Songhai Empire

Songhai Empire

Infobox Former Country
native_name =
conventional_long_name = Songhai Empire
common_name = Songhai Empire
continent = Africa
region = North-West Africa
country = Mali
status = Empire
government_type = Monarchy|
year_start = c. 1340
year_end = 1591 |
event_start = Songhai permanently free of Mali Empire
date_start =
event_end = Songhai empire destroyed by Morocco
date_end = |
event1 = Songhai begins military expansion
date_event1 = 1460
event2 = Sonni dynasty overthrown
date_event2 = 1493
event3 =
date_event3 = |
event_pre = Songhai state emerges at Gao
date_pre = c.1000|
event_post = Songhai establish Dendi Kingdom
date_post = 1592|

p1 = Mali Empire
flag_p1 =
image_p1 =
s1 = Dendi Kingdom
s2 = Morocco
flag_s2 = Flag of Morocco.svg
flag_s1 =
image_s1 = |

flag_type = |

symbol =
symbol_type = |

image_map_caption = The Songhai Empire, (ca. 1500)|
capital = Gao|
national_motto =
national_anthem =
common_languages = Songhai
religion = Islam
currency = Cowries
(gold, salt and copper were also common in the empire)|

leader1 = Unknown (first)
leader2 = Askia Ishaq II (last)
year_leader1 = c. 1375
year_leader2 = 1588-1591
title_leader = Sonni; later Askiya|

stat_year1 = 1500
stat_area1 = 1400000
stat_pop1 =
stat_year2 =
stat_area2 =
stat_pop2 =
stat_year3 =
stat_area3 =
stat_pop3 =
stat_year4 =
stat_area4 =
stat_pop4 =
stat_year5 =
stat_area5 =
stat_pop5 =

The Songhai Empire, also known as the Songhay Empire was a pre-colonial African state of west Africa. From the early 15th to the late 16th century, Songhai was one of the largest African empires in history. This empire bore the same name as its leading ethnic group, the Songhai. Its capital was the city of Gao, where a small Songhai state had existed since the 11th century. Its base of power was on the bend of the Niger River in present day Niger and Burkina Faso.

Prior to the Songhai Empire, the region had been dominated by the Mali Empire. Mali grew famous due to its immense riches obtained through trade with the Arab world, and the legendary hajj of Mansa Musa. By the early 15th century, the Mali Empire began to decline. Disputes over succession weakened the crown and many subjects broke away. The Songhai were one of them, making the prominent city of Gao their new capital.

The Songhai are thought to have settled at Gao as early as 800 AD, but did not establish it as the capital until the 11th century, during the reign of "Dia" Kossoi. However, the Dia dynasty soon gave way to the Sunni, proceeding the ascension of Sulaiman-Mar, who gained independence and hegemony over the city and was a forbearer of Sunni Ali Ber. Mar is often credited with wresting power away from the Mali Empire and gaining independence for the then small Songhai kingdom.

onni Ali Dynasty

Sonni Ali quickly established himself as the empire's most formidable military strategist and conqueror. He took advantage of the decline of the Mali empire, leading his armies on a series of conquests. His empire expanded to eventually eclipse Mali, covering a kingdom that encompassed more landmass than all of western Europe and, to date, was the largest empire that Africa has ever seen.

The first great king of Songhai was Sonni Ali, reigning from about 1464 to 1493. Ali was a Muslim like the Mali kings before him. He was also an efficient warrior who, in the 1460s, conquered many of the Songhai's neighboring states, including what remained of the Mali Empire. With his control of critical trade routes and cities such as Timbuktu, Sonni Ali brought great wealth to the Songhai Empire, which at its height would surpass the wealth of Mali.

During his campaigns for expansion, Sonni Ali conquered many lands, repelling attacks from the Mossi to the south and overcoming the Dogon people to the north, before ultimately annexing Timbuktu in 1468, after Islamic leaders of the town requested his assistance in overthrowing marauding Tuaregs who had overtaken the city subsequent to the decline of Mali. [Sonni ʿAlī.(2007). Encyclopædia Britannica. Ultimate Reference Suite.Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica.] Sonni however, immediately met stark resistance after setting his eyes on the wealthy and renowned trading town of Djenne. Only after much persistence and a seven-month siege was he able to forcefully incorporate it into his vast empire in 1473, but only after having starved them into surrender, allowing no entrance into or exit out of the city.

