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The Great West African Empires Of Antiquity, Part II

dopper0189, Black Kos Managing Editor

As I wrote with last Friday the combination of the turmoil in Mali and with this being Black History Month, I decided it would be a great time to repost and update some of  peaces I wrote several years back on Western African empires of antiquity. I'm focusing in particular on the three of the empires that covered the area of great Western Africa where Timbuktu is located, and whose citizens help to build and nurture one of the most important centers of learning in the ancient world.  Last week we looked at the two ancient civilizations (ancient Ghana and ancient Mali) that laid the groundwork for the great city of Timbuktu. Today we'll explore the third one, the one that is most responsible for making this ancient city flourish into greatness.

Intro

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Songhai Empire

The Songhai Empire is a medieval civilization thought to have been started in the 9th century as a small principality in Western Africa, were it was located on both banks of the Niger River. It is referred to as Al-kaw kaw by Islamic scholars. In the 16th century it became the largest empire ever to have been created in tropical Africa. The kingdom arose from a fertile area which was very suited for livestock rearing and agriculture. The river was also very suitable for fishing. As early as 800 A.D. the indigenous people of the area made full use of the natural resources of their region and by the time they entered into recorded history, they were already divided into two specialised professional groups, the Gabibi who were agriculturalists and the Sorko who were fishermen.  Its borders extended from the central area of Nigeria to the Atlantic coast and included parts of what are now Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Guinea and Mauritania. Its capital was the city of Gao, on the bend of the Niger River in present day Niger and Burkina Faso where a small Songhai state had existed since the 11th century.

The Songhai were the successor state to both the earlier Ghanain and Malian empires. The Songhai people 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 family, 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.

In the 13th century Gao was a tributary of the Mali Empire and it wasn't until in 1275 that Gao managed to break Mali's hegemony over its affairs in a rebellion begon by a couple of Gaoan princes who were also Manding military chiefs. Sulayman and Alikolon Narr broke away from the Manding army and drove them out of Gao establishing the Za royal lineage. This breaking away however, did not gain Gao complete independence. Disputes over succession weakened the Mali Empire, and many of its peripheral subjects broke away. The Songhai who had made Gao their capital began an imperial expansion of their own throughout the western Sahel. And by 1420, Songhai was strong enough to exact tribute from Masina. In all, the Sunni dynasty would count 18 kings.


                                     The city of Gao lies on the Niger River (photo courtesy of mali muso)

The first emperor of Songhai was Sunni Ali, reigning from about 1464 to 1493. Like the Mali kings before him, Ali was a Muslim. In the late 1460s, he conquered many of the Songhai's neighboring states, including what remained of the Mali Empire. Sunni Ali quickly established himself as the empire's most formidable military strategist and conqueror.

                           

Sunni Ali's empire encompassed more landmass than all of Western Europe and, to date, was the largest empire that Africa has ever seen. 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, Ali conquered many lands, repelling attacks from the Mossi to the south and overcoming the Dogon people to the north. He annexed Timbuktu in 1468, after Islamic leaders of the town requested his assistance in overthrowing marauding Tuares who had taken the city subsequently to the decline of Mali. However, Ali met stark resistance after setting his eyes on the wealthy and renowned trading town of Djenne. After a persistent seven-year siege, he was able to forcefully incorporate it into his vast empire in 1473, but only after having starved them into surrender.

Ali imposed Islam on non-Muslims and forced them to abide by Islamic law. Due to his violent sack of Timbuktu, he was described as an intolerant tyrant in many Islamic accounts. Islamic historian Al-Sa'df expresses this sentiment in describing his incursion on Timbuktu:

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 fuqaha of Sankore and went with them to Walata..... The Godless tyrant was engaged in slaughtering those who remained in Timbuktu and humiliated them.

                                      tuareg on horseback timbuktu (courtesy of mali muso)

After taking the throne Muhammad I would be known as Askia the Great, even though he had no real right to be the king. Not only was he not in the royal family blood line, he did not hold the sacred symbols which entitled one to become a ruler. Furthermore, he was most likely a descendant of Soninke lineage rather than Songhay, which mean that by Songhay standards his family background would have not allowed him to be King. But Askia managed to bypass that law and take the throne.

                       
                        Askia the Great

His policies resulted in a rapid expansion of trade with Europe and Asia, the creation of many schools, and made Islam an integral part of the empire.

He is reputed to be buried in the Tomb of Askia in Gao, a World Heritage Site. Rumor has it that he gained the name Askia (which means forceful one) after Sunni Ali Ber's daughter heard the news of one of his wars

The successor of Sunni Ali Ber, Askia Muhammad was much more astute and farsighted than his predecessor had ever been. The intended successor of Sonni Ali was removed by rebelling Islamic factions. In 1493, one of his generals, Muhammad Toure, later known as Askia Muhammad I or Askia the Great, mounted the throne. He orchestrated a program of expansion and consolidation which extended the empire from Taghaza in the North to the borders of Yatenga in the South; and from Air in the Northeast to Futa Tooro in Guinea. Instead of organizing the empire along Islamic lines, he tempered and improved on the traditional model by instituting a system of bureaucratic government unparalleled in the Weste Africa.

