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9 African Empires that Shaped the Continent (and World)

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Castle in the kingdom of Mali, Old Buildings from the Mali Empire

If you think the Egyptian empire was the only notable African empire, you’re in for some learning! Although Wester history books have done a great job of excluding the many great civilizations of Africa, they have not erased the contributions and legacy of these empires. 

Africa is a massive continent. Therefore, these great African civilizations have existed at various locations in Africa, often encompassing multiple modern day African countries.

In no particular order, these are some of the most influential African empires.

1. The Mali Empire

Great Mosque of Djenné Castle in Mali

The great Mali Empire began in the 1200s by Sundiata Keita, sometimes referred to as “Lion King”. It was known for being the epicenter of trade, elaborate mosques, islamic schools, and simply for being a world of luxury and riches.

Legend has it that one of the great leaders of the empire, Mansa Musa, had so much gold that he passed it out to the poor along his hajj to Mecca. 

This African empire was also so rich through trade that by the 14the century, it was the source of almost half the old world’s gold exported from West Africa. Mali empire was also home to Sankara Madrassa, one of the greatest centers of learning. It housed the largest library in Africa at the time, with an estimated 700,000 manuscripts. 

2. The Kingdom of Kush

Pyramids from The Kingdom of Kush

This ancient Nubian empire ruled over a vast territory along the Nile River, in what is modern day Sudan starting from around 785 BC. The Kingdom of Kush was so powerful that it even ruled its famous neighbor to the north, Egypt, as the 25th Dynasty, which meant the monarchs of Kush were also the pharaohs of Egypt.

The Kingdom thrived for over a thousand years and was a center of trade for iron and gold. Kushites also mummified their dead and built their own types of pyramids. In fact, the ancient Kushite capital of Meroe is home to ruins of over 200 pyramids, far more than Egypt. 

3. The Kingdom of Ghana

The Kingdom of Kush of Ghana

The Kingdom of Ghana existed between 750 AD and 1076 AD and was also known as Wagadou. It was located in Western Africa, in modern day Mauritania, Mail, and Senegal. The Kingdom was wealthy from exports of gold, ivory, and salt.

The Kingdom of Ghana had sophisticated methods of administration, often keeping written documentations of trades and stories of travelers to the region. They also had an intricate taxation system.

Military attacks by the Berbers in the north lead to the decline of Wagadou after expansion of the Kingdom for many years. The Kingdom eventually broke off into smaller independent states.

4. The Songhai Empire

This large West African empire was formed in the 15th century and encompassed a dozen of modern day African nations. The capital of this massive empire was the city of Gao, which was located in modern day Mali.

Its greatest leader was King Muhammad Askia (also known as Askia the Great), who expanded the reach of the Kingdom and established hundreds of Islamic schools in Timbuktu. He also opened his court to scholars and poets from throughout the Muslim world.

Askia the Great advocated for learning and rewarded professors with large pensions. 

The Songhai empire was divided into 5 provinces, each led by a governor. The Songhai Empire also had a hand in slave trade in Africa and with European powers. Slaves were sold off to be indentured servants, but many argue that the slavery that Africans knew is far different from the slavery of the Americas. 

5. The Mossi Kingdoms

he Kingdoms were called Ouagadougou, Tenkodogo, Fada N'gourma, Zondoma, and Boussouma

The Mossi Kingdoms was an alliance between multiple independent kingdoms located by Volta River, found in modern day Burkina Faso. The Kingdoms were called Ouagadougou, Tenkodogo, Fada N’gourma, Zondoma, and Boussouma. Although each independent kingdom maintained complete rule domestically, the Mossi Kingdoms shared kinship and similar administrative structures.

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The Mossi Kingdoms had a great trading route because of their location along the Volta River

These Kingdoms lasted 500 years and lasted through the French conquest of the 1800s. But the Kingdoms finally declined as European powers, especially the French, expanded in the area.

6. The Kingdom of Aksum

The Kingdom of Aksum map

An influential empire was thriving in East Africa during the times of the Roman Empire. The Kingdom of Aksum was a trading giant whose gold and ivory created a vital link between ancient Europe and the Far East.

It was one of the first empires in the world to adopt Christianity and was one of the four most powerful empires in the world at the time. The Kingdom of Aksum also developed its own written script know as Ge’ez, one of the first in Africa, and had its own unique architectural style. 

Ge’ez is currently used in the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia. The Kingdom of Aksum was undoubtedly one of the greatest African empires!

7. The Kingdom of Zimbabwe

The Kingdom of Zimbabwe

Established around 1220, the Kingdom of Zimbabwe expanded artistic and stone masonry tradition to impressive levels. Elaborate stone buildings were built and trade with Asia and Arabic partners thrived in this Kingdom that was greatly influenced by the Kingdom of Mapungubwe in Southern Africa.

The medieval city of Great Zimbabwe served as the capital of the Kingdom. That is where the ruins of the impeccably built buildings are found today.

8. Carthage

This North African commercial hub was ancient Rome’s rival in the Punic Wars.

Carthage, a city state, was founded in the 8th century in what is modern day Tunisia. The seafaring empire had a massive economy based on textile, gold, and silver trading.

The city had close to half a million residents and docking bays for 220 ships! As the desire to expand led Carthage to Spain and other parts of the Mediterranean, conflict with the Roman Republic began.

Carthage was destroyed in three Punic Wars. The ruins of this once mighty city can be found in modern day city of Tunis.

This great African empire should be remembered and taught in school right along the Roman Empire.

9. The Kingdom of Mutapa

The Kingdom of Mutapa

The Kingdom of Mutapa was spread across Southern Africa, from the Limpopo and Zambezi Rivers to the Indian Ocean. It encompassed what is now Lesotho, South Africa, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

It is believed that a warrior prince from the Kingdom of Zimbabwe established the Kingdom of Mutapa.  Trade with India was vibrant at the hight of the Kingdom of Mutapa. The Portuguese aimed to control the trade with India from Mutapa for many years. However, they were mere carriers of goods between the Kingdom and India.

The reign of this Kingdom lasted between 1430 and 1760, around the time the Portuguese were expanding their grip in Africa.