Songhai Empire: The Rise & Fall of Africa’s Biggest Empire

The Songhai Empire was one of Africa's most powerful and wealthy states, influencing and shaping the West African world during the medieval era.

Nov 24, 2023By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma

songhai empire africa


In the 15th and 16th centuries in West Africa, the dominant power was the Songhai Empire. Covering an area of around 310,000 square miles (800,000 kilometers2), the Songhai Empire, at its height, was about twice the size of California.


Centered around the Niger River, the Songhai Empire eclipsed the Mali Empire, which had been the regional power before. Songhai rose to great wealth and power and, for almost two centuries, controlled West Africa politically and economically.


Like many empires before and after, Songhai fell prey to hubris. Greed and the political machinations of human beings were the reasons for its downfall.


This is the story of one of Africa’s greatest empires.


Prelude to an Empire

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The location of Gao (which would evolve to become the Songhai Empire) and the Ghana Empire around 1000 CE in West Africa overlaid onto modern borders, image created by the author with and Paint

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Receiving its name from the Songhai people who lived in a small area on the eastern banks of the Niger River, the Songhai Kingdom was born. Before the 10th century, the Songhai had already amalgamated several other peoples into their nation, with each group of people bringing their own special skills that would help the Songhai achieve new heights of success.


The Sorko people would bring with them knowledge of boatbuilding, while the Gao people specialized in hunting river animals such as hippopotami and crocodiles. The Do people were expert farmers and grew crops along the banks of the river. All these people were subjugated under Songhai rule when the Songhai people arrived on their horses. Through the centuries, all these people would coalesce into a single ethnolinguistic group.


All this happened around the time when the Ghana Empire was at its height to the west. Much trade with this Empire and the Songhai was done through the Songhai town of Gao, which became the center of the small Songhai Kingdom, and was named as the capital under the reign of Dia Kossoi. Eventually, Gao would grow to become a powerful trade hub, bringing extraordinary wealth to the Songhai people. Trade goods included dates, gold, ivory, kola nuts, leather, salt, and enslaved people.


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Map of the Mali Empire, showing the subjugated Kingdom of Gao, via World Atlas


The earliest history is descended from myth and legend. With an early tradition of history being passed down orally, it is difficult to determine what is true and what isn’t. A text from 1655 states that the first rulers were the Za dynasty, and the first Za ruler, Za Alayaman, came from Yemen and made his home in the town of Kukiya.


Knowledge of the second dynasty is just as enigmatic. Ancient tombstones in a cemetery near the village of Saney tell of these rulers having the title of Zuwa, but beyond that, not much is known of their rule.


Around 1300, the prosperity of Gao attracted the unwanted attention of the neighboring Mali Empire, which eclipsed the Ghana Empire and conquered Gao and the Songhai people, adding Gao to their expanding empire. Gao remained a part of the Mali Empire until around 1430. Before that, however, internal strife within the Mali Empire made it difficult to maintain control of all its provinces. Gao found itself being able to assert more independence as the decades passed.


Around 1360, an age of strife began in the Mali Empire. Mansa (ruler) Sulayman died, leaving a dispute over who should inherit the empire. The following Mansa, Mansa/Mari Jata II, drove the Empire into financial ruin. Mansa Musa II succeeded him and was left with an Empire crumbling into rebellion. He succeeded in quelling a Tuareg rebellion but was unable to stop the Kingdom of Gao from breaking away and re-asserting its independence in 1375.


The Rise of Songhai

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Askia the Great as imagined in Civilization 5, published and developed by Firaxis/Aspyr/2K; via Civilization Wiki


Not only did Gao gain independence, but it began to assert itself militarily. Thus began the Sonni dynasty. Under Sonni Sulayman Dama, Gao began to seek conquest over Malian territory. Thus began the transition from the Kingdom of Gao into the Songhai Empire. In the 1460s and the 1470s, the Songhai Empire expanded rapidly, conquering neighboring territories and swallowing up what was left of the crumbling Mali Empire. This was done under the rule of Sonni Ali, who succeeded Sonni Sulayman Dama.


