When Europeans first began to explore the African interior, they wished to describe a “Dark Continent”, a primitive place of mystery and danger. But this was a lie, or at best, ignorance.
In fact, the Europeans who arrived in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries encountered a number of well-organised and prosperous societies, some of which were already a thousand years old. Some had long histories of learning and trade closely connected to other non-European societies, especially Arab and Persian Islam, which did not regard Africa as remote.
We are all familiar with one historic African society, Ancient Egypt. Many of us will have heard of ancient Carthage, Rome’s great enemy, and Ethiopia, the mysterious Christian empire of which medieval Europeans dreamed.
But here are 10 great African empires, some of which you may recognise a name and little more, and some which will reveal something entirely new about Africa’s long, diverse history.
Many people have heard the word “Nubian”. Sometimes it is used to suggest something African, or to denote the African-American community in the United States. But what was the real Nubia? And where was it?
Nubia was, and still is, an area of Northeast Africa, a border region between modern Egypt and Sudan. It emerged as a great civilisation around 2000 BCE, south of Ancient Egypt, with which it had a long and complex relationship. But Nubia was very far from just a satellite of Egypt and at times, overshadowed its more famous, northern neighbour. The Egyptians called the area Kush.
Often Nubia was a rival to Egypt, controlling the confluences of the Blue Nile, White Nile, and Atbarah Rivers, and a political and trade struggle ensued. Sometimes Egypt conquered Nubia but in the eighth century BCE, Kush invaded Egypt, its kings becoming pharaohs. Historians believe at times the two cultures were virtually identical, their mutual influence was so great.
As Egypt’s power began to diminish during the last centuries of the BCE period, Nubia became less involved in the affairs of the north and the two cultures separate again. Nubian culture became more unique again, becoming an influence on later Ethiopian and Sudanese cultures.
Nubia’s power in northeast Africa was replaced by that of Aksum (or Axum). Although its origins began around the fourth century BCE, a unified state named Aksum did not emerge until about 100 BCE, after the decline of Nubia.
It traded in a number of exotic African items such as ivory, hippopotamus hides, gold dust, spices, and elephants. It imported silver, gold, olive oil, and wine.
Rich and well-connected to the known world, Aksum unified the eastern Sudan, northern Ethiopia and Eritrea. Its kings built massively, on a scale inspired perhaps by the (already to them, ancient) Egyptians. Aksum overtook Nubia too.
It was one of the first societies to convert to Christianity, around 300CE.
Aksum had an extremely long historylasting from the early centuries BCE to about 1000 CE, far longer than, say, the history of ancient Rome.
In the seventh and eighth centuries CE, vast areas of north and west Africa converted to Islam, connecting these regions to the rest of the Muslim world. This huge new cultural zone experienced one of the most dazzling intellectual awakenings in human history around 1000 CE, known as the Golden Age.
Several Arab African empires emerged from Egypt to Morocco, many of which were modelled closely on the Arab caliphate in the Middle East. However, several uniquely African Islamic cultures emerged and were as vital and productive as their eastern counterparts.
The Ghana Empire lay several hundred miles north of the modern country of Ghana, inland in the west African interior. It emerged as a state during the first centuries of the second millennium CE.
Ghana was a lush, agricultural society but its wealth was founded on taxing the trans-Saharan trade and controlling access to its southern goldfields and salt industries.
It became a hugely powerful state: the Spanish Muslim historian al-Bakri claimed the empire had an army of 200,000 men, far larger than most European countries.
Its culture was a blend of Arab-influenced Muslims and traditional beliefs which emphasised the divinity of the king. Such a concept is problematic in Islam and shows how Islam developed in west Africa, often accommodating local beliefs and traditions.
When the gold route changed, the Ghanaian economy began to collapse and political instability overwhelmed it, and it was eventually replaced by the greater empire of Mali.
European image of the 14th-century King Mansa of Mali, famous for his wealth and piety. He gave away so much gold on his hajj to Mecca, the resulting gold depreciation caused a recession throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East.
Deeper in the Sahara, yet intimately connected to the cultural world of Islam, was the empire of Mali, which for several hundred years dominated much of western Africa.
Although Mali originated in a world of remote desert camps, it quickly became one of the brightest centres of medieval learning anywhere in the world, centred on famously beautiful and sophisticated cities such as Timbuktu.
Here, an intense and unique culture of learning developed under the patronage of its educated, intellectually curious elite. Timbuktu’s startling, vast mosque-universities and libraries provide examples of unique architecture. Whilst informed by Islamic rules, the style is uniquely African – sometimes almost avant-garde – in design.
In time, Mali was replaced by the Songhai Empire, which conquered Timbuktu in 1468. Initially the Songhai were not Muslims but later converted and as with other northern and western empires, Islam was an effective tool to extend central authority.
