Africa, Emerging Civilizations In Sub-Sahara Africa
Various Authors

Edited By: R. A. Guisepi

Date:        2001

Native Cultures In Sub-Sahara Africa


By A.D. 1200, the process of civilization was approaching global
dimensions. At the same time that Europe, Asia, and the Middle East were
experiencing dynamic cultural growth during the late medieval period,
sub-Sahara Africa and the New World were undergoing similar changes. Indeed,
both regions had developed high civilizations before the European impact of
the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

African and American civilizations were each distinctive, although
generally similar to those in Eurasia. In all three areas, flourishing
agriculture supported expanding populations, large cities, highly skilled
crafts, expanding trade, complex social orders, and developing states. The
basic culture of sub-Sahara Africa evolved mainly from its own traditions,
while imported Eurasian culture, such as Islam, was relatively superficial.
American civilizations were even more original, having developed in complete
isolation from the Old World.

The most noteworthy native American civilizations were those of the Mayas
in Yucatan and Guatemala, the Aztecs in central Mexico, and the Incas in Peru.
The Mayas are especially famous for their mathematics, their solar calendar,
and their writing system, still largely undeciphered. The Aztecs and Incas
conquered large populations and governed large states. Each civilization
produced distinctive art, religion, values, and customs, some of which have
become part of the Latin American heritage. Even today, Latin American artists
often take their themes from these traditions.

African civilizations before the sixteenth century compared favorably
with those in Europe. Ethiopia, in East Africa, was already flourishing while
the Roman Empire was disintegrating. In the tenth century, and possibly two
centuries earlier, East African cities were trading by sea with Persia and
India. Shortly after, the Kingdom of Ghana rose in the western Sudan. After
about A.D. 1200, when European states were becoming centralized monarchies,
comparable kingdoms were rising in sub-Sahara Africa, particularly in regions
drained by the Niger, Congo, and Zambesi rivers. Europeans arriving after the
1400s found well-organized governments and societies bound by strong

Native Cultures In Sub-Sahara Africa

As late as the fifteenth century, cultures in sub-Sahara Africa were
still somewhat distinct from the states, which were relatively new and often
shaped by foreign influences among the ruling minorities. Most sub-Saharan
Africans, even those living in powerful states, still held firmly to old
loyalties associated with lineage, village, and religion. Because this respect
for tradition was so typical of all these societies, we can understand them
better if we first take note of their ancient cultural foundations.

Geographic, Ethnic, And Historical Backgrounds

Geographic factors help explain sub-Sahara Africa's relatively late
state-building. Climatic changes between 5000 and 1500 B.C., which produced
the Sahara Desert, limited cultural contacts with the Middle East and the
Mediterranean basin. When such contacts became more frequent in the Christian
era, local African traditions were deeply rooted and resistant to change. In
addition, the vast space open to migration south of the Sahara decreased
conflict over land, thereby lessening what had been a significant stimulus in
the formation of many early Eurasian states. This factor, too, helps account
for delayed political development.

Although most Americans have traditionally thought of sub-Sahara Africa
as an immense jungle, more than half of the area comprises grassy plains,
known as savanna. The northern savanna, sometimes called the Sudan, stretches
across the continent, just south of the Sahara. Other patches of savanna are
interspersed among the mountains of East Africa, and another belt of grassland
runs east and west across the southern continent, north of the Kalahari
Desert. Between the northern and southern savannas, in the region of the
equator, is jungle. Heavy rainfall here permitted the cultivation of some
nutritious crops, but soils were not very fertile, and the rain forests
produced many dangers, including sleeping sickness, to which both humans and
animals are susceptible. Generally, the most habitable regions have been the
savannas, which have favored transportation and agriculture.

After the Sahara became arid, the most prominent sub-Saharan peoples were
Negroid speakers of diverse but related Bantu languages. Originating in west
central Africa, between the savanna and the forests, the Bantu began migrating
after about 1000 B.C. For centuries, they moved south and east, ultimately
spreading along the east coast. By A.D. 1000, they had reached central Natal,
in what is now the Republic of South Africa. During their migrations, the
Bantu absorbed or displaced other Negroid peoples of eastern and southern
Africa, driving pygmies, Bushmen, and Khoisan-speaking pastoralists into the
southern jungle, the Kalahari Desert, or the extreme southwestern savanna.
Thus Bantu migrants provided most of sub-Sahara Africa with a common cultural

The Bantu migrations were closely related to agriculture and iron-working
in a continuous reciprocal process. Developing agriculture expanded Bantu
populations; iron tools and weapons provided the means to acquire new lands;
and the resulting migrations spread both technologies through the whole
sub-Sahara region.

Until recently, most scholars believed that early Bantu peoples acquired
agriculture from the upper Nile, via the northern savanna. More recent
linguistic and archeological investigations suggest that plant domestication
began independently in Ethiopia, the central Sudan, and the upper Niger,
centuries before the Sahara became a desert. Regardless of which theory is
correct, it is clear that a number of native crops, most notably bulrush
millet and sorghum, were cultivated in the western savannah by 2000 B.C. These
were diffused south to the original Bantu homelands, where they were augmented
by African yams.

