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Dana Quante
INCH 512
Spring 2009


a n d t h e M e d i e v a l E m p i r e s o f t h e We s t e r n S u d a n
from the Mideast and from other parts of
Where is Timbuktu? Why do scholars call the Africa.
Timbuktu is a city located in the modern region “Western Sudan?” The savannah is marked by scattered
country of Mali, in West Africa. trees and a wet and dry season. It is
The earliest writings by Arab traders
Geographically, it is situated in the savannah perfectly suited for herding animals and
called this area “Bilad al-Sudan,” which
of sub-Saharan Africa - an area of grasslands raising grain crops. Agrarian life creates
means “land of the black people.” Modern
between the Niger River to the south and the surplus, which supports craftspeople. Iron
scholars refer to Medieval West Africa as
Sahara Desert to the north. forging became prominent. Horses were
“Western Sudan,” which is completely
purchased through trade with the Tuaregs.
Why is it called “Timbuktu?” different from the modern country of Sudan in
The combined technology of iron and horses
One legend purports that the Tuareg the eastern part of Africa.
enabled local control of the gold/salt/slave
people, Berber nomads f who traversed the trade.
Sahara, went to the area to graze their herds How has geography shaped Recent archaeological evidence shows
in the dry season. Over time, as they
returned north for the season, they would
the region politically? that urban centers appeared west of Timbuktu
somewhere between 400-900 C.E, especially
leave their belongings in the care of a local Timbuktu was a place where caravans in a place called Koumbi Saleh, which
woman, Buktu, who owned a well used by the from North Africa (offering Mediterranean became the capital city of Western Sudan’s
Tuareg. The place became known as goods) met the salt traders from the first major empire: the Ghana Empire.
“Tin’Buktu,” which, in the language of the northwest, the gold traders from the forests
Tuareg, means “the well of Buktu.” south of the Niger River, and the slave traders

How do we know ‣ Archaeology: new discoveries are being made all the time
‣ Oral Tradition: the way history is transmitted by West African cultures
about the Medieval ‣ Linguistics: experts analyze linguistic similarities and anomalies to understand
Empires of the the historic relationships between cultures and groups
‣ Written Accounts: extensive writings of first and second hand observations by
Western Sudan? Arab traders and Muslim scholars
What is an empire?
An empire is a number of
individual kingdoms and
4th - 12th 13th - 15th 15th - 16th
peoples that are all controlled
by one ruler. centuries C.E. centuries C.E. centuries C.E.

Capital city Kumbi Saleh Niani Gao

Dominant Soninke Mandike Songhay

Mande culture

Famous rulers Diabe Cisse Sundiata Sunni Ali Ber

legendary founding manghan conquered Timbuktu and
(king) Keita started the Songhay Empire
legendary founding mansa

Mansa Musa Muhammad
mansa who increased the area started the Askiya dynasty and
of the Mali Empire and increased size and stability of
attained the highest wealth Songhay Empire

Primary source al-Bakri Ibn Battuta Leo Africanus

documenting Muslim scholar from Cordoba,
Spain whose writings about
Muslim scholar from Tangiers,
Morocco, he traveled through
Muslim scholar from Granada,
Spain, he traveled to Timbuktu,
each empire Ghana are based on
interviews with traders.
the known world for 25 years,
wrote his memoirs.
was enslaved on his way to
Constantinople, and “given” to
Pope Leo X, who freed him.

300-500 C.E. 700-1000 1056 1100 1230-1255 1312-1337 1469 1493-1529 1591
Rise of Ghana Almoravid Timbuktu Sundiata Mansa Sunni Askiya Moroccan
Ghana Empire Movement founded Keita Musa Ali Ber Muhammad Invasion
trade becomes captures
dominant Timbuktu

Traditional Religion
of Sub-Saharan West Africa

Sacred Groves
The place where spiritual leaders
would interface with the spirit
Ghana world was a sacred grove of trees
Empire located somewhere outside the
village or city.

