Songhai Research Paper

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The Songhai Empire of the western Sudan came together from peoples whose livelihoods depended on the Niger; by the tenth century the empire thrived along both riverbanks and the bordering lands. During the sixteenth century, the Songhai city of Timbuktu (Tombouctou) was a great center of learning with hundreds of Qur’anic schools and many learned scholars. After some eight hundred years it lost independence to an invading Moroccan army.

The Songhai (Songhay) Empire was the third of the early great states of the western Sudan, preceded first by the Wagadu Empire (Ghana; flourished in the first millennium CE) and then Mali (flourished mid-thirteenth–mid-fifteenth century). The Songhai Empire was made up of many different peoples who gained their livelihood from the Niger River and its bordering lands. Fishermen called Sorko built and operated riverboats and canoes. The Gow hunted river animals such as crocodiles and hippopotamuses. People known as Do farmed the fertile lands bordering the river. All of these together came to be known as Songhai. The empire developed out of the Kingdom of Gao that had been established by the tenth century. By the second half of the fifteenth century the state was expanding along both sides of the Niger River, which flowed in a great curve through the entire country from west to east. At its peak, Songhai stretched from the area of Nioro du Sahel, near the border of what are now southern Mauritania and western Mali, to Agadez in the modern Republic of Niger. In 1591, after some eight hundred years of existence in one form or another, this western Sudanic state lost its independence to an invading Moroccan army.

Scholarship and Evidence from the Niger Bend

During the sixteenth century, when the Songhai Empire was at the height of its power, the city of Timbuktu (Tombouctou) was a great center of learning with hundreds of Qur’anic schools and many learned scholars writing on a variety of subjects. Until recently, the most highly regarded sources for the history of Songhai through the Moroccan invasion (1591) have been the seventeenth-century Timbuktu historians Ibn al-Mukhtar who wrote Ta’rikh al-fattash (Chronicle of the searcher) and ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sa’di, who wrote Tarikh al-sudan (Chronicle of the Sudan). John Hunwick translated the latter into English in Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire (1999). Another important new source for Songhai history is a large collection of inscriptions that were written on tombstones beginning as early as 1013 CE. These have been translated and studied by P. F. de Moreas Farias in his Arabic Medieval Inscriptions from the Republic of Mali (2003). Farias has convincingly called into question the historical accuracy of the Timbuktu chronicles. The Hunwick and Farias books are essential to any study of Songhai history.

The Kingdom of Gao

In addition to the people collectively known as Songhai, the camel-riding Sanhaja of the Sahara were prominent in the Niger Bend region. The Sanhaja, known locally as Tuareg, settled on the left bank of the Niger at a place that came to be known as Gao, or, as the North African traders called it, Kawkaw. By the tenth century the Songhai chiefs of Gao established it as a small kingdom, taking control of the peoples that lived along its trade routes. Tombstone inscriptions mention two early Songhai dynasties, perhaps indicating simultaneous regional rule. The earliest, which dated from at least 1083–1084 CE went by the title Muluk, with queens possibly sharing power and bearing the title Malika. The other dynasty’s rulers were known as Za or Zuwa, of whom the Timbuktu chronicles make the questionable claim that there were thirty-two (the alleged first Zuwa named Alayaman appears to be entirely mythical). Between 750 and 950, Gao became an increasingly important southern terminus in the trading of goods across the Sahara. Commerce in gold, salt, slaves, kola nuts, leather, dates, and ivory brought revenue from taxes that were levied on all goods moving in and out of the empire. Because of this rich trade, Gao became the capital of Songhai. Recently revealed evidence indicates that Mali gained at least intermittent control of Gao toward the end of the thirteenth century and retained it into the first half of the fifteenth century. Sometime during Mali’s hegemony a new dynasty took power, with the rulers carrying the title of Sii (a contraction of Sonyi, a Manding term). The earliest of the historically documented Sii was Sulayman Dama, who attacked the Malian province of Mema sometime before 1464.

Sii Ali Beeri (reigned 1464–1492)

Sii Ali Beeri expanded the kingdom of Gao westward throughout the Niger Bend and developed it into the Songhai Empire. Sii Ali had a large, well-disciplined army that included cavalry and a fleet of riverboats to transport troops. His imperial expansion included the conquest of both Timbuktu and Jenne, which became the second and third most important cities of the empire after Gao. Having won every battle he ever fought and holding power for twenty-eight years, Sii Ali died in 1492 while returning from a military campaign.

Askia Muhammad the Great (reigned 1493–1528)

In 1493 Sii Ali’s son Abu Bakr Dao (Sii Baru) was defeated in battle by Muhammad Abu Bakr Ture, founder of a new dynasty whose leaders would be known by the title “Askiya,” which had been a rank in the Songhai army since the first half of the thirteenth century. Askiya Muhammad’s devotion to Islam brought relief to the urban Muslim populations who had at times been treated harshly by Sii Ali. The askiya’s piety also contributed to his prestige and power when he went on pilgrimage in 1497–1498 and the Abbasid caliph of Cairo (not Mecca as it is usually stated) named him caliph, or commander of the faithful, in the western Sudan. As one of the greatest of the Songhai rulers, Askiya Muhammad strengthened and extended the empire that had been created by Sii Ali. He created a professional full-time army and built up the Songhai cavalry, expanding Songhai’s control far beyond the territories of the Middle Niger. Under Askiya Muhammad the Great, as he came to be known, the Songhai Empire established tributary lands northward to the salt pans of Taghaza in the Sahara, westward to former territories of the Mali Empire, and eastward to the Tuareg sultanate of Agadez. The empire eventually became so large that its army was divided into two, one for the western provinces based in Timbuktu, and one for the eastern provinces based in Gao. Having grown old and blind, Askiya Muhammad was deposed by his son Musa in 1529, though he lived until 1538.