The vitality of early Bantu agrarian society is well illustrated by the
Nok culture, which flourished in central Nigeria after 1000 B.C. Its skilled
gardeners provided economic support for great artists, who produced beautiful
terracotta (baked clay) sculpture. Later, as the Bantu moved east and south,
leaving the forest, they improved their gardening techniques and their food
stocks by adopting Near Eastern grains and plantains. They also began herding
cattle, sheep, and goats.

With the Bantu migrations, iron-working diffused rapidly through
sub-Sahara Africa. This revolution, which had recently stirred all Eurasian
civilizations, was brought from Egypt to Nubia in the seventh century B.C. It
appeared in the western Sudan at about the same time, apparently brought south
across the Sahara by Berbers, in contact with Phoenician or Carthaginian
traders. Iron was produced in the Nok culture by 500 B.C., and iron-working
was known to the earliest Bantu migrants, who ultimately brought it down the
east coast beyond the Zambezi by the fifth century A.D. African ironmasters
became very proficient and were highly respected. In some areas of
West-Central Africa, their craft assumed such ritualistic significance that
their furnaces were located in secluded places. After about A.D. 900, during
the second iron age, African furnaces were capable of generating higher
temperatures than those in Europe before the 1700s. By then, Bantu craftsmen
were producing high quality implements, as well as beautiful jewelry in copper
and gold.

This later era brought a climax in social evolution. Between 1300 and
1500, for example, the Bantu population increased from 21 to 30 million
people. ^1 Trade also expanded significantly, not only within sub-Sahara
Africa but also with the Mediterranean basin and other Eurasian areas. Rising
commerce encouraged the growth of cities and the organization of large states.
Such changes were most typical of the western Sudan and East Africa, which
combined native African and non-African cultures. But even in the Bantu
hinterlands, where foreign influences were nonexistent or only indirect,
cities appeared and strong kingdoms emerged. In their institutions and values,
these proto-civilizations were predominantly African.

[Footnote 1: Colin McEvedy and Richard Jones, Atlas of World Population
History (New York: Penguin, 1978), pp. 238-259.]

[See Bantu Migrations]

The General Culture Pattern

Although Bantu-speaking societies were remarkably diverse, their
institutions, values, and aesthetic styles reflected a common pattern.
Usually, authority was strongest in the village, where it was exercised by
elders of extended families (lineages), who claimed descent from a great
ancestor. Both custom and religion supported this system. Traditional rules
governed an individual's social functions and activities, which were often
performed within his or her age group. Respect for the community was
paramount, speculative innovation was suspect, and selfish behavior was
discouraged or punished. Political authority beyond the village was most
effective where it depended upon these local loyalties. Kings based their
right to rule on descent from divine ancestors but exercised such rights
within the limits of customary law.

Sub-Saharan economies, outside of the Sudan, Ethiopia, and the east
coast, were based largely upon simple agriculture without plows and draft
animals, although a primitive irrigation was in evidence. Pastoralism was
common throughout the savannas, particularly among seminomadic peoples,
including some Bantu-speakers. Most of the basic handicraft industries were
well developed, including spinning, weaving pottery-making, carpentry, and
metal-working. Using relatively crude methods, African miners procured iron,
copper, and gold ores. Highly skilled craftsmen sought to protect their
secrets by organizing their families into tightly knit groups. Trade was
usually a function of the crafts, although specialized merchants and trading
societies were often present in the cities. Generally, these economies
depended upon individual skills, employed within community and family

The kinship principle was fundamental to social organization throughout
sub-Sahara Africa. Loyalties to the clans, each comprising all members of an
extended family, living and dead, were more compelling than class interests,
even in the cities. Sometimes, clans were combined in more artificial tribal
systems. Tribal chiefs were often hereditary, but most were also confirmed by
clan elders, who were all presumed to be at least distantly blood-related.
Because tribes and lineages were older than the villages, the latter were
often divided into separate kinship groups. Grouping individuals of different
lineages into age-sets, such as children, apprentice warriors, and elders,
helped alleviate divisiveness. Secret societies, including members drawn from
mature age groups, also united lineages and encouraged loyalty to village or
tribal communities.

Kinship societies were typical; but many changed as they experienced
productive economies, property relationships, and increasingly prevalent
warfare. In the process, ancient matrilineal clans, with descent traced
through women, gave way gradually to patrilineal groups, with men in control.
The change was reflected in marriage customs, where the traditional dowry,
supplied by the wife's family, was replaced by "bride-price," paid by the
prospective husband. This enforced the idea that wives are valuable property,
to be protected and used for economic gain. Within patrilineal societies, a
minority of male elders governed, while women did most of the work, including
agricultural labor. Such practices, however, do not prove the complete demise
of matriarchal values, many of which lingered on. There were instances where
wives still dominated their husbands, demanding gifts when they produced
children and going back to their families when at odds with their spouses.