Bambuk Sacred objects were kept in these

groves, and only the spiritual
leaders of the community were
Modern allowed to enter. Like many other
Ghana polytheistic spiritual traditions,
access to the spirit world was
restricted and a “mystery.”
Bida, the snake, was a central
spirit for the Wagadu, and is part
The Soninke had a unified political
Ghana Empire system with a king, vassals, governors,
and ministers who administered the
of the founding mythology of the
region. Bida “lived” in the sacred
grove outside of Kumbi Saleh.
4th - 12th centuries C.E. running of the treasury, taxes, and law.
The king and the royal courtiers were
“Ghana” is the name Arab traders Blacksmiths
described as being covered in gold
used for the main city and the king of the Blacksmiths were revered for their
region. The people of the region actually privileged knowledge of forging
Tariffs were collected from goods
called their state “Wagadu,” which iron. The blacksmiths were the
going in and out of the region. One
means “place of the warrior kings.” priest class. They had access to
gold dinar was the tax for one donkey
“Ghana” is not to be confused with the the sacred groves where they used
load of salt coming in, and two gold
modern country of Ghana, which was masks as a ritualistic conduit to
dinars for the same load going out.
named in honor of the ancient kingdom. communicate with the divine.
The Soninke are the Mande people First contact with Islam
who lived west of Timbuktu. Muslim merchants started trading in Cultural Bias
We know about the Soninke through the region between the 9th and 11th Muslim and European accounts of
the writings of al-Bakri, an 11th century centuries. Archaeologists have the indigenous religious practices
Muslim scholar who lived in Cordoba, determined that Kumbi Saleh had two show a cultural bias through
Spain. He interviewed traders coming distinct areas, one of which was most judgmental language. This should
back from the region and wrote about probably the “Muslim Quarter.” Local be kept in mind when reading
their tales in The Book of Routes and attitudes were tolerant of other religions, primary sources.
Kingdoms. and Islam was assimilated into the
Modern scholars believe that Ghana region.
rose to power around the 4th century The downfall of the Ghana Empire is
C.E. Excavations of the ancient capital linked to the Almoravid Movement. A
city of Kumbi Saleh indicate a population local chief, Yasin, wanted the people to Fall of the Ghana Empire
of 15,000 - 20,000 people, and a large, strictly observe Islam, by choice or force.
walled palace compound. In 1056, Yasin, captured major cities and
The Soninke developed superior iron ‣ Economic insecurity due
took control of the empire. There were
tools for farming and weapons. Al-Bakri violent forced conversions. After Yasin, to violence and warfare
had written that the king of Ghana had there was a succession of rulers who
‣ Central government
an army of 200,000 men. By shared power, but the unity of the
consolidating political power and levying empire was shattered. Kingdoms and
disintegrating as empire
tariffs, the Soninke were able to control clans were vying for local power by the broke into kingdoms
the flow of trade of the three major local 12th century.
commodities: gold, salt, and slaves.
Control of the trade The location of the gold Salt came from Taghaza in Slaves mined the salt. The
of gold, salt, and mines were kept a secret. the Sahara, a horrible work was so hard and
The king or mansa owned wasteland of a place, dangerous that many died
slaves enabled the the gold mines. Nuggets where even the drinking quickly. Salt slaves were,
three empires to were reported to range water is briny. The salt therefore, in constant
maintain stability from 1 ounce to 1 pound. was made into slabs, and demand.
Commoners were allowed then transported by
and prosperity. to pan for gold dust. donkey or camel in
They were also the
reason Arab Archaeologists have found Salt was as valuable (and Slaves were traded in West
mine shafts in Bambuk and sometimes more valuable) Africa for hundreds of
merchants and
Bure (see map below) than gold. Salt was used years before the Europeans
North African which they believe to be as currency arrived. Arab merchants
traders would risk the source of the gold. interchangeably with gold. traded slaves they brought
with them for gold and salt.
the long, dangerous
trek across the
This gold made its way via Salt was used to preserve The Bella people are still
Sahara. the Sahara to every gilt food. People who live in slaves in the salt mines
surface in St. Mark’s arid regions need to today. They are “owned”
Cathedral in Venice. The replenish salt that their by Tuaregs who continue to
English Guinea got its bodies lose through sell salt slabs up and down
name because it was made sweating in order to the Niger River, including
from West African gold. survive. Timbuktu.


