali. However, Ali met stark resistance after setting his eyes on the wealthy and renowned trading town of Djenné (also known as Jenne). After a persistent seven-year siege, he was able to forcefully incorporate it into his vast empire in 1473, but only after having starved its citizens into surrender.
The invasion of Sonni Ali and his forces caused harm to the city of Timbuktu, and he was described as an intolerant tyrant in many African accounts. According to The Cambridge History of Africa the Islamic historian Al-Sa'df expresses this sentiment in describing his incursion on Timbuktu:
Sunni Ali entered Timbuktu, committed gross iniquity, burned and destroyed the town, and brutally tortured many people there. When Akilu heard of the coming of Sonni Ali, he brought a thousand camels to carry the fuqaha of Sankore and went with them to Walata..... The Godless tyrant was engaged in slaughtering those who remained in Timbuktu and humiliated them.
Sonni Ali conducted a repressive policy against the scholars of Timbuktu, especially those of the Sankore region who were associated with the Tuareg. With his control of critical trade routes and cities such as Timbuktu, Sonni Ali brought great wealth to the Songhai Empire, which at its height would surpass the wealth of Mali.
In oral tradition, Sonni Ali is often known as a powerful politician and great military commander. Whatever the case may have been, his legend consists of him being a fearless conqueror who united a great empire, sparking a legacy that is still intact today. Under his reign Djenné and Timbuktu became great centers of learning.
After taking the throne Muhammad is known as Askia the Great, even though he had no real right to be the king. Not only was he not in the royal family blood line, he did not hold the sacred symbols which entitled one to become a ruler. Furthermore, he was most likely a descendant of Soninke lineage rather than Songhai, which means that by Songhai standards his family background would have not allowed him to be King. But Askia managed to bypass that law and take the throne.
He organized the territories that Sonni Ali had previously conquered and extended his power as far to the south and east. He was not as tactful as Ali in the means of the military, but he did find success in alliances. Because of these alliances he was able to capture and conquer more vastly. Unlike Ali, however, he was a devout Muslim. Askia opened religious schools, constructed mosques, and opened up his court to scholars and poets from throughout the Muslim world. He sent his children to an Islamic School and enforced Islamic practices. Yet he was tolerant of other religions and did not force Islam on his people.
Like Mansa Musa, Askia also completed one of the Five Pillars of Islam by taking a hajj to Mecca, and, also like the former, went with an overwhelming amount of gold. He donated some to charity and used the rest for lavish gifts to impress the people of Mecca with the wealth of the Songhai. Islam was so important to him that, upon his return, he recruited Muslim scholars from Egypt and Morocco to teach at the Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu as well as setting up many other learning centers throughout his empire. Among his great accomplishments was an interest in astronomical knowledge which led to a flourishing of astronomers and observatories in the capital.
While not as renowned as his predecessor for his military tactics, he initiated many campaigns, notably declaring Jihad against the neighboring Mossi. Even after subduing them he did not force them to convert to Islam. His army consisted of war canoes, expert cavalry, protective armor, iron tipped weapons, and an organized militia.
Not only was he a patron of Islam, he also was gifted in administration and encouraging trade. He centralized the administration of the empire and established an efficient bureaucracy which was responsible for, among other things, tax collection and the administration of justice. He also demanded that canals be built in order to enhance agriculture, which would eventually increase trade. More important than anything he did for trade was the introduction of weights and measures and the appointment of an inspector for each of Songhai's important trading centers. During his reign Islam became more widely entrenched, trans-Saharan trade flourished, and the Saharan salt mines of Taghaza were brought within the boundaries of the empire. Unfortunately, as Askia the Great grew older, his power declined. In 1528 his sons revolted against him and declared Musa, one of Askia's many sons, as king. Following Musa's overthrow in 1531, Songhai's empire went into decline. Following multiple attempts at governing the Empire by Askia's sons and grandsons there was little hope for a return to the power it once held. Between the political chaos and multiple civil wars within the empire, it came as a surprise when Morocco invaded Songhai unexpectedly. The main reason for the Moroccan invasion of Songhai was to seize control of and revive the trans-Saharan trade in salt and gold. The Songhai military, during Askia's reign, consisted of full-time soldiers, but the king never modernized his army. The Empire fell to the Moroccans and their firearms in 1591.