Timbuktu was revived as a great centre of Islamic learning. Eventually, the Songhai Empire became a highly organised, centralised state, which made it very stable. However, in 1591, a long and devastating war with Morocco led to the fragmentation of the Songhai empire and a long period of instability.
Timbuktu was the intellectual heart of both the Mali and Songhai empires. Its unique cultural mix of African and Arab-Islamic influences helped produce its remarkable architecture such as the Djinguereber mosque, pictured.
Another famous empire was that of the Fulani, which arose after the fall of the Songhai. The Fulani often used military jihad as a device to launch wars against enemies (military jihad was not a particularly strong concept in much of medieval Islam) and to establish control across much of West Africa. They were the primary power in the region when the British invaded Nigeria at the turn of the 20th century.
Visitors to these great Muslim empires of Africa from other parts of the Islamic world often praised their learning and sophistication but were shocked by (what they considered) their lax morality and physical immodesty (notably in societies where women bared their breasts).
Late 19th-century, the King of Kanem-Borno.
The Kanem Empire
One of the longest-surviving empires in all history was the Kanem Empire. It emerged in modern Chad and lasted in one form or another for over a thousand years from the 8th century CE onward until 1900, when it was swept away by colonisalism.
At its height it encompassed an area covering much of Central Africa.
Kanem also grew rich from the trans-Saharan trade, and this was probably how it adopted Islam. It exchanged slaves for horses, which in turn aided in the acquisition of slaves, creating an economic cycle that made the country wealthy and powerful.
Its Sayfawa Dynasty ruled for 771 years, making it one of the longest-lasting dynasties in human history.
Further south the impact of Islam was felt only through trade with the great maritime empire of Oman, for example, at its vibrant trading centre at Zanzibar. However, one issue for historians is that large parts of central and southern Africa did not develop writing systems and so discerning the histories of the great empires here can be more difficult, lending such societies an air of mystery.
The Luba-Lunda Empires
These two closely related states, sometimes considered as one, were the interconnected Luba and Lunda empires. They emerged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and survived until colonialism.
Like many of the more southerly empires, what we know of them comes from European reports, the missionaries and explorers of which were beginning to document the interior of Africa at this time.
Luba-Lunda were not Muslim civilisations. Located in the modern Democratic Republic of Congo, their societies were focused on a divine king at the head of a social organisation system which went all the way down to village heads.
They believed society was directly organised by its ancestral spirits and used the enormous spiritual power of the King to impose central authority. This system of government was of enormous influence in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Africa.
The Kingdom of Kongo was one of the best-documented states in sub-Saharan non-Muslim Africa because of the close relationship it developed with the Kingdom of Portugal.
Kongo lay several hundred miles west of Luba-Lunda on the central African coastline to the Atlantic. Its craftsmen were experts in metalwork and pottery, and developed lucrative trade systems both with the peoples and states of the African interior and the Portuguese, who arrived on their shores around the time of their own rise to power.
At the same time, a number of Kongo aristocrats converted to Christianity and sought close links with Portugal. The Kongo aristocrats took Western names and wished to portray themselves as devout Catholics, although as with the northern Muslims, visitors were often disconcerted by African approaches to their faith.
A point of ongoing conflict with Portugal was the vast, new slave trade which the Kings of Kongo wanted to control and grow rich from, but which began to destabilise both lawfulness and the social fabric of the kingdom. The empire eventually fell apart because of in-fighting over acquiring war captives to sell into slavery.
The remains of the stone city of Great Zimbabwe
The greatest southern empire was Great Zimbabwe. Great Zimbabwe was the first proper city in Southern Africa which became the centre of an empire. A large stone city was developed from the 11th century, eventually accommodating 20,000 people – a vast community by southern African standards of the time.
Imports came from as far away as Persia and China. Great Zimbabwe was a major source of gold. Its royal court lived in luxury, wearing Indian cotton and copper and gold ornaments.
But Great Zimbabwe’s power seems to have faded by 1450. We know almost nothing of the circumstances, which preceded the arrival of the Europeans in South Africa, when the Dutch formed the first permanent white community there in 1652, by 200 years.
Like several of these empires, it has been suggested that changes in trade, or the decline of gold-mining, caused their decline. Several successor states emerged in the wake of Great Zimbabwe, but by the time the first Europeans visited Great Zimbabwe in 1531, it was nothing but ruins with a few people living in them. Because of the lack of written history, the people living there apparently could not explain much about the remains of the empire in which they lived.
These are just ten of the many African societies that are covered in our upcoming book, A Quick History of Africa. Sign up to our mailing list now to receive a free copy before publication this summer, or to hear about our other exciting new books. Or alternatively, leave a comment below. Which African civilisation did we leave out about which you would like to hear more or leave your thoughts?