The confusion of male and female roles is perhaps best illustrated in
Bantu political institutions. Most states were headed by kings, but
matrilineal descent was quite common in royal lines. This could involve
complex relationships, resulting from the effort to reconcile male royal
authority with the traditional practice of matrilineal succession. To solve
this problem, the heir apparent was sometimes a nephew of the queen and a son
of her oldest brother. In another scenario, where kings followed the common
practice of marrying their sisters, the relationship may not have been sexual
but merely symbolic, permitting women to share royal power in nominal
patrilineal systems. There were also numerous examples of queens who held
supreme authority, with or without a consort. This was not typical, but even
in states where male supremacy was most pronounced, women were often powers
behind the thrones. The king's mother, the queen, or both usually advised the
monarch, particularly on matters pertaining to women and economic
organization. On occasion, women also served as councilors or officials; they
were often priests; and in a few instances, they fought as soldiers.

The newer patrilineal political systems developed slowly but directly
from older kinship structures. Although many Bantu-speaking societies remained
"stateless," some developed kingdoms from tribal bases. Monarchs were at first
tribal chiefs, some of whom managed to conquer or otherwise unite other
tribes. Kings generally carried on the traditions of the lineages, claiming
descent from divine ancestors who lived in a half-mythical "dreamtime" of the
distant past, when they had brought a message from the gods, led their blood
brothers on a great migration, or found land to settle. Kings were considered
semidivine, but their actual powers were limited by traditional ceremony and
law. Their rule depended upon support from lineage chiefs, village headmen,
and secret societies. Some later kings appointed their own officials, but
these were usually selected from local leaders.

The most abiding part of the sub-Saharan African heritage was its value
system, rather than its social or political institutions. Supporting such
institutions were customary beliefs which shaped all aspects of life. Most
common to these beliefs was a profound awareness of human interdependence.
Appreciation for community and law, mingled in primitive superstitions and
intuitive insights, found expression in hundreds of oral myths and stories,
known to Africans from the Niger to the Limpopo. The rich Bantu heritage in
art and music reflected the same communal perspectives. Such values have been
common to tribal societies everywhere, but nowhere else have they endured so
tenaciously into advanced stages of civilization.

Religion touched every phase of human experience in sub-Sahara Africa.
Specific beliefs varied from tribe to tribe, but some general tenets were
common. Most Bantu-speaking peoples believed that the dead continued to
influence the lives of their survivors; indeed, the ancestors were considered
to remain in spirit, eliciting respect and concern from the living, who might
welcome ancestors at meals or appease them when they were angry. Sub-Saharan
Africans also recognized many spirits identified with natural forces, both
benign and dangerous. Most of these societies also believed in a supreme being
as the highest power, the source of all excellence and virtue but far removed
from human understanding.

Sub-Saharan Africans were remarkably skilled and sensitive artists,
particularly in sculpture. Ancient sculptors carved wood, ivory, or soapstone
and cast in bronze, as well as working with baked clay. The famous bronze
statuary of Benin, climaxing a long development in Nigeria, has been compared
in craftsmanship and aesthetic sensitivity with the best work of the European
Renaissance. Statuary and sculptured architectural decorations were often used
to record historical events. Despite its characteristic realism, black African
sculpture also symbolized religious themes.

Symbolism, religious and otherwise, was also typical of African music,
especially of drum rhythms and dance. Like law and religion, music was a part
of everyday life. Bantu songs recounted real life experiences such as hunting,
planting, cattle trading, courtship, and the adventures of famous heroes.
Unlike musical events in Europe or contemporary America, where the performing
artist plays to an audience, all individuals present tended to participate.
Exceptions were mostly to be found in such states as Mali and Axum, where
professional musicians were kept at royal courts, according to customs
prevalent in North Africa or the Middle East. African audiences in the
traditional Bantu societies usually became involved by clapping or dancing.
Nothing could better illustrate the prevailing adherence to communal values.

Representative Bantu States

The ancient common culture pattern was well illustrated by a number of
emerging Bantu states in the late medieval period. They include Zimbabwe and
Mutapa in contemporary Zimbabwe; Kongo, which straddled the great river in the
southwest; and Benin, near the mouth of the Niger. The Mossi and Yoruba
states, which arose in the Niger backcountry, were typical of numerous less
powerful Bantu polities.