Bambuk Camels
The Romans first brought camels to
the Sahara in the first century C.E.
Without camels, trade across the
Sahara would have been
impossible. Salt caravans used
thousands of camels that traveled
for months across the desert.

map source:

Sundiata Keita
Legend of the Lion of Mali

How do we know of the legend ?

Griots, storytelling musicians, are the
area’s greatest treasure. They have
been the keeper of the collective
memory of West Africans since before
the Ghana Empire. The greatest story
for griots to learn and perform is the
legend of Sundiata Keita, the Lion of
Mali. Sundiata is compared to King
Arthur and George Washington for his
cultural importance and heroism.

What is the legend of his birth ?

A prophecy was told to a Mande king, source:
that if he married an ugly hunchback
woman, their son would become a
great hero. This king had many wives
already, but married the woman, Mali Empire
Sologon. Their sun, Sundiata, was
born unable to walk. The prophecy 13th - 15th centuries C.E.
appeared to have been false. After the Almoravid Movement, there was a power vacuum in the region. Trade
was interrupted because of the political instability and insecurity. Small, independent
How did he become a hero ?
kingdoms were developing in the Upper Niger River area. The kingdom of Susu was
When his father, the king died, there
becoming a dominant state because of the tyrannical rule of its mansa (emporer)
was royal intrigue among the wives
and half-brothers as to who would
Sumanguru. Sumanguru was expanding his empire through a reign of terror. The
succeed. Because of his disability, divided Mande clans, who were mostly Muslim, needed a leader to unify them in
Sundiata was exiled, not executed. battle against Sumanguru.
He was not perceived as enough of a
threat. However, he had iron braces How did Sundiata Keita establish the Mali Empire?
made, and taught himself how to walk
when he was a teenager.
The disparate kings of the region allied themselves to Sundiata Keita as their
leader. At the battle of Kirina, when Sundiata’s forces conquered Sumaguru’s army,
When the small kingdoms were being Sundiata was made mansa. He inaugurated a period of piece from 1230 - 1255 C.E.
harassed by Sumaguru, they His reign was characterized by justice, peace, and political stability. Trade flourished
remembered the prophecy and sought again, and the Mali Empire now controlled the gold and salt mines, and their taxation.
Sundiata in exile. They found a young Sundiata was a true charismatic leader. He was described as being a modest
man of extraordinary resilience and dresser who lived simply. He was known for his kindness and humor. He set up a
determination. He led the battle of system of cultural exchange by having his children raised by his allied kings. He
Kirina, and that victory led to the
believed that childhood friendships would prevent warfare in the future. His justice,
founding of the Mali Empire.
however, was of the Medieval kind: a thief would have his hand cut off.
Unfortunately, after Sundiata’s death, his successors were weak leaders who
could not unify the region politically or economically, until the emergence of Mansa
Musa in 1312, when the Golden Age of Mali truly began.

Mande is the name for the large

group of clans that share the same
culture in West Africa. The Mandike
were the dominant Mande people
during the Mali Empire. Other Mande
people prevalent during medieval
empires: Soninke, Bambura, & Dyula.
Ibn Battuta
Intrepid scholar

Much of what we know about

Mansa Musa and his Great
Hajj comes from the writings of
Ibn Battuta, a 14th century
Moroccan scholar and
traveler. He wrote 20 years
after Mansa Musa’s death.

