Ghana was the first great African empire of the western Sudan and was located in what is now southeastern Mauritania and western Mali. Historians believe that a group of people called the Soninke founded Ghana as early as the year 300 AD and it thrived until around 1200. The name Ghana means both “warrior king” and “king of gold.” The actual name of the empire was Wagadu, but was called Ghana by Arab historians.
The domestication of the camel, which preceded Muslims and Islam by several centuries, brought about a gradual change in trade, and, for the first time, the extensive gold, ivory trade and salt resources of the region could be sent north and east to population centers in North Africa, the Middle East and Europe in exchange for manufactured goods. Ghana was well placed to take advantage of trade. It was located midway between the desert, the main source of salt, and the goldfields of the upper Senegal River in the savannah woodlands in the south.
Camel caravans crossing the Sahara brought goods such as copper and dried fruit, as well as salt that was mined at Taghaza in present-day northern Mali. The caravans also brought clothing and other manufactured goods, which they exchanged for kola nuts, hides, leather goods, ivory, gold, and slaves. Taxes collected on every trade item entering the kingdom were used to pay for government, a huge army which protected the kingdom’s borders and trade routes, and the upkeep of the capital city and major markets. The Cordoban scholar Abu Ubayd al-Bakri claimed that the Ghana could “put 200,000 men into the field, more than 40,000 of them archers” and noted they had cavalry forces (horses) as well. However, it was control of the gold fields in the southwest that was essential to Ghana’s political control and economic prosperity. The location of these goldfields was kept strictly secret by the Soninke. By the tenth century, Ghana was an immensely rich and prosperous empire, probably controlling an area the size of Texas or Nigeria in what is now eastern Senegal, southwest Mali, and southern Mauritania. The ruler was acclaimed as the “richest king in the world because of his gold” by Arab traveler Ibn Haukal, who visited the region in about 950 A.D. Demand for gold increased in the ninth and tenth centuries for minting into coins by the Islamic states of North Africa. As the trans-Saharan trade in gold expanded, so did the state of Ghana. The trans-Sahara trade also brought Islam to the empire, initially to the rulers and townspeople.
Locally obtained iron ore was used to make tools, which made agriculture easier and more efficient, and permitted the growth of larger settled communities. Iron-tipped spearheads, lances, knives, and swords gave ancient Soninke soldiers technological superiority over their neighbors who used bone and wood. The Soninke were thus able to capture more farming and grazing land from their weaker, less-organized neighbors. The Soninke were also able to obtain horses from the Saharan nomads with whom they were in contact, which enabled them to move farther and faster.
At the peak of its power, the Kingdom of Ghana consisted of Ghana proper or metropolitan Ghana, and provincial Ghana. The provincial part consisted of the states that had been conquered and annexed. Central government was the responsibility of the king and his ministers, the governor of the capital city, and a number of civil servants who, by the middle of the 11th century, were Muslims who could keep records and communicate in Arabic. As semi-divine ruler, the king could appeal to a vital combination of both the religious and political loyalties of his people.
At the height of Ghana’s prosperity, the capital city of Kumbi Saleh was the biggest West African city of its day and had as many as 15,000 inhabitants. About 320 kilometres north of modern Bamako, Kumbi was a twin city with two separate centres 9.6 kilometres apart. Although the two towns were linked by a continuum of houses, they were distinct in character and function. The one part formed the Muslim quarter where the North African merchants resided during their trading missions to Ghana. This was the main commercial area and their influence was apparent in the many stone built houses, the 12 mosques and the presence of many clerical scholars. So long as they obeyed the laws and paid their taxes, the traders were accorded safety and hospitality. This was a partnership in long-distance trade that lasted for a very long time.
The other ‘town’ of Kumbi, known as Al-Ghaba, was the more important for it was the administrative centre of the Empire and where the King of Ghana lived in his royal residence made of stone and decorated with paintings, carvings and fitted with glass windows. Close to the palace there was a stone mosque for the use of Muslim visitors and officials. The rest of the buildings of Al-Ghaba were constructed of mud and thatch in the traditional manner and around the whole quarter were defensive earthen walls.
There were numerous reasons for the decline of Ghana. The King lost his trading monopoly, at the same time drought began and had a long-term effect on the land and its ability to sustain cattle and cultivation. The wealth of ancient Ghana is mythically explained in the tale of Bida, the black snake. This snake demanded an annual sacrifice in return for guaranteeing prosperity in the Kingdom, therefore each year a virgin was offered up for sacrifice, until one year, the fiancé (Mamadou Sarolle) of the intended victim rescued her. Feeling cheated of his sacrifice, Bida took his revenge on the region, a terrible drought took a hold of Ghana and gold mining began to decline. There is evidence found by archaeologists that confirms elements of the story, showing that until the 12th Century, sheep, cows and even goats were abundant in the region.
Another major factor in the decline of Ghana was the emergence of the Muslim Almoravids, a militant confederation of the Ṣanhājah and other Amazigh groups of the Sahara who combined in a holy war to convert their neighbours. Abū Bakr, the leader of this movement’s southern wing, took Audaghost in 1054 and, after many battles, seized Kumbi Saleh in 1076. The Almoravids’ domination of Ghana lasted only a few years, but their activities upset the trade on which the empire depended, and the introduction of their flocks into an arid agricultural terrain initiated a disastrous process of desertification. The subject peoples of the empire began to break away, and in 1203, one of these, the Susu occupied the capital. In 1240 the city was destroyed by the Mande emperor Sundiata and what was left of the empire of Ghana was incorporated into his new empire of Mali.