Upon arriving in East Africa at the opening of the sixteenth century, the
Portuguese found the Kingdom of Mutapa controlling 700 miles of the upper
Zambezi. They learned from Mutapan oral tradition about two recent kings who
had conquered an empire between the Zambezi and the Limpopo. The last
conqueror had moved his capital north to the Zambezi, but his successors still
revered the ancient stone ruins of the original capital at Zimbabwe in the
southern highlands. Great Zimbabwe, which reached its peak of development
between 1250 and 1450, is the most impressive among hundreds of stone ruins,
dating from the same era in that region. Its great buildings, extending over
sixty acres, included a palace capable of housing a thousand servants and a
temple with walls ten feet thick and twenty feet high. Labor for such projects
was supported by a flourishing gold trade with the coastal cities, continued
later by Mutapa. Without written records, scholars cannot precisely describe
the Zimbabwe polity, but Portuguese accounts of Mutapa provide some indication
of what the parent civilization was like.

The royal capital of Mutapa contained a palace complex within a wooden
palisade. Here, in addition to the king's quarters, were those for the queens
and the royal pages, who were young hostages from subject peoples, sent to
serve at the Mutapan court. The royal household also included the king's
personal aides, such as the captain of the guard, the king's pharmacist, the
head musician, and the doorkeeper. The most powerful officials, however, were
the nine "wives of the king." Of these, the top ranking "wife" was the king's
sister, who was in charge of foreign affairs. Only one queen, who ranked third
in the hierarchy, was a true wife. The others were chief ministers and
regional governors, with their own estates, vassals, and revenues. Some were
not even women, but all were related to the dynasty by symbolic marriage ties,
a practice evidently carried over from a past when all the ministers were
women. Another sign of an earlier female emphasis was a military contingent of
women, who played a decisive part in the election of kings. This
tradition-bound bureaucracy and its related lineages imposed practical limits
upon the king, despite his recognized divinity.

Another notable kingdom was Kongo, located near the mouth of the Congo
River. It was formed in the fourteenth century when a petty northern prince
named Wene led a migration into the south, married into the local ruling
family, and began acquiring vassals through conquest and voluntary submission
of local rulers. A typical Bantu hero, Wene took the title of ManiKongo (lord
of the Kongo). His successors governed a realm which united six former states
between the coast and Stanley Pool.

By the time the Portuguese arrived in the 1400s, Kongo had already
developed a bureaucratic monarchy. The king had a paid bodyguard and a central
government, collecting taxes in copper and cloth, which served as currency in
regular trade between the coast and the interior. Appointed governors and
district officials enforced authority in the six provinces. In the late
fifteenth century, the whole system was based upon innumerable agricultural
villages, which were still organized in the old matrilineal lineages but
governed by brothers and nephews. Wives and daughters did most of the work in
the fields.

North of Kongo, on the forested coast of southern Nigeria, was Benin, a
prosperous and powerful kingdom two centuries before the Portuguese arrived.
Unlike Kongo, it had grown wealthy from its merchants' overland trade with the
Sudan, although it did not become Muslim or import Sudanese culture. Among
Benin's greatest rulers was Ewuare, who killed his rival and took the throne
in 1440. He was remembered as a powerful magician and healer but was more
famous as a conqueror of 200 towns, extending Benin's boundaries to the Niger
and into the Yoruba hinterlands.

The kings of Benin, known as Obas, lived in a huge palace, protected by a
surrounding maze of courtyards. They maintained large, well-trained armies.
Aiding the king was a council, comprised of hereditary officials who were
royal family members. Government outside of the capital, Benin City, was
largely in the hands of town and village chiefs, also related to the ruling

In addition to Benin, other states in the Niger region profited from
contacts with the Sudan but continued developing their Bantu culture.
Commerce, traditionally monopolized by women at the local level, had become
thriving long-distance trade by the fifteenth century, when tribal towns north
and west of Benin were heavily involved in military struggles for commercial
dominance. The kings (Alafins) of Oyo, one Yoruba state, began building a
tributary empire. It functioned, before 1500, as a complex mix of palace
councils, subkings, secret societies, and lineage organizations at the village
level. Later, in the sixteenth century, Oyo would become a strong rival of

The Bantu heritage was equally striking among the Mossi states of the
upper Volta, on the borders of Mali and Songhai in the western Sudan. By the
fifteenth century, the five original Mossi kingdoms were united in a
federation of subkings, each recognizing one ruler as overlord. This potentate
headed a government of sixteen ministries, his palace housed hundreds of
servants, and his army included efficient cavalry units. The Mossi polity
resembled its greater Muslim neighbors, except for its religion and its
orientation toward the outside world. In these respects, its rulers were loyal
to the spirit of their ancestral religion and their customary law.

All of the states described here were closer to their native traditions
than were the older and more complex polities in the Sudan, in Ethiopia, and
along the East Coast. Most of these latter states espoused Islam, while
Ethiopia had been Christian since the fourth century. In addition, they
imported non-African languages, writing systems, art, and cultural traditions.
Because they developed earlier, they have often been regarded as sources of
civilization spreading into the African interior. Such a process did take
place, as is most evident on the borders of the northern savanna. Yet all
innovations were integrated into older African cultures. This was true of all
sub-Saharan states, but especially true of emerging southern Bantu monarchies
after A.D. 1000.

