Mali and Songhay


Songhay was an empire which arose in the 15th century as a challenge to the empire of Mali, in the West-Central Sahel. Since the 13th century Mali had controlled trade routes linking the region to North Africa and beyond, with gold the prime commodity. The emperor of Mali, Mansa Musa, performed a famous pilgrimage to Mecca with a retinue of 10000, passing through Cairo with so much gold that rampant inflation occurred in the economy; he became widely known throughout the Mediterranean world and is depicted on the 1375 Catalan Atlas.


In the 15th century Mali’s power declined. Timbuktu fell in 1434, and by the 1460s Songhay was in the ascendance with its capital at Gao. The rise of Songhay saw a new, complex and sophisticated military administration develop in the Niger Bend region, and the continuation of diplomatic and cultural links with North Africa and beyond. However in the later 16th century decline set in and the Songhay army was routed by a force from Morocco in 1591.

Songhay’s importance is fundamental to many aspects of West African history. Not only did the Songhay Askias (Emperors) expand upon the Soninké traditions of kingship which characterised the empires of Ghāna and Mali, but it was also under the Askias that the role of Islamic scholars became ever more central to the articulation of political and religious power in West Africa. It was under the Askias that Timbuktu rose to become a centre of Islamic jurisprudence and scholarship for the whole of West Africa. Following the fall of Songhay in 1591, many of the scholars migrated to parts of Mauritania and northern Nigeria, and thus Timbuktu’s religious and legal scholarship influenced much of West African thought.

Detail of the Catalan Atlas, showing Mansa Musa. Source: Wikicommons

Songhay’s role in this area was to remain important through to the late 18th century, when important political leaders such as Uthman dan Fodio of Sokoto (in north-western Nigeria) were strongly influenced by the ideals developed by the salihs (wise scholars) of Timbuktu. Such a deep-rooted history left lasting legacies, and the most powerful physical reminders of the past of Songhay and its successor states in the form of the many thousands of Islamic manuscripts from Timbuktu and the surrounding area which are still preserved today.