Songhai Empire (c. 1464–1591)
The Songhai Empire during the 15th and 16th centuries was a kingdom that controlled the Western Sahel. It was one of the most important states in African history at its height. The state is known for its historiographic name, derived from the Songhai, its leading ethnic group and ruling elite.
The Songhai Empire was located in south of the Sahara Desert in Western Africa and along the River Niger. It reached to the Atlantic Ocean at its peak well over 1,000 miles from the country in present-day Niger. The Songhai capital city was the city of Gao which was situated on the banks of the Niger River in modern-day Mali.
The Kingdom of Songhai existed from 1464 till 1591. The Songhai had been ruled by the Mali Empire before the 1400s.
The Songhai Empire came to power first, under Sunni Ali’s leadership. Sunni Ali was the founder of Songhai Empire. The leader of the Malian Empire, who controlled the Songhai, kept him as a political prisoner.
In 1464, Sunni Ali escaped to the town of Gao and took control of the town. He founded the Songhai Empire from Gao City and started to conquer Timbuktu and Djenne’s neighboring regions, including major commercial cities.
Askia Muhammad became the leader of the Songhai in 1493. He brought the Songhai Empire to its peak and established the Askia Dynasty.
Askia Muhammad was a committed Muslim. Islam was made an significant part of the empire under his rule. He captured most of the surrounding lands and took control of the Mali empire’s gold and salt trade.
The Empire of Songhai was divided into five provinces headed by a governor each. All the governors, judges and town leaders were Muslims under Askia Muhammad.
The ruler had absolute influence but he still had ministers working for him various parts of the empire. They also briefed the Emperor on complex subjects.
The Songhai culture had become a mixture of traditional West African beliefs and Islamic religion. Traditions and local customs often governed the daily life, but the law of the land was based on Islam.
The trade in slaves became a significant part of the Songhai Empire. Slaves were being used to aid move goods into Morocco and the Middle East across the Sahara Desert. Throughout Europe and the Americas, slaves were also sold to Europeans for labor. Generally the slaves were captured war prisoners during raids in neighboring areas.
Due to internal strife and civil war the Songhai Empire began to weaken in the mid-1500’s. The Moroccan Army invaded and captured the towns of Timbuktu and Gao in 1591. The empire dissolved, and was split into a number of smaller separate states.