Hybrid Civilizations Of Sub-Sahara Africa

While Bantu states in the forests and the southern highlands were
evolving toward centralized monarchies, other sub-Saharan cultures were
maturing into complex but varied civilizations. The western Sudan produced
great empires, comparing in reputation with Eurasian imperial states.
Ethiopia, a compact Christian monarchy, developed a unique identity while
relatively isolated in the Abyssinian highlands. The Swahili sultanates on the
east coast were independent cities, prospering in sea trade with Asia. But
despite their differences, these societies were more economically advanced,
more complex in political organization, more literate, and more aware of the
larger world than those of the southern Bantu. Indeed, they were hybrid
civilizations, with a layer of non-African values and institutions
superimposed upon their native cultural foundations.

Early Contacts With Non-African Civilizations

Outside influences reached sub-Sahara Africa from ancient times, despite
its relative isolation. Egypt expanded southward into the eastern Sudan before
2000 B.C.; Phoenicians, in their day, circumnavigated the continent, trading
along the way. Later, Carthaginian galleys sailed the northwest coast, and
still later, Romans reached the east coast through the Red Sea. They also
traded across the Sahara, particularly after the second century A.D., when
they brought Asian camels to North Africa. Following the Roman era, Eurasian
influences reached Africa via the upper Nile, the ports of western Asia, and
the rapidly developing caravan trade of the western Sahara.

The major source of Egyptian influence upon sub-Sahara Africa was the
black Nubian Kingdom of Kush. Once an Egyptian province, Kush became
independent in the eighth century B.C. Its kings governed Egypt briefly before
the 600s; after being driven from the north, they continued to rule the upper
Nile, perpetuating an Africanized version of Egyptian culture, complete with
pyramids. During the early Christian era, their capital city at Meroe became a
famous iron-smelting center. Kush conducted a lively trade with Egypt, the
central Sudan, Ethiopia, and Arabia. An Axumite invasion destroyed the kingdom
in the fourth century, but two surviving Nubian states maintained Christianity
and the traditional civilization until they were overrun by Arabs in the
fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

A second foreign influence upon sub-Sahara Africa came from pre-Islamic
Arabs, who crossed the Red Sea and colonized the Eritrean coast around 1000
B.C. They interbred with native Africans to form a state called Axum, which
rose on the Somali coast of Ethiopia. After destroying Kush in 350 B.C., Axum
extended its control into the highlands. It brought many Semitic influences to
northeast Africa, including some aspects of Judaism and a distinctive
language. It also accepted Coptic Christianity from Egypt, maintaining close
contacts with Near Eastern centers until it was isolated by the rise of Islam
in the seventh century.

Of all the early foreign influences in sub-Sahara Africa, the Islamic
religion was undoubtedly the most significant. Originating in western Arabia,
it spread rapidly through the Near East and North Africa in the seventh
century. From Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt, it was carried into the northern
savanna by traders, missionaries, and conquerors. It also followed Arab and
Persian sea trade from the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf to East Africa. With
Islam came monotheism, Arabic language and writing, Arabic and Persian
literature, coined money, and bureaucratic government. Islam was considerably
modified by African customs, but it became a potent force, particularly in the
western Sudan.


Among the later sub-Saharan states, Ethiopia was the oldest. Historians
usually record its beginnings with Axum's conquest of Kush, but Ethiopian
monarchs traced their lineage back to the Hebrew King Solomon and the Queen of
Sheba, or Sabea, an ancient state in southwestern Arabia. Whether this is
true, Axum's strong roots in Near Eastern culture were strengthened after its
conversion to Christianity. Although predominantly black, its people were
ethnically, culturally, and linguistically different from the Bantu.

In the sixth century, the country was wealthy and powerful. Cities
boasted stone houses and beautiful churches; the king wore luxurious robes and
rode in chariots pulled by elephants. Axum also produced its own distinctive
gold coins and conducted trade throughout the Near East, transacting business
in Greek or in its own official language, known as Ge'ez.

This picture changed drastically after Muslims conquered North Africa in
the seventh century. They soon drove the Axumites from the Red Sea coast and
into the highlands of the interior, where they fought to preserve their
independence, their Christianity, and their culture. This struggle became
particularly intense after the tenth century, when the country was weakened by
a revolt, led by a reputedly Jewish queen in the southwest who played off
Muslims against Christians, killed the Ethiopian king in battle, seized the
throne, and reigned for forty years, persecuting Ethiopian Christians
throughout the land. In the twelfth century, another rebellious local queen
helped further Muslim influence. By the fifteenth century, however, Ethiopian
monarchs had united local tribes, Christian and Muslim, into a tributary
empire, whose monarch termed himself "King of Kings."