Ibn Battuta traveled to China,

India, and Africa by land and
sea for 25 years. He wrote
down his observations,
including his first hand
spent gold generously. In fact, so much accounts of visiting the capital
Mansa Musa gold was put into circulation from their
lavish spending and gift-giving, that the
of the Mali Empire:

1312 - 1337 C.E. price of gold was devalued for 12 years

“My stay at [Niani] lasted
throughout the Mideast.
Mansa Musa ruled for 25 years about 50 days; and I was
He completed his pilgrimage to
which are now referred to as the Golden shown honor and entertained
Mecca, and returned home to Timbuktu.
Age of Mali. He enlarged the Mali
However, his hajj put Timbuktu “on the by its inhabitants...They are
Empire, which became the 2nd largest
map,” literally, for both Arabs and seldom unjust, and have a
empire at the time (the Mongol Empire
Europeans. Everyone wanted to find greater abhorrence of injustice
was the largest). He managed 24 kings,
Timbuktu to get a share of the obvious
and was known as a hard-working than any other people...There
abundance of gold. Mansa Musa is even
administrator. During his reign, trade is complete security in their
depicted on a 14th century Spanish map
activity tripled. country. Neither traveler nor
of Western Sudan (see above) holding a
Musa, which is Arabic for “Moses,”
nugget of gold. inhabitant in it has anything to
was a Mande Muslim. He ensured
religious freedom throughout the empire, fear from robbers or men of
and he encouraged the highest forms of violence.”
scholarship by establishing libraries and al-Saheli
universities. In fact, during this time - McKissack, 1994, p.57-58.
Mansa Musa brought back to
Muslim scholars from the known world
Timbuktu a Spanish-born Muslim
would go to Timbuktu because it was the architect he met during his hajj, Abu
place for highest learning. Ishaq al-Saheli. Al-Saheli created a new,
distinctive design to Western Sudan mud
Sankore Mosque
buildings that remains today. He
introduced flat roofs to their mud houses, Timbuktu
The Great Hajj and incorporated wooden timbers into
In 1324, Mansa Musa set out on a the buildings to reinforce them during
hajj (holy pilgrimage) to Mecca. the wet season, when the mud would
60,000 people accompanied him, start to crumble.
including slaves, soldiers, wives, Al-Saheli is credited for designing
servants, minsters, and merchants. It the Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu, which
was reported that 500 slaves each still stands today. At the beginning of
carried 6 pounds of gold. They trekked each dry season, laborers climb the
across the Sahara for 3 months to Cairo. wooden beams to replaster the surface.
There, Mansa Musa and his entourage
Islam is a monotheistic religion founded by Mohammed in the
early 7th century C.E. in the city of Mecca in Arabia.
Mohammed wrote the Qu’ran, the holy book of Islam, which are
divine revelations that he recorded. Mohammed identified
himself as the last prophet of Islam. Islam quickly spread from
Arabia to the Mideast, Africa, Asia, and Europe.

Djingareyber Mosque, Timbuktu

How did Islam affect Western Sudan culture?
Assimilation Timbuktu: Medieval Center
The 9th and 10th centuries C.E. saw of Learning
the beginnings of the assimilation of
Mansa Musa put Timbuktu on the
Islam into the West African culture.
map as a center of learning by
Merchants and traders, who were
promoting scholarship and universities.
Muslims from North Africa and the
At one point, the copying and selling of
Mideast, were settling permanently in
books was just as lucrative as the trading
Koumbi Saleh, Timbuktu, Djenne, and
of gold. Timbuktu became a “Mecca” of
Gao because of the gold trade, and
later, for scholarship.
learning, with numerous universities and 5 Pillars of Islam
extensive private libraries owned by
The existing Mande society was
individual scholars. Not only was Islam
very tolerant of other religious practices.
studied, but also medicine, science,
People converted voluntarily over time. A person must voluntarily state his
musice, astronomy, and literature.
Sometimes people were forced to or her faith to become a Muslim.
The Askiya rulers during the Songhai
convert, as we have seen in the
Empire supported Muslim scholars and
Almoravid Movement during the Ghana Prayer
established public libraries. During this
time, Leo Africanus remarked on the Muslims must pray 5 times a day
The enlightened rulers of Western
"numerous judges, scholars and priests, facing Mecca.
Sudan (Sundiata Keita, Mansa Musa,
all well paid by the king, who show
and Askiya Muhammad) were Muslims
great respect to men of learning” (The Charity
of the Mande culture. Today, the
Timbuktu Manuscripts Project, 2003, p.
majority of modern Mali’s population is Every year Muslims must give
Muslim. charity (money, food, or other
Today, thousands of these
means) to the poor.
manuscripts still exist in the cupboards of
Written Tradition private homes. Various UNESCO and
Because Islam is a religion based on non-profit agencies are trying to Fasting
a written document, the Qu’ran, learning preserve these treasures.
to read and write Arabic is culturally Muslims cannot eat or drink
important. Schools for local youth are between dawn and sunset during
usually part of a mosque in all cultures Ramadan (the ninth month of the
Islamic calendar).
that practice Islam.
Today, young boys are taught to
read and write passages from the
Qu’ran in the Great Mosque in Djenne.
They use clay tablets to write on, and Every Muslim must make a trip to
wash away the ink with water to reuse Mecca, if he or she is able to, at
the tablet. People drink the ink-water for least once during their lifetime.
healing purposes.
Leo Africanus
Freed slave and scholar