At its peak, the Songhai city of Timbuktu became a thriving cultural and commercial center. Arab, Italian, and Jewish merchants all gathered for trade. A revival of Islamic scholarship also took place at the university in Timbuktu. However, Timbuktu was but one of a myriad of cities throughout the empire. By 1500, the Songhai Empire covered over 1.4 million square kilometers.
Economic trade existed throughout the Empire, due to the standing army stationed in the provinces throughout the empire. Central to the regional economy were independent gold fields. The Julla (merchants) would form partnerships, and the state would protect these merchants and the port cities of the Niger. It was a very strong trading kingdom, known for its production of practical crafts as well as religious artifacts.
The Songhai economy was based on a clan system. The clan a person belonged to ultimately decided one's occupation. The most common were metalworkers, fishermen, and carpenters. Lower caste participants consisted of mostly non-farm working immigrants, who at times were provided special privileges and held high positions in society. At the top were noblemen and direct descendants of the original Songhai people, followed by freemen and traders. At the bottom were war captives and European slaves obligated to labor, especially in farming. James Olson describes the labor system as resembling modern day unions, with the Empire possessing craft guilds that consisted of various mechanics and artisans.
Criminal justice in Songhai was based mainly, if not entirely, on Islamic principles, especially during the rule of Askia Muhammad. The local qadis were in addition to this, with their responsibility being to maintain order by following Sharia law under Islamic domination, according to the Qur'an. An additional qadi was noted as a necessity in order to settle minor disputes between immigrant merchants. Kings usually did not judge a defendant; however, under special circumstances, such as acts of treason, they felt an obligation to do so and thus exert their authority. Results of a trial were announced by the "town crier" and punishment for most trivial crimes usually consisted of confiscation of merchandise or even imprisonment, since various prisons existed throughout the Empire.
Qadis worked at the local level and were positioned in important trading towns, such as Timbuktu and Djenné. The Qadi was appointed by the king and dealt with common-law misdemeanors according to Sharia law. The Qadi also had the power to grant a pardon or offer refuge. The Assara-munidios, or "enforcers" worked along the lines of a police commissioner whose sole duty was to execute sentencing. Jurists were mainly composed of those representing the academic community; professors were often noted as taking administrative positions within the Empire and many aspired to be qadis.
Upper classes in society converted to Islam while lower classes often continued to follow traditional religions. Sermons emphasized obedience to the king. Timbuktu was the educational capital. Sonni Ali established a system of government under the royal court, later to be expanded by Askia Muhammad, which appointed governors and mayors to preside over local tributary states, situated around the Niger valley. Local chiefs were still granted authority over their respective domains as long as they did not undermine Songhai policy.
Tax was imposed onto peripheral chiefdoms and provinces to ensure the dominance of Songhai, and in return these provinces were given almost complete autonomy. Songhai rulers only intervened in the affairs of these neighboring states when a situation became volatile, usually an isolated incident. Each town was represented by government officials, holding positions and responsibilities similar to today's central bureaucrats.
Under Askia Muhammad, the Empire saw increased centralization. He encouraged learning in Timbuktu by rewarding its professors with larger pensions as an incentive. He also established an order of precedence and protocol and was noted as a noble man who gave back generously to the poor. Under his policies, Muhammad brought much stability to Songhai and great attestations of this noted organization are still preserved in the works of Maghrebin writers such as Leo Africanus, among others.
Following the death of Emperor Askia Daoud, a civil war of succession weakened the Empire, leading Sultan Ahmad I al-Mansur of the Saadi Dynasty of Morocco to dispatch an invasion force (years earlier, armies from Portugal had attacked Morocco, and failed miserably, but the Moroccan coffers were on the verge of economic depletion and bankruptcy, as they needed to pay for the defenses used to hold off the siege) under the eunuch Judar Pasha. Judar Pasha was a Spaniard by birth, but had been captured as an infant and educated at the Saadi court. After a march across the Sahara desert, Judar's forces captured, plundered, and razed the salt mines at Taghaza and moved on to Gao. When Emperor Askia Ishaq II (r. 1588–1591) met Judar at the 1591 Battle of Tondibi, Songhai forces, despite vastly superior numbers, were routed by a cattle stampede triggered by the Saadi's gunpowder weapons. Judar proceeded to sack Gao, Timbuktu and Djenné, destroying the Songhai as a regional power. Governing so vast an empire proved too much for the Saadi Dynasty, however, and they soon relinquished control of the region, letting it splinter into dozens of smaller kingdoms. The Songhai people themselves established the Dendi Kingdom.