The outstanding emperor of the era was Zara Yakob (1434-1468), who
achieved internal unity for Ethiopia and security among its warlike Muslim
neighbors, most of whom he defeated and reduced to vassalage. He is best
remembered as a stern reformer who stamped out heresy, strengthened the
Ethiopian Church, and reorganized the bureaucracy. He also established
tentative relations with the pope, seeking European aid against his Muslim
enemies. Unpopular at the time, this policy later led to alliance with the

Zara Yakob held sway over a loosely controlled tributary state, but
within his immediate environs he ruled as an absolute autocrat, surrounded by
hundreds of courtiers and servants. He was aided by two chief ministers, two
chief justices, a secretary, and a chaplain. The "Negus" (Emperor), as head of
the Church, appointed the bishops and took an active part in church
administration. Although he traveled constantly about the country, accompanied
by his enormous retinue, the Negus allowed the public to see him only on rare
occasions, when he appeared on a high platform, specially built for the

Like the Middle Eastern states, to which it was closely related in
history and culture, Ethiopia developed a male-centered society. According to
Ethiopian legend, the first king, a son of the Queen of Sheba, swore at his
coronation that Ethiopia would never be ruled by a woman. The king, though a
Christian, usually had three wives and numerous concubines, who were kept
secluded in their own quarters of the household. They had few political
duties. Although the queen mothers were honored, and one might occasionally
serve as regent for a young son, their political influence, like that of the
royal wives, usually had to be exerted through some sympathic male of status.
As among Arabs and Jews, this influence was often beneficial and decisive,
despite its unofficial nature. On the other hand it could be quite disruptive
when it resulted in palace intrigues and conspiracies among royal mothers,
maneuvering to gain the throne for their sons.

The economy of medieval Ethiopia was based primarily upon local
agriculture. Axum's extensive commerce declined after the eighth century, as
it shifted gradually from the sea to land trade with the interior.
Nevertheless, the country enjoyed moderate prosperity, as evidenced by
bountiful public revenues and lavish expenditures in church-building. The
Emperor received tribute and taxes, mostly in goods, which were stored in
warehouses. In addition, the monarch's daily needs were largely supplied by
local rulers or officials, who entertained his entourage as it moved from
place to place.

Ethiopia acquired a rich cultural heritage, drawn mainly from the Middle
East. Its traditions, even before the Christian era, were generated from the
religious lore of Palestine and Arabia. Consequently, its most enduring
cultural expressions were its churches, the most famous of which are the
beautiful and awe-inspiring rock-hewn cathedrals of Roha, built after the
eleventh century in the reign of the legendary Emperor Lalibela, who was
declared a saint by the Ethiopian Church. These huge architectural projects
compare favorably with similar temples in India for their ingenious
engineering. This religious accent was typical of all scholarly and aesthetic
pursuits, particularly in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when
Ethiopians produced innumerable biblical translations, theological treatises,
biographies of saints, historical chronicles, illuminated manuscripts, and
mural paintings.

Swahili Cities In East Africa

From ancient times the East African coast was involved in long-range
maritime trade. Phoenician, Greek, Roman, and Arab traders regularly operated
as far south as Zanzibar before Bantu migrants arrived in early Christian
times. The rise of Islam furthered commercial expansion in the Indian Ocean,
but East Africa was not much affected until the twelfth century, when a wave
of Arab and Persian commercial colonists begantransforming primitive trading
settlements into flourishing Muslim commercial cities.

During the peak period of Swahili civilization, between 1200 and 1500,
the east coast was studded with thirty-seven city-states along the 1500 miles
between Mogadishu in the north and Sofala in the south. Among the best known
were Malindi, Mombasa, and Kilwa. Most Swahili cities were on islands,
protected by sea from the foreign Bantu world of the mainland. Common people
in the cities were from that world, either as descendants or migrants. Free
intermarriage between a Middle Eastern elite and native inhabitants had
produced a diverse racial mixture, described later by the Portuguese as
varying from black through tawny to light, according to locality and social
class. Swahili, the language of these cities, was mainly Bantu, but included
some Arabic, Persian, and Hindu. Islam was usually the official religion,
although shaped by local beliefs and customs. Generally, the culture was a
synthesis of African and Middle Eastern, with the latter more pronounced among
the upper classes.

The Swahili cities were independent, with some temporary exceptions. At
times, one city might exact tribute from its neighbors, or a number of states
might federate in time of war. But commercial competition made such
cooperation difficult to maintain and curtailed political expansion toward the
Bantu interior, where kingdoms like Mutapa played one coastal city against
another. Within the cities, governments were usually headed by monarchs
(sultans), assisted by merchant councils, holy men, or royal relatives.
Although the sultans were typical Muslim rulers in most respects, the common
order of succession was drawn from the Bantu matrilineal tradition. When a
sultan died at Kilwa, Pate, or numerous other cities, the throne passed to one
of the head queen's brothers.

As the Muslim Middle East became the commercial center of Eurasia,
maritime trade of the Swahili cities figured largely in the commercial
development of three continents. Kilwa became the major port for gold sent
through Egypt to Europe. Iron ore, exported from Malindi and Mombasa, supplied
the furnaces of India. A number of Chinese expeditions visited the coast in
the early 1400s (see ch. 8), exchanging porcelain for typical African
products, including exotic animals such as ostriches, zebras, and giraffes.