We know the names of thirty-seven of Askiya Muhammad’s sons by his various wives and concubines, though he is thought to have had many more. These sons were mostly half-brothers, and as they grew up they began to compete for power and to quarrel among themselves. Beginning with Askiya Musa (reigned 1529–1531) and ending with Askiya Ishaq I (reigned 1539–1549), the reigns of the four askiyas after Muhammad the Great were characterized by bloody struggles for power.

Askiya Dawud and His Sons

Askiya Dawud (reigned 1549–1582) is regarded as the third of Songhai’s greatest rulers. He commanded many far-ranging military campaigns, and during the thirty-three years of his reign, as important offices became vacant, he appointed his own sons to the positions, thus eliminating from high office the offspring of other sons of Askiya Muhammad. From his time forward, all Songhai’s rulers were descendants of Askiya Dawud. However, after he died in 1582, warfare once again broke out among brothers competing for power.

With the exception of the sickly Askiya Muhammad al-Hajj (reigned 1582–1586), Askiya Dawud’s sons continued the kinds of deadly power struggles that had characterized the reigns of Askiya Muhammad’s offspring. In 1588, during the reign of Muhammad Bani (reigned 1586–1588), a bloody confrontation between two imperial officers at the Timbuktu port of Kabara led to a civil war that weakened the Songhai armies and contributed to the empire’s subsequent vulnerability to outside invasion. In 1588 Askiya Ishaq II (reigned 1588–1592) came to power, and it was during his rule that Songhai suffered its most devastating defeat.

The Moroccan Invasion of 1591

In 1590, encouraged by a scheming runaway Songhai slave who claimed to be the askiya’s brother, Sultan Mulay Ahmad of Morocco wrote to Askiya Ishaq II demanding, among other things, payment of tax on the salt mine of Taghaza, which was in disputed territory halfway between Songhai and Morocco. Askiya Ishaq II replied with a challenging message, which Sultan Ahmad answered by sending an expedition to attack Songhai. The Moroccan army set out at the end of 1590 with around four thousand fighting men both mounted and on foot, many armed with muzzleloading firearms. They were led by Jawdar Pasha, an Islamic convert of Spanish origin who was a eunuch. The decisive battle between the Moroccan and Songhai armies took place on 12 March 1591 near Tondibi, 48 kilometers north of Gao on the Niger River. The Songhai army suffered heavy losses and retreated across the Niger River, shielded by a courageous rearguard that fought to the death.

Askiya Ishaq II offered the Moroccan invaders 100,000 pieces of gold and 1,000 slaves on the condition that they leave Songhai and withdraw to Marrakech. When Sultan Mulay Ahmad heard that Jawdar Pasha was inclined to accept the peace offering, he replaced him with Mahmud Pasha, who fought and defeated Ishaq II late in 1591. Fleeing to the ancient Songhai homelands, Ishaq was deposed in favor of Muhammad Gao, who was later treacherously murdered by Mahmud Pasha. Under Nuh, a brother of Muhammad Gao, Songhai continued to resist the Moroccan occupation with guerrilla tactics. For two years they fought successful skirmishes against Mahmud Pasha and his troops. Failing to defeat Nuh, Mahmud finally gave up and returned to Timbuktu, but the Songhai were never able to recover their empire.

The Arma of Today’s Mali

The Moroccan invaders established permanent garrisons in all the major cities of Songhai, including Gao, Timbuktu, and Jenne. The Arabic word for shooter, as the Moroccan musketeers were called, was al-rumah, so the occupying soldiers were called Ruma. Within a generation or so the Ruma lost their connection with Morocco, and by around 1700 there were few of their descendants who could speak Arabic. In the Songhai language Ruma evolved into Arma, the term by which the descendants of the Moroccan ruling elite came to be known. The Arma still form a social class in the cities of Jenne, Timbuktu, and Gao in the Republic of Mali.


  1. Farias, P. F. de M. (2004). Arabic medieval inscriptions from the Republic of Mali: Epigraphy, chronicles and Songhay-Tuareg history. London and Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press/ British Academy.
  2. Gibbal, J.-M. (1994). Genii of the River Niger. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  3. Hale, T. A. (1990). Scribe, griot, and novelist: Narrative interpreters of the Songhay Empire. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.
  4. Hunwick, J. (1999). Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire: Al-Sacdi’s Ta’rikh al-Sudan down to 1613 and other contemporary documents. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.
  5. McIntosh, R. J. (1998). The peoples of the Middle Niger: The island of gold. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
  6. Saad, E. N. (1983). Social history of Timbuktu. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Stoller, P. (1989). Fusion of the worlds: An ethnography of possession among the Songhay of Niger. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  8. Stoller, P., & Olkes, C. (1987). In sorcery’s shadow: A memoir of apprenticeship among the Songhay of Niger. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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