The 15th and 16th centuries have been called the Age of Empires. We are taught in public schools about how Spain and Portugal explored the world’s seas and colonized large parts of Africa and the New World. The Mughal Emperor Akbar extended the power of the Mughal Empire to cover most of the Indian sub continent, and China was a world superpower during the Ming Dynasty.
But we are rarely told of the far more powerful and influential empires that arose to conquer large swaths of the African homeland. One such empire was that of the Songhai Empire, which reached its full scope, strength, and power under the leadership of Askia the Great.
Rise to Power
The man who would later be known as Askia the Great was born Muhammad Toure in a region along the Senegal River around 1443 A.D. Muhammad Toure was born to the sister of Emperor Sunni Ali Ber, the first king of the newly created Songhai Empire, who was then at the height of his conquests. His forces had swept across west Africa, had built and fortified many cities across the region, including Timbuktu, expanded the empire’s Naval force, and had expanded the borders of his empire to engulf the regions formerly occupied by the empires of Ghana and Mali.
Little is known about the life of Muhammad Toure prior to his military career, but we do know that his reputation was that of an intelligent and ambitious statesman, a wise tactician, and a man of great spiritual fortitude.
When Sunni Ali Ber died in November of 1492 after mysteriously drowning in the Niger River, his son, Sonni Baru, naturally ascended to the throne. Sonni was nothing like his father; weak, liberal, and incompetent. When Sonni Baru denied Islam as his religion, Islamic fundamentalists, led by Muhammad, began a violent campaign to overthrow Sonni Baru. During the campaign, those loyal to Baru ridiculed Muhammad and said of him a si tya, or “he will not be.”
Two decisive battles were fought to decide the fate of the empire. Over 150,000 men fought in this war with majority of them having been wounded or killed in what became one of the bloodiest wars in west African history. In the Battle of Anfao on April 12, 1493, Muḥammad’s forces, though inferior in number, finally defeated Sonni Baru’s forces
Muḥammad assumed the royal title of Askia (or Askiya) in order to ridicule those who said of him a si tya, or “he will not be.” Legend also has it that the name Askia, which translates directly as “forceful one” was screamed out by Sunni Ali Ber’s daughter after hearing the news of Askia’s victory.
Regardless, the name Askia became the name of the dynasty founded by Muhammad Toure, and the title that he and all his followers and successors assumed.
Reorganizing the Empire
Askia’s reign began with the re-organization of the administration of the empire. He first selected members of his family to occupy the newly-created positions of director of finance, justice, interior, protocol, agriculture, waters and forests, and of “tribes of the white race”. To ensure the loyalty of his chiefs, Emperor Askia chose the daughters of his chiefs as wives, and married off his own daughters and nieces to generals, judges, ministers, and officials within the government. By doing this, majority of the prominent families within the empire were in some way related to him.
Even though Askia was tolerant of other faiths (his empire encompassed traditional African faiths, Judaism, and several Islamic sects), he established Islam as the official faith of the nobility. He consulted with Muslim scholars at Timbuktu, and began an aggressive campaign to produce the most well educated citizens in the Muslim world. Ultimately, his efforts led to the success of Mahmoud Kati, who published Tarik al-Fattah and Abdul-Rahman as-Sadi, author of The History of the Sudan (an ancient reference to Africa, not political Sudan). These are two history books that are indispensable to present-day scholars reconstructing African history in the Middle Ages.
Under Askia Mohammad, scholarship flourished in Timbuktu and throughout the region. In the rest of the empire, Askia encouraged literacy, academic proficiency, and allowed scholars and students to study abroad in Europe and Asia. The knowledge that they brought back turned the Songhai Empire fueled the economic, scientific, and military innovations that would later lead to the golden age of the empire. Likewise, students from all over the world traveled to Timbuktu to study scrolls so old that some were said to be remnants of the Great Library of Alexandria.
He divided the empire into four parts (identified by the territories of Timbuktu, Jenne, Masina and Taghaza) and chose a viceroy to preside over each. The provinces were then grouped into regions, which were administered by regional governors. An advisory board of ministers supported each regional governor. The nucleus of the bureaucracy was Askia himself, assisted by a council of advisers. Islamic law prevailed in the larger districts in an effort to dispense with traditional law.
With his empire well organized, self-sustaining, and firmly under his control, Askia was able to leave the capital at Gao to embark upon the mandatory Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca in 1496. Askia’s pilgrimage has remained legendary as much for the pomp with which it was carried out as for the marvelous tales to which it gave rise. Thanks to the chronicler Mahmud Kati, who accompanied Askia, that he took with him 1,000 infantrymen, 500 horsemen, and 300,000 pieces of gold valued at 2.5 BILLION dollars.