In this era of their greatest prosperity, the Swahili cities built stone
mosques and palaces, adorning their buildings with gold, ivory, and other
wealth from nearly every major port in southern Asia. Kilwa impressed the
famous Muslim scholar-traveler Ibn Batuta as the most beautiful and
well-constructed city he had seen anywhere. Archeological excavations
revealing the ruins of enormous palaces, great mansions, elaborate mosques,
arched walkways, town squares, and public fountains have confirmed this
evaluation. The main palace at Kilwa, built on the edge of an ocean cliff,
contained over 100 rooms, as well as an eight-sided bathing pool in one of its
many courtyards.

The Swahili cities produced their own characteristic culture. Their
beautiful architecture, borrowed from Arabia and Persia, was matched by a
Swahili literature, written in an Arabic script. Poems, ballads, and letters
in Swahili reflected the perspectives of a Muslim urban elite. Most common
people, however, were only indifferent converts to Islam, which they accepted
while holding to their own orally expressed traditional beliefs. A few miles
inland from the cities, the lives of Bantu villagers were relatively untouched
by the ways of the coastal cities.

Empires Of The Western Sudan

More than the Swahili cities and Ethiopia, the great states of the
western Sudan were based upon native African traditions. The old Bantu ways
remained very strong, particularly among women, who outwardly accepted the
imported Muslim religion but retained their attachment to old customs and
freedoms. Yet despite this pull of the past, the area was much affected by
outside contacts, particularly those arising from trans-Saharan trade with the
Mediterranean lands to the north.

Following the third century, when camels were first employed in this
trade, large caravans, sometimes including 10,000 pack animals, made regular
trips across the dangerous desert, carrying North African salt in exchange for
West African gold. To these great expeditions, the Niger River offered a
secure watering and resting place. Here were people who knew the savanna and
could easily find the still distant gold-producing areas. Thus Africans living
near the great bend of the river came into control of the lucrative gold and
salt trade. Many traders were women, particularly those operating in local
markets, where rising prosperity and accumulating wealth increased the traffic
in foods and luxury goods.


The earliest of the kingdoms of the western Sudan was Ghana (not to be
confused with the modern state of the same name). It arose on the upper Niger
during the fourth century as a loose federation of village states, inhabited
by Soninke farmers. According to unconfirmed legends, it was first ruled by a
Berber dynasty, which was overthrown about A.D. 700, when Kaya Maghau led his
kinsmen in an uprising, killed the last white ruler, and established a Soninke
dynasty. Kaya was remembered as a great warrior, who expanded Ghana's
boundaries while furthering trade across the desert.

Ghana reached its peak in the eleventh century. The Arab chronicler
al-Bakri noted in 1067 that the army was 200,000 strong, with many contingents
wearing chain mail. The king, who had not converted to Islam, was considered
divine and able to intercede with the gods. He appointed all officials and
served as supreme judge. When he appeared in public, he was surrounded by
advisors and princes of the empire, along with personal retainers holding gold
swords, horses adorned with gold-cloth blankets, and dogs wearing gold

Ghana's wealth derived partially from its efficient irrigation
agriculture, but the gold trade was an even more significant factor. The king
claimed every gold nugget coming into the country, leaving ordinary citizens
the right to buy and sell only gold dust. Taxes were levied on the many goods
crossing Ghana's borders. The commercial emphasis is evident in al-Bakri's
description of the capital, Kumbi-Saleh. This was really two towns, some six
miles apart, one occupied by the king and his retinue and the other by foreign
merchants. Even the merchants' town had twelve mosques, two-storied stone
houses, and public squares. This, along with the Muslim legalists and
theologians who lived in Kumbi-Saleh, suggests a prevailing Islamic influence,
although the king publicly consulted priests of the traditional cults.

Ghana's decline and eclipse in the early thirteenth century remains
something of a mystery. One Muslim account of an Almoravid invasion from
Morocco, around 1080, has been seriously questioned by recent scholarship,
without completely resolving the question. Later kings apparently accepted
Islam, but this may have been voluntary. At any rate, Ghana remained intact
but weakening for another hundred years. In 1203, its rule was ended by the
uprising of a petty vassal, who was later overthrown by Sundiata, founder of


After defeating and killing the tyrant who had subjugated his kinsmen and
murdered his brothers, Sundiata took over Ghana and gained control of the
desert gold trade. Thus began a new ruling dynasty in the western Sudan.
Sundiata's immediate descendants converted to Islam, which aided their further
conquests, until by the fourteenth century, Malian kings ruled over more than
forty million people and 400 towns in the entire Sudan-Sahel region of West
Africa, which stretched from beyond the upper Niger to the Atlantic.