After defending against the Mossi Kingdoms to the south and conquering the Dogon people to the north, Sonni Ali annexed Timbuktu into the Songhai Empire by taking it from the Tuaregs, who had taken it from Mali. He then besieged the city of Jenné and, after a seven-year siege, managed to starve the city into submission, annexing it in 1473. Sonni Ali is believed to have ruled as a brutal tyrant, especially over the people of Timbuktu, until his death in 1492. He was succeeded by his son, Sonni Baru, whose reign was cut short shortly thereafter, and the throne was seized by Askia Muhammad I, who became known as Askia the Great.


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Rulers of Songhai, via Coolaboo


Under the rule of Askia Muhammad, the military was reformed into a full-time professional army, and he effectively reorganized the structure of the empire. He was a devout Muslim who focused on opening mosques throughout the empire and recruiting Muslim scholars. Despite his religious zeal, he did not force religion on his subjects. He waged a Jihad against the Mossi Kingdoms to the south, but when he defeated them, he did not force them to convert to Islam. During his rule, he also completed the Hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca.


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The Songhai Empire at its height at the beginning of the 16th century under the rule of Askia the Great, via Wikimedia Commons


Askia Muhammad was a military leader but was also a scholar. He was interested in astronomy, built observatories in his Empire, and hired astronomers. Under his rule, schools were built throughout the empire, and Sankore University in Timbuktu was expanded. He fostered trade and relations with the rest of the Muslim world, and many skilled workers emigrated from Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, and Muslim Spain to work in Songhai. These nations also exchanged ambassadors with Songhai, which empowered Askia Muhammad’s diplomatic weight.


Trade also flourished during this time. Canals were built, and trade networks expanded. The salt mines of Taghaza were brought under the control of the Songhai Empire, which significantly increased economic output. Agricultural methods were improved, and a system of weights and measures was introduced to facilitate trade.


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The Grand Mosque in Djenné, via The Travel Blog


The Niger River was essential for this trade, and much of the river was under the direct control of the Songhai Empire. Trade was done via camel trains in the north and across the Sahara. The industry was centered around a clan system, and one’s occupation was determined by which clan they were born into. Thus, each clan had a monopoly on its own industry and could influence the affairs in much the same way as guilds or unions.


At the bottom end of the social ladder were many thousands of enslaved people. Compared to other West African empires, Songhai relied heavily on their labor. Many of them were prisoners taken in battle, and most enslaved people worked in the agricultural industry, tilling the fields.


Above them were freemen, merchants, and traders. Depending on their expertise, immigrants could fall into any of these categories, and some even became enslaved.


The caste at the top were the noblemen and the descendants of the original Songhai people. Generally, the upper classes were expected to be Muslims, while the lower classes were often permitted to engage in their traditional religions.


Askia Muhammad I died in 1528, and the Songhai Empire continued to prosper under a succession of emperors over the next few decades.


The Decline & Collapse of the Songhai Empire

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The Grand Mosque in Djenné, via Encyclopaedia Britannica


The period of peace and prosperity following Askia Muhammad’s death did not last forever. Political chaos and multiple civil wars rocked the Empire, creating a target for opportunistic enemies to exploit their weakened neighbor.


In 1591, the Moroccans, under Sultan Ahmad I al-Mansur Saadi, invaded Songhai with the intention of conquest. Although the Songhai army consisted of professional soldiers and heavily outnumbered the invading force, the Moroccan army had arquebuses and several cannons, which they used to devastating effect. The Battle of Tondibi was an ignominious defeat for the Songhai Empire, and the Moroccan army proceeded to capture Timbuktu, Jenné, and Gao, causing the complete collapse of the empire.


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The Songhai people still exist today and still wear traditional clothing, via Joe Penney / Reuters / The Baltimore Sun


The occupation was not easy for the Moroccans. Constant unrest and rebellion made governing the former Songhai Empire a nightmare, and the Moroccans eventually withdrew several decades later. Nevertheless, the Songhai Empire could not be revived, and it fractured into dozens of smaller kingdoms, some of which tried to carry on the Songhai traditions. These states would eventually fall to the French during the age of colonization, marking a final end to what remained of Songhai.


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Camels and camel trains were, and still are, vital to trade across the Sahara Desert, via AP Photo/Brennan Linsley/Quartz


The Empire of Songhai was a powerful state in Africa that was hugely successful through various means, but notably through trade and diplomacy. It rose in power and collapsed spectacularly, much the same as empires have done all over the world. What is important about the Songhai Empire is that it challenges Western beliefs about the history of Africa and the capabilities of the African people.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.