In addition, Askia established standardized trade measures and regulations, and initiated the policing of trade routes. He also encouraged learning and literacy, ensuring that Mali's universities produced the most distinguished scholars, many of whom published significant books. To secure the legitimacy of his usurpation of the Sonni dynasty, Askia Muhammad allied himself with the scholars of Timbuktu, ushering in a golden age in the city for Muslimscholarship.

The eminent scholar Ahmed Baba, for example, produced books on Islamic law which are still in use today. Muhammad Kati published Tarik al-Fattah and Abdul-Rahman as-Sadi published Tarik ul-Sudan (Chronicle(history) of the Sudan(an ancient reference to Africa, not political Sudan), two history books which are indispensable to present-day scholars reconstructing African history in the Middle Ages.

                                    Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu (courtesy of mali muso)

Like Mansa Musa, Askia also completed one of the five Pillars of Islam by taking a hajj to Mecca, and, also like the former, went with an overwhelming amount of gold. He donated some to charity and used the rest for lavish gifts to impress the people of Mecca with the wealth of the Songhay. Islam was so important to him that upon his return he recruited Muslim scholars from Egypt and Morocco to teach at the Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu as well as setting up many other learning centers throughout his empire.

Not only was he a patron of Islam, he also was gifted in administration and encouraging trade. He centralized the administration of the empire and established an efficient bureaucracy which was responsible for among other things tax collection and the administration of justice. He also demanded for canals to be built in order to enhance agriculture, which would eventually increase trade. More importantly than anything he did for trade was the introduction of weights and measures and appointing an inspector for each of its important trading centers. During his reign Islam became more widely entrenched, trans-Saharan trade flourished, and the Saharan salt mines of Taghaza were brought within the boundaries of the empire.

              The following are work of scholarship by Africans during Askia's reign

                 
                  Songhai Empire and Islam.
al-Minnah fi Itiqad Ahl al-Sunnah (The Gift of the Followers of the Path of Muhammad).


                 
                Law and Politics in the Songhai Empire.
As'ilat Askiyah wa-Ajwibat al-Maghili (Maghili's Tract on Politics).


                 
                 Ethical Behavior.
al-Fawa'id wa-al-Qala'id (Useful Stories and Verses)


                 
                Philosophical Exchange.
al-Mubin fi Mukhtasar Maani al-Alfaz al-Mutadawilah bayna al-Hukama' wa-al-Mutakallimin (A Summary Explanation of the Pronouncements of the Scholars and Theologians

                   
Manucripts from Timbuktu
(courtesy of mali muso)

Unfortunately as Askia the Great grew older his power declined. Askia Muhammad went blind in his old age, and was deposed (removed from the throne) in 1528 by his son Askia Musa at the age of 80. He died at the age of 96.

Following Musa’s overthrow in 1531, Songhay’s empire went into decline. Following multiple attempts at governing the Empire by Askia’s sons and grandsons there was little hope for a return to the power it once held. Between the political chaos and multiple civil wars within the empire it came as a surprise when Morocco invaded Songhay unexpectedly. The main reason for the Moroccan invasion of Songhay was to seize control of and revive the trans-Saharan trade in gold. The Empire fell to the Moroccans and their firearms in 1591. The use of firearms was important because although Askia was such an innovator, he never modernized his army and replaced their weapons with new European firearms, which in retrospect may have given them a fighting chance against the Moroccans.

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                  News by dopper0189, Black Kos Managing Editor

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Jamie Foxx united with Trayvon Martin’s family for a community peace walk to honor the slain teen and keep alive his supporters’ fight for justice. Miami Herald: Walk held in honor of Trayvon Martin attracts hundreds including actor Jamie Foxx.
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Saturday was a day of remembrance for Trayvon Martin, as about a thousand people including actor Jamie Foxx united with the late teen'€™s family to march, pray, listen to music and hear inspirational messages, while pressing for justice in his killing.

The Trayvon Martin Foundation sponsored the €œI am Trayvon Day of Remembrance Community Peace Walk,€ to honor the unarmed Miami Gardens teen fatally shot in Sanford on Feb. 26 of last year by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman.

œWe'™re here to let the community, and particularly teenagers, know that they have the right to walk in peace without being followed, without being harmed and without being killed€ Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, told The Miami Herald at the start of the event at Ives Estate Park at 20901 NE 16th Ave. in north Miami-Dade. She said the walk would be held annually.

