The Ghana Empire was one of the most powerful empires of pre-colonial West Africa. Geographically, the empire occupied a territory south of the Sahara Desert, encompassing lands that are part of the modern-day nations of Mauritania and Mali, with a trading influence that extended much further. The Ghana Empire spanned a period of our around 400 years, from 830 CE to 1235 CE. While the Ghana Empire was little known in Europe, Arabs in the North of Africa were aware of the powerful empire that lay south of the desert. In particular, they were aware of the abundance of gold from which the empire derived its wealth and power (Conrad, 2010).
The Ghana Empire rose to prominence in the 9th century when Arabs became aware of its wealth and power. Most of this derived from gold, and control over trade routes in the region. West Africa's trade routes were dominated by rivers that flowed west to the Atlantic, or east and north via camel caravans. Arab writers described the gold mine of Ghana as the largest in the world. These mines were along the Senegal River. Trade was centered on the city of Kumbi Saleh, and in addition to gold they traded slaves, salt and copper, and in exchange acquired consumer goods from Arabs in the north (BBC, 2014).
The wealth from the gold mines was used to consolidate power around trade routes, and allowed for the empire to expand its territories. No other kingdom in West Africa had this level of wealth and therefore had this level of technological sophistication. Administration was apparently enhanced through the use of accounting and management techniques that...
Most of the people still lived a pastoral lifestyle, but there was greater availability of consumer goods from trade, and professional trades developed along with some urbanization. Islam was not prevalent in the Empire outside of the major trading cities, but would eventually come to characterize the Songhay Empire in roughly the same geography. The rulers of the Ghana Empire maintained traditional religious beliefs and people still held their tribal identification during this rule.
The Mali Empire
The decline of the Ghana Empire has been attributed to a number of factors. One of these is the loss of monopoly on gold. The Mali Empire arose to the north, and it had three major gold mines. The Ghana Empire was already fading from power by the time the Malians emerged, in part because gold was being developed elsewhere, and new trade routes were emerging, both factor that challenged the monopoly that Ghana had on the gold trade. Without that monopoly, and the taxation powers that came with it, Ghana was already losing power. Arab influence was weakening the traditional power base of the Ghana Empire, and these factors combined to bring out its decline and eventual replacement by the Malian Empire (BBC, 2014).
Prior to the founding of the Ghana Empire, the Sahel was mainly a pastoral area, with almost no urban development and a limited economy (MacDonald, 1998). The Sundiata is the epic of Mali, that recounts how the Malian Empire was founded, illustrating what happened as the Ghana Empire was collapsing. Eventually some of the Ghana Empire was…
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