Askia’s trip to Mecca was as political as it was religious. Once he arrived, he met the Caliph of Egypt, the Pope of the Islamic church so that he may be appointed as his religious representative in West Africa. The Caliph agreed. El-Hajj Askia Mohammed Toure returned to Gao in 1497, with a new title. He was now the Caliph of the Western Sudan, spiritual ruler of all the West African Muslims, and able to completely unify and conquer West Africa’s Muslims.
The Golden Age of Songhai
Having successfully established himself as both the political and spiritual leader of his empire, Askia began his military conquest of West Africa. Songhai had already grown to become the one of the strongest empires in African history, but Askia would expand the empire far beyond what Sunni Ali Ber could have ever hoped to achieve.
He immediately waged a successful jihad against the Mossi of Yatenga; captured Mali; defeated the Fulani and extended the borders farther north than any other Sudanic empire to Taghaza, famous for its salt mines. Years later, he conquered Hausaland and, in a subsequent campaign, seized Agades and Air. This gave him control over the trade routes leading to Tunis, Tripoli, and Egypt. In some territories, the Askia allowed the regional kings to rule as they had before, just as long as they paid tribute. In other territories, the Askia created a parallel post to the local governor called the mondyo (i.e. inspector), who formed the official link to the imperial Songhai government.
These conquests were achieved by expanding his naval power along the Niger river. Dozens of new ports were constructed, along with hundreds of massive warships. The army of Songhai was reorganized in an effort to increase speed of deployment, and a new fully-armored calvary unit was assembled and equipped with lances and archery.
A side benefit of the increase in Songhai naval power was an expansion of trade. Ships carried goods to and from Portugal, the Mediterranean, Cairo, Algiers, Morocco and Baghdad.
During this period, Songhai had reached the heights of glory. It had effectively become the richest, most intelligent, strongest, and the largest empire in African history. Its wealth and might would be the 15th century equivalent of the United States of America.
The Decline and Fall of Askia The Great
Askia had ascended the throne in his 40s – already an old man. Now, approaching his 80th birthday, Askia had begun to go blind and daft. Unable to conduct the affairs of the crown, Askia was removed from the throne in 1528 by his son Askia Musa. Interestingly, for years, the only people who knew about his blindness were his closest family members and government servants. He requested that it be kept a secret for as long as possible so his countrymen did not start to think he was sickly and weak. He chose his brother, Omar Konzagho, to act as his spokesperson so that no one directly saw Askia’s face.
Askia’s sons began a mad power grab for the kingdom that Askia the Great had built, as the old man quietly faded from life. First, Faria Mousa revolted against his father, forcing Askia to abdicate the throne completely. Faria was replaced by Benkan who took possession of the entire palace and exiled the old man to an island on the Niger River.
Legend has it that a loyal son of Askia named Ismail traveled to the island to see his father. Askia felt the muscular arm of Ismail and asked him how it was possible that one so strong permitted his aged father to be “eaten by mosquitoes and leapt on by frogs.” When Ismail replied that he had no money to make war, Askia directed him to a spot where he had hidden a treasure. Telling him the names of those who could be counted on for support, Askia dictated a plan of battle. Ismail was victorious and Askia returned to the palace.
In 1538 at the age of 96 Askia the Great, one of the greatest scholars, generals, politicians, and leaders in African history, passed into legend. He is buried in a step pyramid in the heart of Timbuktu. It is only through the works listed below that his legend lives on.
African Glory: The Story of Vanished Negro Civilizations , J. C. Degraft-Johnson. Black Classic Press, 1986.
Africans and Their History, Joseph E. Harris. Penguin USA, second revised edition, 1998.
Ancient African Kingdoms, Margaret Shinnie. E. Arnold.
General History of Africa, Vol. IV: Africa from the Twelfth to Sixteenth Century, UNESCO. University of California Press, 1986.
A Glorious Age in Africa: The Story of Three Great African Empires, Daniel Chu and Elliott P. Skinner. Africa World Press, 1990.
Cambridge History of Africa, Vol. 2, J.D. Fage (ed.). Cambridge University Press, 1979.
The Lost Cities of Africa, Basil Davidson. Little, Brown & Co., 1959.
The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa, Patricia and Fredrick McKissack. Henry Holt, 1995.