While a Muslim in faith, Ali did not impose Islamic policy on non-Islamic peoples and instead, allowed and acknowledged the observance of traditional African religion and practices as well. Mainly due to his violent sack of Timbuktu, in many Islamic accounts, he was described as an intolerant tyrant. Islamic historian, Al-Sa'df expresses this sentiment in describing his incursion on Timbuktu:

Cquote|Sonni Ali entered Timbuktu, committed gross iniquity, burned and destroyed the town, and brutally tortured many people there. When Akilu heard of the coming of Sonni Ali, he brought a thousand camels to carry the fugahd' of Sankore and went with them to Walata..... The Godless tyrant was engaged in slaughtering those who remained in Timbuktu and humiliated them. [The Cambridge History of Africa, Vol 5: University Press, 1977, pp421]

In Oral tradition, he is often known as a powerful magician. Whatever the case may have been, Sonni's legend consists of him being a fearless conqueror who united a great empire, sparking a legacy that is still intact today. Under his reign, Djenne and Timbuktu were on their way to becoming the greatest centers of learning in the ancient world.

Askia Dynasty

When Sonni Ali passed away, his son, Sonni Baru, took the throne. People worried because Sonni Baru had made it very clear that he was not Muslim, or Islamic. This worried the people because they feared that he would cut off all of the trade with Muslim lands.
Askia Muhammad Toure (also spelled Turé), the leader of a rebellion against Sonni Baru, overthrew Sonni Ali's son, and reigned from 1493-1528. When he took the crown, he changed his name to Askia the Great. Under Askia the Great's rule, education in the Songhai Empire, especially Timbuktu, flourished. He built a university in Timbuktu for students. Djenne also became a center of learning.

onghai Economic Structure

Safe economic trade existed throughout the Empire, due to the standing army stationed in the provinces. Central to the regional economy were the gold fields of the Niger River. The Songhai Empire would trade with these nearby but independent gold fields; salt was so precious in the region that the people of West Africa would sometimes be prepared to trade gold for equal quantities of salt. 80 percent of the people lived on small, family-owned farms no more than 10 acres large. The trans-Saharan trade consisted primarily of gold, salt, and slaves. The "Julla" (merchants) would form partnerships, and the state would protect these merchants, and the port cities on the Niger. It was a very strong trading kingdom, known for its production of practical crafts as well as religious artifacts.

The Songhai economy was based on a traditional caste system. The clan a person belonged to ultimately decided their occupation. The most common castes were metalworkers, fishermen, and carpenters. Lower caste participants consisted of mostly non-farm working slaves, who at times were provided special privileges and held high positions in society. At the top were nobleman and direct descendants of the original Songhai people, followed by freemen and traders. At the bottom were war captives and slaves obligated to labor, especially in farming. James Olson describes the labor system as resembling modern day unions, with the empire possessing craft guilds that consisted of various mechanics and artisans. [Olson, James Stuart. The Ethnic Dimension in American History. New York: St. Martin's Press, Inc., 1979]

Criminal Justice

Criminal justice in Songhai was based mainly, if not entirely, on Islamic principles, especially during the rule of Muhammad Ture. Ture appointed various ministerial positions, notably the minister of foreign relations, who was responsible for the well-being of the "Korei-Farma", or "white minorities". In addition to this was the local "qadi"s, whose responsibility was to maintain order by enforcing "Sharia" law under Islamic doctrine, according to the Qu'ran. An additional "qadi" was noted as a necessity in order to settle minor disputes between immigrant merchants. Kings usually did not judge a defendant; however, under special circumstances, such as acts of treason, they felt an obligation to do so and thus exert their authority. Results of a trial were announced by the "town crier" and punishment for most trivial crimes usually consisted of confiscation of merchandise or even imprisonment, since various prisons existed throughout the empire. [Lady Lugard:1906199-200]

"Qadi"s worked at the local level and were positioned in important trading towns, such as Timbuktu and Djenne. The "Assara-munidios", or "enforcers" worked along the lines of a police commissioner whose sole duty was to execute sentencing. Jurists were mainly composed of those representing the academic community; professors were often noted as taking administrative positions within the empire and many aspired to be "qadi"s.