Fulton, Trayvon'™s father Tracy and brother Jahvaris held up a huge banner and marched through the park as the crowd trailed them, chanting €œI am Trayvon Martin.€ Many wore T-shirts emblazoned with Trayvon'€™s picture, as the line snaked toward a band shell.



After speaking to nearly 1,000 supporters, the family of Trayvon Martin -- father Tracy Martin, left; older brother Jahvaris Fulton, and mother Sybrina Fulton -- and actor Jamie Foxx acknowledge supporters' applause during the "I am Trayvon" Day of Remembrance Peace Walk, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013 at Ives Estate Park in North Miami-Dade County. MARSHA HALPER / MIAMI HERALD STAFF


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Residents of Mali's famed desert town, newly free of the militants who imposed harsh Islamic rule, return to the life they enjoyed before the occupation. LA Times: Timbuktu residents savor freedom, tales of resistance
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There were public protests and whispers of secret love affairs. Heroes of resistance everywhere: the female fishmonger who angrily knocked down one of the occupiers, the imam who sent them away from his mosque, the elderly sheep trader beaten for complaining about their ill treatment of others.

Residents of this legendary caravan crossing are free of the violent militants who tried for nine months to impose their extreme version of Islam. French and African forces are continuing to chase them farther north into the Sahara.

And although many doubt that they are gone for good, now is a time for sweeping up and storytelling, for the music, flirting, smoking, community meetings and other small joys that make life in a desert town pleasurable.

Two sisters in clothing as bright as parrot plumage mime out life under the extremists, falling all over each other with throaty, guttural laughter. One exaggerates the creeping terrified walk of women under militant rule, then acts out a woman fleeing, her clownish eyes wide and her bottom sticking out comically.

Azahara Abdou, 20, lashed in public 40 times by militants who accused her of fornication — and then raped her while she was in custody — tells her story wearing a low-cut, clingy red tank top and carefully applied eyeliner.

Timbuktu, pronounced "Tom-book-too" by residents, is a maze of sandy alleys between gray mud houses and mud brick mosques, where sad-looking donkeys stagger, heads down, searching for something to eat, and old men sit on benches surveying the street and drinking small glasses of tea.


Women walk through Timbuktu, Mali, on Feb. 2, moments after the street lights came back on for the first time in months. The town's occupation by Islamic extremists made life difficult for residents until French and Malian forces drove the militants out. (Jerome Delay / Associated Press / February 2, 2013)

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Lead singers behind some of Haiti’s most controversial carnival tunes this year say they are being shut out of the annual three-day pre-Lenten carnival — at the behest of leader Michel Martelly. Miami Herald: Haitian bands say Michel Martelly is censoring carnival songs.
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As ‘Sweet Micky,’ Haiti’s charismatic president built a reputation as the king of carnival by denouncing governments, mooning politicians and being outrageously anti-establish-ment.

Now, as president of Haiti, some say Michel Martelly is banning other artists from taking part in this year’s carnival celebration for doing the same thing he did as a singer: criticizing the government.

Lead singers behind some of this season’s most controversial carnival tunes — most of them critical of the Martelly government — say they were disinvited from being among the 15 bands to be featured on floats for this year’s carnival.

“As young artists, we learned how to do this from him, watching him denounce government after government,” said Don Kato of the group Brothers Posse, whose alleged ban has lit up social media and become a lead story for Haitian journalists. “It makes no sense that as an artist I can’t sing about the environment I am living in, and you want to sanction me because I’m not singing in favor of you.”

In a country where past carnival songs have predicted the fate of governments, carnival lyrics are viewed as the social and political pulse of the country. In the past 20 years, some have even predicted the fates of governments, which Martelly acknowledged in a radio interview Friday, saying songs have the power to “overthrow a government.” Already, political journalists and opposition lawmakers are employing the song lyrics in their own analysis of Haiti’s current rough political waters.




Haitian President Michel Martelly

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Desiline Victor, 102 years old, received a standing ovation during the State of the Union on Tuesday for the determination she showed in braving excessive lines to cast a vote in the last presidential election, from FOX not so much. The Root: Fox News Mocks 102-Year-Old Black Woman.
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Desiline Victor, 102 years old, received a standing ovation during the State of the Union on Tuesday for the determination she showed in braving excessive lines to cast a vote in the last presidential election.

But from Fox News hosts Brian Kilmeade, Martha MacCallum and Bill Hemmer, who wondered what the "big deal" was, she got a dose of mocking that was disrespectful even by that network's standards. "What's the big deal? She was happy," MacCallum argued. "She waited on line, she was happy that she voted."

"They held her up as a victim!" Hemmer chimed in. "What was she the victim of? Rashes on the bottom of her feet?"

Incredible. Listen to the clip here:



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Welcome to the porch, where it's always warm, and the conversations are just fine.

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to Black Kos on Fri Feb 15, 2013 at 01:00 PM PST.

Also republished by Black Kos community and Barriers and Bridges.

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