Leo Africanus was from

Granada, Spain. In 1492,
Queen Isabella and King
Ferdinand expelled all Muslims
and Jews from Spain if they
did not convert to Catholicism.
Leo Africanus migrated to
Morocco, and then traveled
across the Sahara to Timbuktu
and Gao.

He then traveled to
Constantinople by sea, where Songhay Empire
he was captured by slavers
and given as a “gift” to Pope 15th - 16th centuries C.E.
Leo X. Realizing this man was The extensiveness of the Mali Empire and a string of ineffectual rulers was making
a highly educated scholar, the Niani and Timbuktu weaker and harder to govern. The city of Gao to the east was
getting stronger. Its military leader, Sunni Ali Ber, conquered Timbuktu in 1469, and
Pope freed him and paid him
later the salt mines of Taghaza. Now the gold and salt trade was in Songhay control.
to learn Italian so that he could When Sunni Ali Ber attacked Timbuktu, he sacked the city and ousted the Muslim
write about his travels to leaders, which interrupted trade. A military general, Askiya Muhammad, wrested
Western Sudan. control of the empire from Ali Ber’s son. Askiya Muhammad was a devout Muslim
who reinstated the Muslim leaders and trade once again flourished. He was a
The History and Description of political and spiritual leader, who inaugurated the Askiya dynasty during the Songhay
reign. He not only secured control of the gold and salt trade, but expanded the
Africa and the Notable Things
empire by going to war with non-Muslim populations in surrounding areas, converting
Contained Therein was the survivors. He was a skilled empire manager. Muhammad created a centralized
published in 1526, and in government that used provincial governors to manage the large area he controlled.
English in 1600. He also employed the most intelligent men of the region to advise him.
The Songhay Empire was the largest of the three Western Sudan empires, and the
most wealthy. Its centralized government ensured stability. The fall of the Songhay
Empire lay not so much in poor government, although there were no strong leaders
like Muhammad in the late 16th century. The fall lies in technology. The Moroccan
pasha wanted control of the gold and salt trade. He sent an army across the Sahara
in 1591 to take Timbuktu and the Songhay lands. His army had muskets and cannons.
The Songhay had spears. The Moroccan army easily invaded Western Sudan, and
the great medieval empires became history.

Sankore University
Askia Muhammad funded many universities
in his empire, including Sankore University in
Timbuktu, which was connected to the Sankore
Mosque. Students from all over Africa came to
study astronomy, mathematics, ethnography,
medicine, logic, music, and literature. Scholars
wrote books, copied books, and collected books
in huge private libraries. The book trade was as
lucrative as the gold and salt trade.
Lesson economics politics culture

How is value determined? Why do empires rise and fall? Universities and Libraries: An

Students set up their own Students compare and African Tradition
Timbuktu marketplace in the contrast Western Sudan Students research the rich
classroom to trade gold, salt, empires to other Medieval history of scholarly tradition in
empires in Europe and Asia by
leather, and silk. They graph Western Sudan and email
charting political and
relative values determined modern conservators in
economic patterns (see
through their extemporaneous Timbuktu for current
bartering. In small groups they information and photos for a
analyze why they placed class online library.
more value on some things.

