With the decline of Mali, the kingdom of Gao reasserted itself as the major kingdom in the Sahel. The people of Songhay were farmers and fisherman who who lived along the Niger River of West Africa. After centuries of resistance, they came were converted to Islam around the 1200s. A Songhay kingdom in the region of Gao
had existed since the eleventh century AD, but it had come under the control of Mali in 1325. In the late fourteenth century, Gao reasserted itself with the Sunni dynasty. Songhay would not fully eclipse Mali until the reign of the Sunni king, Sonni Ali, who reigned from 1464-1492.
Sonni Ali aggressively turned the kingdom of Gao into the Songhay empire. Ali based his military on a cavalry and a highly mobile fleet of ships. With this military, he conquered the cities of Timbuctu and Jenné, the major cities of the Mali. The Berbers, who had always played such a crucial role in the downfall of Sahelian kingdoms, were driven from the region. Roughly around the same year Christopher Columbus had reached the western hemisphere, Askia Muhammad Touré (1493-1528), established the Askia dynasty of Songhay. Muhammad Touré continued Sonni Ali's imperial expansion by seizing the important Saharan oases and conquering Mali itself. From there he conquered Hausaland. The vastness of Askia Mohammed's kingdom covered most of West Africa, larger than all of the European states combined. With literally several thousand cultures under
its control, Songhay ranked as one of the largest empires of the time.
In order to maintain his large empire Muhammad Touré further centralized the government by creating a large and elaborate bureaucracy. He was also the first to standardize weights, measures, and currency, so culture throughout the Songhay began to homogenize. Muhammad Touré was also a fervent Muslim; he replaced traditional Songhay administrators with Muslims in order to Islamicize Songhay society. He also appointed Muslim judges, called qadis , to run the legal system under Islamic legal principles. These programs of conquest, centralization, and standardization were the most ambitious and far-reaching in Africa at the time. It is of note that while the urban centers were dominated by Islam and Islamic culture, the non-urban areas were not Islamic. The vast majority of the Songhay people, around 97%, followed traditional African religions. (Photo courtesy of African Origin of Civilization by Cheikh Anta Diop)
Under the leadership of Askia Mohammed, Timbuctu once again became a prosperous commercial city, reaching a population of 100,000 people. Merchants and traders traveled from Asia, the Middle East and Europe to exchange their exotic wares for the gold of Songhay. Timbuctu gained fame as an intellectual center rivaling many others in the Muslim world. Students from various parts of the world came to Timbuctu's famous University of Sankore to study Law and Medicine. Medieval Europe sent emissaries to the University of Sankore to witness its excellent libraries with manuscripts and to cosult with the learned mathematicians, astronomers, physicians, and jurists whose intellectual endeavors were said to be paid for out of the king's own treasury. Pictured above is a mosque at Timbuctu. (Photo courtesy of WSU)
Unfortunately for Songhay it was to be its very size that would lead to its downfall. A vastly spread empire, it encompassed more territory than could actually be controlled. After the reign of Askia Duad, subject peoples began to revolt. Even Songhay's massive army, said to be over 35,000 soldiers, archers and cavalry, could not keep order. The first major region to declare independence was Hausaland; then much of the Maghreb (Morocco) rebelled and gained control over crucial gold mines. The Moroccans
defeated Songhay in 1591 and the empire quickly collapsed. In 1612, the cities of Songhay fell into general disarray and one the greatest empires of African history disappeared from the world stage forever. Not since this time, has any African nation rose to prominence and wealth as did mighty Songhay.
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