The kingdom was at the height of its power and prosperity during the
reign of Mansa (King) Musa (1312-1337). Musa was perhaps the first African
ruler to be known throughout the civilized world of western Asia and Europe.
He was a great soldier, consolidating his control over a vast domain. He also
encouraged the growth of Islam in his lands, importing Muslim scholars and
architects to promote learning, build mosques, and implement his political
authority. His fame abroad resulted mainly from his pilgrimage to Mecca in
1324, when his thousands of retainers and generous gifts completely amazed his
hosts along the way. Gold expended then in Cairo caused ruinous Egyptian
inflation for a generation.

Mansa Musa ruled over a state more efficiently organized than the
relatively crude European kingdoms of the time. On the north and northeast
were loosely held tributary kingdoms of diverse populations, including some
Berbers. To the south were more closely controlled tributary states, under
resident viceroys, appointed by the Mansa. Elsewhere, particularly in the
cities, such as Timbuktu, provincial administrators governed directly in the
king's name and at his pleasure. The central government included ministries
forfinance, justice, agriculture, and foreign relations.

Ibn Batuta visited Mali in 1352 and left a detailed description of the
country. He was most impressed by its law and justice, which guaranteed that
no man "need fear brigands, thieves, or ravishers" anywhere in the Mansa's
vast domain. Batuta praised the king's devotion to Islam but was disappointed
that so many Malians were not Muslim. He noted also that the unveiled women
were most attractive but lacking in humility. He was astounded that they might
take lovers without arousing their husbands' jealousy and might have male
friends, with whom they regularly discoursed on learned subjects. Batuta was
describing the city of Walata, where he found women better educated and
enjoying more freedom that in other countries he had visited. ^2 He might have
said the same about a number of Sudanese trading cities, including Adoghast,
Kumi Saleh, Gao, and Timbuktu.

[Footnote 2: Rhoda Hoff, Africa: Adventures in Eyewitness History (New York:
A. Walck, 1963), pp. 10-13.]

After Mansa Musa's death, his successors found the large empire
increasingly difficult to govern. They were plagued by poor communications,
the diversity of cultures, and the competition of rising states, whose rulers
were also converting to Islam. One of the rebellious states was Songhai,
farther down the Niger. Before the end of the fourteenth century it had won
its independence. Within another century it had conquered Mali.

Other Sudanese States

Songhai reached its zenith during the reigns of Sonni Ali (1464-1492) and
Askia Muhammed (1493-1528). Sonni Ali captured Timbuktu in 1468, while
conquering most of Mali, When he died, after thirty years of ruthless military
dictatorship, Askia Muhammed set about reorganizing the whole empire. He
created central ministries, an appointed provincial administration, a
professional army, and an enlarged fleet of canoes, which constantly patroled
the Niger. He also reformed taxation, instituted a systems of weights and
measures, and regularized judicial procedures. During his reign, the Sankore
mosque in Timbuktu became so renowned as a center of learning that a
contemporary traveler noted more profit being made from bookselling than from
any other trade. When Askia Muhammed died, Songhai was respected throughout
the western Islamic world.

Another rising Savanna state after the fourteenth century was
Kanem-Bornu, located near Lake Chad in the central Sudan. By the eleventh
century, the parent kingdom of Kanem was a prosperous contemporary of Ghana.
After being overrun by invaders and then reconquered by earlier migrants to
Bornu in the west, it emerged a second time after 1400. As did those of Mali,
the women of Kanem-Bornu enjoyed a high social status. From the tenth century,
they had held important government positions; the king's mother was an
official advisor along with his chief wife and eldest sister. The kings
commanded a large army, which they used to extend their territories. Like the
Mansas of Mali, they attempted, with some success, to impose their Islamic
religion upon their people. In the fifteenth century, they developed close
relations with pro-Turkish regimes in North Africa and the Middle East, thus
increasing their trade and their military support.

Farther west, between Lake Chad and the Niger, were the seven independent
Hausa kingdoms, each organized as a city-state. Before the eleventh century,
Hausa kings were hampered by a lingering matrilineal system, in which each
monarch shared power with a queen mother and other female councilors. Later,
as the cities began prospering in trans-Saharan trade, and as commercial
rivalry increased, their weaknesses became more evident. This situation
changed some after the fourteenth century, when most of the kings accepted
Islam, using it to free them from old matriarchal restraints and prepare
literate officials for governing the villages. The new Muslim age of
despotism, competition, and warfare decisively weakened the traditional status
of Hausa women. One king of Kano, in the late 1400s, even had his wives and
thousand concubines secluded, as was the custom in the Muslim Middle East.

All the Sudanese states, despite their significance in the trans-Saharan
trade, were relatively weak and insecure. Their Islamic culture, which
generated literary and architectural achievements, was a thin veneer over a
traditional African way of life. Royal administrators were hard pressed to
control lineage chiefs and self-sustaining villages. Ultimately, Sudanese
polities depended upon able kings; inefficient monarchs invariably brought

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