language geography culture

How do we know what How does geography affect How does culture change over
happened in the past? culture? In small groups, time? Students research issues
Students learn about the griot students research the facing Mali today. They
tradition of oral storytelling typography, climate, and assume the identity of a person
and history-keeping. Students natural resources of Western from Medieval Western Sudan
watch video of modern griots, Sudan during medieval times, and write letters “back home”
read Sundiata Keita’s legend, and draw their own about what has changed and
and then create their own conclusions as to why the area why. Students compare and
griot-style praise song for became a trading center. contrast the past with the
someone they know and Groups will create models (3D present.
admire. or 2D) of West Africa.

Patterns of Rise and Fall of Medieval Empires of Western Sudan

Strong leadership Strong, enlightened leadership Strong, enlightened leadership
Control of gold and salt Control of gold and salt Control of gold and salt
Centralized government Centralized government Centralized government


Political instability Political instability
interrupts trade interrupts trade

astronomy Why was astronomy studied at Sankore University?

In small groups, students research how astronomy was used as a navigation tool for caravans and ships, both
vehicles for trade. Students will learn at least 5 major constellations and visit the planetarium. Each group
will have to paint 5 constellations on one wall (N,S, E, W) of the classroom with glow paint. Teacher darkens
room and puts on black light. Constellation naming games and orienteering challenges are made by each
group for other groups to collect treasures and exotic items from far off lands (Oriental Trading stuff!).
Picture Books Resources
Mansa Musa Conrad, D.C. (2005). Empires of medieval West Africa, Ghana, Mali, and
by Kephra
Songhay. New York: Facts on File, Inc.
Burns (2001)
Gulliver Books
Harcourt, Inc. de Villiers, M. & Hirtle, S. (2007). Timbuktu, the Sahara’s fabled city of gold.
New York: Walker & Co.

Ananse and Masoff, J. (2007). Mali, land of gold and glory. Waccabuc, NY: Five Ponds
the Lizard Press.
by Pat Cummings
(2002) McKissack, P. & F. (1994). The royal kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and
Henry Holt & Co. Songhay, life in medieval Africa. New York: Henry Holt.

The Hunterman
and the Carpentiere, E.C. [Ed.] (2008, February). Islam in Africa. Faces: People,
Crocodile Places, and Cultures. Carus Publishing Company.
by Bab Wague
Diakite (1997) Sloneker, L.L. [Ed.] (1997, February). Mali. Faces: The Magazine About
Scholastic, Inc. People. Cobblestone Publishing Company.

The Singing
Boye, A.J., Abid, A., Diakite, S., Dicko, M.G., Hunwick, J.O., Iam, M.D.,
Man O’Fahey, R.S., et al. (2003). The Timbuktu manuscripts project. Retrieved
by Angela Shelf
April 17, 2009 from
Medearis (1994)
Holiday House
Davidson, B. [Writer]. (1984). Caravans of gold. Program 3 of Africa: the
story of a continent [Documentary]. Great Britain: Channel Four.
Man, The Gates, H.L. [Writer], Godwin, N. & Appio, H. [Directors]. (2000). Wonders
Journey of of the African world [Documentary]. Alexandria, VA: Public
Ibn Broadcasting Service.
1325-1354 Sissako, A. [Director]. (2006). Bamako [Motion Picture]. Mali: Archipel 33
by James Rumford (2001)
Houghton Mifflin
Websites - General Information
BBC: Country Profile
Sundiata, Lion
King of Mali
CIA: Mali (Country Profile)
by David
Clarion Books History Channel: About Timbuktu
Chapter Book Resources (continued)
Mali: Ancient Crossroads of Africa

The Cow-Tail
Switch and
Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Empires of the Western Sudan
Other West
Stories NPR: On the Edge, Timbuktu
by Harold
Courlander and
Herzog (1947)
MacMillian Websites - Libraries and Manuscript Conservation

New York Times: Project Digitizes Work from the Golden Age of Timbuktu

New York Times: Timbuktu Hopes Ancient Texts Spark a Revival

Timbuktu Libraries Project