Upper classes in society converted to Islam while lower classes often continued to follow traditional religions. Sermons emphasized obedience to the king. Timbuktu was the educational capital. Sonni Ali established a system of government under the royal court, later to be expanded by Askia Muhammad, which appointed governors and mayors to preside over local tributary states, situated around the Niger valley. Local chiefs were still granted authority over their respective domains as long as they did not undermine Songhai policy. [Iliffe, John, op cit., p.72]

Tax was imposed onto peripheral chiefdoms and provinces to ensure the dominance of Songhai, and in return these provinces were given almost complete autonomy. Songhai rulers only intervened in the affairs of these neighboring states when a situation became volatile, usually an isolated incident. Each town was represented by government officials, holding positions and responsibilities similar to today's central bureaucrats.

Under Askia Muhammad, the empire saw increased centralization. He encouraged learning in Timbuktu by rewarding its professors with larger pensions as an incentive. He also established an order of precedence and protocol and was noted as a noble man who gave back generously to the poor. Under his Islamic policies, Muhammad brought much stability to Songhai and great attestations of this noted organization is still preserved in the works of Maghrebin writers such as Leo Africanus, among others.


At its greatest extent, the Songhai lands reached far down the Niger river into modern day Nigeria itself, all the way to the Northeast of modern day Mali, and even to a small part of the Atlantic ocean in the West. There were large cities such as Gao and Timbuktu, though 80% of the population remained in small family-owned farm houses. Songhai would continue to prosper until late into the 16th century, reaching its height under the long and peaceful rule of Askia Dauoud.


Following Dauoud's death, a civil war of succession weakened the Empire, leading Morocco Sultan Ahmad I al-Mansur Saadi to dispatch an invasion force under the eunuch Judar Pasha. Judar Pasha was a Spaniard by birth, but had been captured as an infant and educated at the Moroccan court. After a cross-Saharan march, Judar's forces razed the salt mines at Taghaza and moved on Gao; when Askia Ishaq II (r. 1588-1591) met Judar at the 1591 Battle of Tondibi, Songhai forces were routed by a cattle stampede triggered by the Moroccans' gunpowder weapons despite vastly superior numbers. Judar proceeded to sack Gao, Timbuktu, and Djenné, destroying the Songhai as a regional power. Governing so vast an empire proved too much for the Moroccans, and they soon relinquished control of the region, letting it splinter into dozens of smaller kingdoms.

Rulers of the Songhai Empire

The Songhai state has existed in one form or another for over a thousand years if one traces its rulers from the first settlement in Gao to its semi-vassal status under the Mali Empire through its continuation in Niger as the Dendi Kingdom. Below are list of the kings according to the period they occupied..

Za Dynasty in Kukiya

There were 14 Za dynasty rulers in the early period of Songhai history.

*Alayaman: 690s
*Zakoi: 700s
*Takoi a.k.a. Takay :710s
*Akoi a.k.a. Mata-Kay:720s
*Ali-Fay: 740s
*Biyu: 760's
*Za-Kuroy: 770's
*Yama-Karaway: 770's
*Yama: 780's
*Yama-Danka-Kiba'u: 780-785
*Kukuray: 786-789
*Kinkin: 791

Za Dynasty in Gao

Za Kusoy is the first Songhai ruler to convert to Islam. He also turns the small kingdom of Gao into a Muslim state. Gao begins to attract North African merchants under his reign.
*Kusoy Muslim Dam: 1000s
*Han-Kuz-Wanku-Dam: ????-????
*Biyu-Ki-Kima: ????-????
*Nintasanay: ????-????
*Biyu-Kayna-Kinba: ????-????
*Kayna-Shanyunbu: ????-????
*Tib: ????-????
*Yama-Dad: ????-????
*Fadazu: ????-????
*'Ali-Kuru: ????-????
*Bir-Fuluku: ????-????
*Yasiboy: ????-????
*Duru: ????-????
*Zenku-Baru: ????-????
*Bisi-Baru: ????-????
*Bada: ????-????
*Bisi Baro Ber: 1150s

unni Dynasty in Gao

According to Stride and Ifeka's Peoples and Empires of West Africa, Gao fell under the indirect control of the Mali Empire during the reign of Sundiata. In around 1275, an official of Mali fled to Gao established his own dynasty. The kings of the dynasty were called Sunni or Sonni meaning "replacement" or "liberator" kings. Gao had to be continuously attacked to keep the new Sunni dynasty paying tribute, first by Mansa Sakura and later by General Sagmandir under Mansa Musa. Around 1375, Songhai became fully independent of Mali. And by 1420, Songhai was strong enough to exact tribute from Masina. In all, the Sunni dynasty would count 18 kings.

