Africa, Civilization, And The Wider World
Edited By: R. A. Guisepi
We have viewed the development of Egyptian civilization in conjunction
with the parallel developments of the Fertile Crescent, yet we should also
recognize that many aspects of Egyptian life, such as ideas about religion and
kingship, strongly resembled those of other African societies. There is much
debate on whether the Egyptian idea of the king as a divine being with special
powers over natural phenomena (an idea also found in some West African
kingdoms), is due to the common origins of both or whether these concepts were
diffused from Egypt to other areas of Africa. There are other striking
parallels, such as brother-sister marriage among rulers or in the rituals of
taking authority, that seem to tie cultures of sub-Saharan Africa to Egypt.
Whatever the African origins of Egyptian civilization (a matter of
considerable controversy), there is no doubt of extensive contact between
Egypt and peoples living southward along the Nile valley in the Sudan and
Axum: A Christian Kingdom.
For a short period, from 751 B.C. until the invasion of Egypt by the
Assyrians in 666 B.C., the kings of Meroe also ruled as pharaohs of Egypt.
Meroe possessed the ores and fuels needed to produce iron on a large scale.
That technology, and its extensive trade with Egypt and the Mediterranean,
allowed Meroe to flourish. But Meroe was not alone. Other town-based societies
also existed in the region of the Sudan and Ethiopia.
The kingdom of Axum in the Ethiopian highlands, which eventually
surpassed Meroe in importance around the 1st century A.D., introduces another
cultural stream into the history of Africa. Axum seems to have received strong
influences and perhaps settlers from the Arabian peninsula. Its population
probably consisted of a mixture of these immigrants and peoples of Eritrea and
the Ethiopian highlands. Axum became a great city with large palaces and
monuments. It developed a writing system based on a South Arabian script.
Geez, the language of the people of Axum, is a Semitic language, but Axum's
rulers also spoke Greek and perhaps used it as a language of trade.
Axum was a powerful state. It controlled a number of ports, such as
Adulis along the Red Sea coast, and it participated in the commerce of the
Indian Ocean where its ivory, salt, and slaves were in great demand. It also
traded with Alexandrian Egypt, and eventually with Rome, Byzantium, and India.
Those contacts led to a fusion of cultural elements. By about A.D. 200, Axum
was involved in military and political affairs across the Red Sea on the
Arabian peninsula. By the middle of the 3d century A.D., Axum had defeated
Meroe and emerged as the dominant power in the horn of Africa. The history of
the kingdom of Axum underlines the cross-fertilization of cultures across the
Around A.D. 350, Ezana, the king of Axum, converted to Christianity, and
that religion spread among Axum's peoples over the following centuries.
Monasteries and churches were established, the Bible was translated, and a
religious literature was developed that linked the Queen of Sheba, wife of
King Solomon of the Old Testament, to Axum and demonstrated the area's
supposed progression from Judaism to Christianity. All this established a
certain religious legitimacy to the negus, or ruler of Axum. The form of
Christianity that spread among the Axumites during the 5th and 6th centuries
A.D. increased the kingdom's ties to the Greeks of the Eastern Mediterranean,
although eventually Ethiopian Christianity became somewhat isolated.
All this indicates considerable influence and contact between this
African kingdom and the outside world well before the arrival of Islam. The
civilization of Axum became the basis for much of the distinctive culture of
Christian Ethiopia in the centuries that followed. Here, as along the
Mediterranean coast of Africa where Phoenician, Greek, and Roman settlements
were established, or up the Nile valley the ideas, techniques, and material
goods from the Mediterranean and western Asia mixed with African peoples and
Finally, we can mention the area of the grassy savanna extending across
the Sudan into West Africa. The defeated leaders of Meroe apparently moved
westward into the Sudan and reestablished themselves at Darfur and Kordofan in
the 4th century A.D. Their influence may have extended even farther to the
west. There are a number of accounts and myths associated with royal families
and ancient kingdoms in West Africa that point to Egypt, Arabia, and even
Persia as the original home of the founders. But in West Africa there is also
evidence of long-term contact with the Mediterranean world directly across the
Sahara. These long-distance external influences were paralleled by an extended
period of internal development among peoples of West Africa, such as the
Yoruba, Mande, and Fulbe.
The peoples of the savanna took advantage of their location to serve as
intermediaries between the southern gold-producing forest zone in the region
of the Niger and Senegal river valleys and the markets of North Africa.
