8 Mighty Ancient African Empires

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Africa has a vast and extensive history that spans many centuries. Its history consists of mighty African Empires who were instrumental in shaping the world. From the great Mali Empire to the Kingdom of Aksum, these empires made a mark in history.

Let us read about the 8 Mighty Ancient African Empires.

1) The Great African Mali Empire

The Mali Empire is one of the most well-known and recognised African Empires which thrived from the 13th to the 17th century. King Sundiata Keita, also known as the ‘Lion King’ formed this African Empire.

The empire profoundly influenced West Africa through its spread of customs, laws and language. They had plenty of gold dust and salt deposits which helped to expand its commercial assets. One of the empire’s famous king was Mansa Musa, who was once known as the wealthiest man on Earth. The Mali Empire also included the city of Timbuktu, which was one of the important centres for learning in the world. One of Timbuktu’s important institution was ‘Sankoré Madrasah’, which during its peak housed around 700,000 manuscripts.

Additionally, the Mali Empire also became a hub for the Islamic faith. However, following the death of Mansa Musa, the empire fell into decline and poor leadership set it on the path of civil wars.

A picture of Mansa Musa - of the Mali Empire- one of the African Empires
Mansa Musa of the Mali Empire

2) The Songhai African Empire

The Songhai Empire took over the Mali Empire. At the height of its power, it became one of the largest states in West Africa. It was king Sonni Ali of the Songhai who was instrumental in surpassing the Mali Empire and absorbing it. The empire thrived throughout the 16th-century via its control of the trans-Saharan trade.

Songhai’s King Mohammed I Askia was responsible for extensively expanding the empire’s territories by conquering new lands. Additionally, he was responsible for establishing hundreds of Islamic schools in Timbuktu. The kingdom, however, declined towards the last quarter of the 16th century due to internal strife and civil wars. Ultimately, the Sultan of Morocco conquered the empire.

A picture of the Tomb of Emperor Askia of the Songhai African Empire
Tomb of Emperor Askia of the Songhai Empire, Gao, Mali, West Africa (c: Luis Dafos)

3) The Kingdom of Kush

The Kingdom of Kush was instrumental in defining the cultural and political landscape of northeastern Africa for thousands of years. The kingdom emerged from Nubia, Sudan and it reached its peak in the 2nd millennium B.C. when it ruled over an extensive territory along the Nile River. The empire consisted of 3 ruling Kushite Kingdoms with capitals Kerma, Napata, and Meroë respectively.

The Kingdom of Kush was a major trading centre and traded gold, ivory, timber and other materials. One of the Kushite kings Piye invaded Egypt and thus became the first Kush pharaoh of the 25th Dynasty of Egypt. Subsequently, the Kushite pharaohs ruled over Egypt for almost a century.

During its final period, the African empire’s capital was Meroë. One notable fact is that the Kushites built their own type of pyramids for the burial of their dead. Meroë is home to more pyramids than all of Egypt. The kingdom thrived in Meroë for quite a while. The Kushites had their own trade systems and even their own alphabet and language. The African Empire came to an end after Egypt’s absorption into the Roman Empire.

A picture of Kushites in Egyptian Art- Kush was one of the mighty African Empires
The Kushites’ dark skin tone and cropped hair set them apart in Egyptian art

4) The Land of Punt

The land of Punt is a mysterious African Empire and is often described as the ‘land of Gods’. Egyptian hieroglyphs revealed that Punt was rich in resources and when traders visited the land, they returned with gold, ivory, animal skins, fragrant woods, incense, ebony and other products.

One notable recorded instance of the empire was Queen Hatshepsut’s famous expedition, during which she oversaw the exchange of living trees between Egypt and Punt. This exchange marked the first successful transplantation of foreign fauna and subsequently bought back living trees to Egypt. Furthermore, historic evidence suggests that Egyptians were trading with Punt as early as during the reign of Pharaoh Khufu in the 4th dynasty.

By deciphering ancient texts, the land of punt seems to be located in the modern-day state of Somalia. According to historian Ahmed Abdi, the ancient city of Opone is similar to the African Empire. However, to this day the exact location of Punt has been heavily debated amongst historians. Today the two best possibilities are Eretria and Somalia.

A picture of the exchange of living trees from the Land of Punt to Egypt
The exchange of living trees from the Land of Punt to Egypt

5) The Kingdom of Aksum

The Kingdom of Aksum or the Aksumite Empire was an African empire located in modern-day Eritrea. The kingdom became an important key player on the commercial trade route between Ancient Rome and Ancient India. They minted their own currency to facilitate trade and also created their own script ‘Ge’ez’, which is still used in Ethiopia today. Furthermore, the Kingdom of Aksum was one of the four great powers, the rest being China, Rome and Persia.

Under King Ezana, Aksum adopted Christianity and become one of the first empires in the world to do so. Subsequently, this became the foundation for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The empire declined towards the end of the 6th century. Today Aksum is regarded as the alleged home of the Queen of Sheba and the purported resting place of the Ark of Convent.

A picture of coins depicting King Ezana
Coins depicting King Ezana of Aksum

6) The Kingdom of Zimbabwe

The Kingdom of Zimbabwe is best known for its capital city ‘Great Zimbabwe’. It houses the largest ancient monument in Southern Africa called the ‘Great Enclosure’. The kingdom prospered between the 13th and 15th centuries and during its peak it had a population of around 20,000 people.

This African Empire reigned over a large part of modern-day Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The empire controlled the trade of precious items such as gold and ivory from the very interior to the southeastern coast of Africa. Little is known about its history but evidence from artefacts found such as Chinese pottery and European textiles suggest that it was once a well-connected trade centre.

The kingdom declined towards the end of the 15th century. And subsequently, its capital city was mysteriously abandoned.

A picture of the inside of the Great Enclosure
The inside of the Great Enclosure

7) The Kingdom of Mutapa

Legend says that after the decline of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, the warrior-prince Nyatsimba Mutota left the kingdom in search from some salt. He found the commodity among a tribe of elephant hunters near the Zambezi River. Subsequently, he took control of the region and thus established the Mutapa Empire.

Mutota’s successor Mwened Matope was instrumental in expanding the kingdom through various military campaigns. He further expanded the kingdom’s wealth through taxation and long-distance trade.

This African Empire was however short-lived and it declined in the early 17th century. The Portuguese subsequently overthrew it, thus establishing it as a vassal state.

A picture of the map of Mutapa - one of the African Empires
A map showing the extent of the Kingdom of Mutapa

8) The Kingdom of Abyssinia

The Kingdom of Abyssinia also called the Ethiopian Empire is an empire that spanned the area from Eritrea to Ethiopia. The kings of the Solomonid dynasty formed it. Its first ruler was Yekuno-Amlak who claimed that he descended from Menelik I, the son of the biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

The Solomonid kings expanded their territory through warfare, religion and diplomacy. This African Empire was a long-lasting one. Moreover, Ethiopia is the only African country along with Liberia to resist European colonialism. The empire declined when they lost the Second Italo-Ethiopian War in 1935 and the long line of Solomonid rulers eventually came to end after the abolishment of the monarchy in 1974.

A picture of the contemporary portrait of Yekuno-Amlak
A contemporary portrait of Yekuno-Amlak


Enjoyed the above article? You may also enjoy 10 Unknown facts about Black History that you must know

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