*Sunni Ali Kolon: circa 1275
*Sunni Salman Nari:
*Sunni Ibrahim Kabyao: ????-????
*Sunni Uthman Gifo Kanafa: circa 1320
*Sunni Bar-Kayna-Ankabi: ????-????
*Sunni Musa: ????-????
*Sunni Bakr Zanku: ????-????
*Sunni Bakr Dala-Buyunbu: ????-????
*Sunni Mar-Kiray: ????-????
*Sunni Muhammad Da'u: ????-????
*Sunni Muhammad Kukiya: circa 1275
*Sunni Muhammad Fari: ????-????
*Sunni Karbifu: ????-????
*Sonny Yeediot-al'yeed Sunnigay: ????-????
*Sunni Mar-Arkana: ????-????
*Sunni Mar Arandan: ????-????
*Sunni Sulayman Dama Dandi: 1410s-1440s
*Sunni Silman Dandi: 1440s-1464
*Sunni Ali: 1464-1492
*Sunni Abu-Bakry Baro: 1492-1493

Askiya Dynasty in Gao

In 1493, Muhammad Toure the Great deposes the brother of Sunni Ali. The sister of the deposed monarch cries out at Toure the word "Askiya" meaning usurper. Toure adopts the moniker as the title of his new dynasty.
*Askia Mohammed Ture the Great: 1493-1528
*Askia Musa: 1528-1531
*Askia Mohammad Benkan: 1531-1537
*Askia Isma'il: 1537-1539
*Askia Ishaq I: 1539-1549
*Askia Daoud a.k.a. Askia Dawud: 1549-1582
*Askia Al-Hajj: 1582-1586
*Askia Mohommed Bana: 1586-1588
*Askia Ishaq II: 1588-1591
*Moroccan Conquest: 1591

Askiya Dynasty in Lulami

After the Battle of Tondibi, Moroccan forces destroy the Songhai Empire in Mali. The askiya dynasty survives however and flees to their native Dendi region of Niger. They set up a new capital at Lulami and continue all the traditions of the Songhai Empire.

*Askia Nuh I: 1591-1598
*Askia al-Mustafa: 1598-????
*Askia Muhammad Surku Ilji: ????- ????
*Askia Harun Dancette: ????-????
*Askia al-Amin: ????-????
*Askia Dawud I: ????-????
*Askia Muhammad: ????-????
*Askia Dawud II: ????-????
*Askia Muhammad Bari: ????-????
*Askia Mar Shindin: ????-????
*Askia Nuh II: ????-????
*Askia al-Barak: ????-????
*Askia al-Hajj: ????-????
*Askia Ismail: ????-????
*Askia Dawud III: ????-????
*Askia Hanga: 1700s-1761
*Askia Samsu Beri: 1761-1779
*Askia Hargani: 1779-1793
*Askia Fodi Mayrumfa: 1793
*Askia Samsu Keyna: 1793-1798
*Askia Fodi Mayrumfa: 1798-1805 (2nd time)
*Askia Tomo: 1805-1823
*Askia Bassaru Missi Ize: 1823-1842
*Askia Bumi a.k.a. Askia Kodama Komi: 1842-1845
*Askia Koyze Baba: 1845-1864
*Askia Koyze Baba Baki: 1864-1865
*Askia Wankoy: 1865-1868
*Askia Bigo Farma: 1868-1882
*Askia Dauda: 1882-1887
*Askia Malla: 1887-1901
*French conquest: 1901

ee also

*Za Dynasty
*Sonni Dynasty
*Askiya Dynasty
*Mali Empire



*Cissoko, S. M., "Timbouctou et l'empire songhay", Paris 1975.
*Hunwick, J., "Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire", Leiden 2003.
*Lange, D., "Ancient Kingdoms of West Africa", Dettelbach 2004 (the book has a chapter titled "The Mande factor in Gao history", pp. 409-544).

External links

* [ Rise and Fall of the Songhai Empire]
* [ The Story of Africa: Songhay] — BBC World Service

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