Trading salt for gold to the peoples of the forest, and then sending the gold
northward along established caravan routes that crossed the Sahara, a number
of states took form before the 8th century A.D. Strung in a line across the
southern edge of the desert, the states of Takur, Ghana, Gao, and Kanem were
located to serve as intermediaries in the trans-Sahara trade.
The trans-Sahara trade was the basis for the growth of the first great
sub-Saharan state, the empire of Ghana, which lay squarely astride the route
of exchange. This was a trading state created by the West African Soninke
people, perhaps with some participation by the nomadic North African Tuaregs.
Early Arab chroniclers wrote that in Ghana, 20 kings had ruled prior to the
time of Muhammad, which was a way of saying that the kingdom was an ancient
one. By the time Arab visitors began to write about Ghana and other Sudanic
states in the 9th century A.D., these states were already well-established
kingdoms, the product of their advantageous geographic position and apparently
a joint heritage of internal development and external influences and trade.
The external influences increased considerably with the arrival of Islam. In
A.D. 985, the king of Gao converted to Islam and set in motion a series of
conversions among the elites of the West African states. Conversion of the
masses proceeded at a slower rate.
The ancient kingdom of Ghana (not to be confused with the modern nation
of Ghana) lay mostly within the boundaries of the present-day Republic of
Mali. It became a major trading state, receiving salt, cloth, and manufactured
goods from North Africa and the Mediterranean in return for gold. The power of
Ghana depended on its location and control over subject states and provinces,
especially Bambuk and other gold-producing regions in the forest zones to the
south. By the 9th century A.D., Ghana was known as a major source of gold
within the Mediterranean world. In A.D. 1067, al-Bakri, a scholar from Muslim
Spain, wrote a description of Ghana that provides us a view of its life and
power. At that time the capital of Ghana, Kumbi Saleh, appears to have been
divided into two adjoining cities about six miles apart. One was occupied by
the king and his court, surrounded by the dwellings of the people. This city
also contained buildings for worship and shrines to the local deities. The
adjoining city was inhabited by long-distance Muslim traders, religious
leaders, and scholars. Its mosques and houses were built in the style of the
mud-walled architecture of North Africa. Together, the population of these
cities may have reached 20,000.
The gold and salt trades were taxed by the king of Ghana, and these taxes
provided the revenues of the kingdom. The ealth allowed for growth of the
kingdom and thus its power. The historian al-Bakri reported that Ghana could
field an army of 200,000 men. Even if we allow for exaggeration, it should be
noted that the Normans invaded England at about this time with fewer than 5000
men, so al-Bakri's statement indicates the existence of a powerful and
well-organized kingdom. The accounts of Ghana suggest the existence of a large
kingdom dominated by the royal family and a group of elite retainers, whose
strength rested on control of the trade and on the tribute collected from
The image of Ghana in contemporaneous Arab sources was one of fabled
wealth. The account of al-Bakri stated that the king had a monopoly on all
gold nuggets found, but that the people could gather as much gold dust as they
wanted for trade. His description of a royal audience noted guards with gold
and silver ornaments and weapons, the royal princes in attendance splendidly
attired with gold plaited in their hair, and the doors of the chamber guarded
by "dogs of excellent breed, who never leave the king's seat; they wear
collars of gold and silver, ornamented with the same metals." The king was
known as Kaya-Maghan, or "the king of Gold."
While there was a certain amount of fantasy mixed in these accounts,
Ghana was obviously a powerful kingdom. Its influence eventually spread into
the Sahara, and major trading towns like Awdagust were brought under its
control. The Berber and Tuareg tribes of the Sahara had converted to Islam in
the 7th century, and by the 11th century a new movement whose followers were
called the Almoravids had begun to sweep across the western desert, Morocco,
and Spain. One branch of this mosement under Abu Bakr ibn Umar (d. 1087)
launched a series of campaigns in the western Sudan. The Almoravids controlled
the gold trade across the Sahara and began to move toward its sources. Ghana
was conquered in 1076, and a new fusion of Sudanic and Saharan peoples took
While Ghana continued to exist, its power was considerably weakened and
other states emerged to challenge its leadership. Islamization weakened the
kingdom and perhaps caused a deepening division between its elites and the
common folk. Former provinces broke away, and a period of political
instability and fragmentation followed in which new states emerged among the
Soninke, Fulbe, and Malinke peoples. The power of Ghana ended, but its
tradition of trade and military power and the fusion of African and Islamic
traditions continued among the successor states. Eventually, a new kingdom,
Mali, emerged from this struggle. In many ways Mali was the heir to the power
in the region, and it ruled a territory that extended from the bend of the
Niger River to the Atlantic coast, which included much of the ancient kingdom