About 700 CE the Kanem Empire began to form in what is now Chad and Libya. The nomadic Zaghawa, a Tebu-speaking tribe, were forced southwest to the area around Lake Chad by political pressure and by the desiccation of their grazing lands. As nomads they herded cattle, camels, and sheep. They also harvested wild grains.
The area around Lake Chad was controlled by a number of independent walled city-states belonging to the Sao culture. The Zaghawa eventually dominated the Sao, but during this process they adopted many Sao customs.
The Sao were a civilization that began to flourish about the 6th century. The center of Sao civilization was on the Chari River south of Lake Chad. There is some indication that they may have originated in the Nile Valley. According to one hypothesis, they were the descendents of the Hyksos who had conquered the Kingdom of Egypt and who were later driven out. War between the Sao and the Zaghawa continued from 700 through the 15th century.
By 890, the Arab geographer al-Ya’qubi described the Zaghawa as living in a placed called Kanem. He then listed a number of other kingdoms over which they had control. By this time they had apparently achieved some sort of hegemony over the smaller complex societies that stretched from Lake Chad to the Nile River Valley. According to al-Ya’qubi, they were also involved in the slave trade and were selling slaves to the north.
The conquest of Kanem by the Zaghawa was done under the Duguwa dynasty which was started by King Sef about 700. The dynasty is named for King Dugu, one of Sef’s sons, who was ruling about 785.
Abandoning their nomadic lifestyle, the Zaghawa under King Sef (also called Saif) established a capital at N’jimi (the word for “south”). Under the rule of Dugu, Kanem expanded to become an empire. The Zaghawa kings, called mai, were regarded as divine and belonged to a ruling establishment known as the Magumi.
Archaeological note: the exact location of N’jimi has not been found by archaeologists.
Kanem held a strategic geographic location at the southern end of the trans-Saharan route between Tripoli and Lake Chad. This trade route, which originated in prehistoric times and was flourishing in the 8th century, linked the Mediterranean countries to the resources of Sub-Saharan Africa. Trade goods included ivory and slaves.
The North African traders, primarily Berbers and Arabs, not only brought trade goods, but also a new religion: Islam. In 1085, Hummay, a Muslim noble, removed King Selma, the last Duguwa king, from power and established the Sefuwa (also called Sayfawa) dynasty.
The Sefuwa dynasty brought great changes to the Kanem Empire. First, the court and state policies were Islamized. The conversion to Islam created some dissention and some of the Zaghawa broke from the empire and migrated east. Second, with the conversion to Islam the history of Kanem also had to be revised. Thus, the founder of Kanem, King (Mai) Sef was associated with Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan, the legendary Yemenite hero. Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan (516-574) was known for ending the Axumite rule over Southern Arabia.
With Islam, Kanem was able to take advantage of new ideas from Arabia and from the Mediterranean area. Islam brought literacy, at least with regard to political administration. Under the Sefuwa dynasty, Kanem’s kings travelled frequently throughout the kingdom. The herders and farmers acknowledged their allegiance to the kingdom by paying tribute.
During the reign of Mai Dunama Dabbalemi (1221-1259), diplomatic exchanges were made with sultan in North Africa. In addition, a special hostel in Cairo was established to facilitate pilgrimages to Mecca. Mai Dunama Dabbalemi also declared a jihad against the surrounding tribes and expanded the empire into Fezzan region in present-day Libya, to Kano in present-day Nigeria.
Mai Dunama Dabbalemi rewarded his military commanders by giving them authority over the people they had conquered. The military officers, however, passed their position on to their sons, thus transforming the system from one based on personal achievement and loyalty to the Mai, to one based on hereditary nobility.
Following the death of Mai Dunama Dabbalemi, there was dissention among his sons and dynastic feuds degenerated into civil war. As a result the outlying peoples stopped paying tribute to the Kanem Empire. After the death of Dunama II, the devolution of Kanem increased and by the end of the 14th century, the civil war, the internal struggles, and external attacks had torn the empire apart.
This diary was originally posted on Street Prophets