Wagadu Empire Research Paper

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The Wagagu Empire was a leading military and political state in West Africa during the first and second millennia CE. Although recognized for developing an advanced agricultural irrigation system and later as the seat of an influential Islamic religious/philosophical culture, Wagadu is best known for its central role in the early intercontinental commercial and trade system, especially for gold production and distribution.

Located in the Sahel, the transitional semiarid ecological zone between the Sahara to the north (a camel pastoralist milieu) and the savanna and Middle Niger River Valley to the south (a peasant cattle pastoralist milieu), the Wagadu or Ghana Empire was a dominant military and political state system in the first and early second millennia CE. (Wagadu is the name of the empire in the Soninke language. The word Ghana was one of its ruler’s titles, and medieval Muslim geographers named the empire after this title. Although the present-day Republic of Ghana is named for this ancient empire, they are actually located approximately 805 kilometers apart.) It administered a vast area and embraced a culturally and linguistically heterogeneous population. Muslim accounts dating from the late eighth century to the thirteenth century consistently described it as a powerful polity that was particularly rich in gold.

The core area of the empire, whose roots can be traced archaeologically to the first millennium BCE, was the space of its ruling dynasty (the Soninkespeaking Sissay), military and political functionaries, specialized craft and service groups, and its army. The settlement of Soninke-speakers in the area can be dated to the early second millennium BCE, and the emergence of hierarchically organized polities occurred between 1600 and 1200 BCE. One historically significant feature of the core was its dynamic and expansive irrigated agricultural system. The social organization associated with its complex of intensive farming practices allowed the system to take over cultivable but marginal desert lands and to assimilate other agricultural communities. Another important feature of the core area was the role of the Wagadu military and political elites in production and trade.

According to a late eighth-century source (al-Fazari of Baghdad), Wagadu was 2,000 kilometers long and 160 kilometers wide and was “the land of gold.” The conditions for the expansion of the empire and the development of its domestic economy can be tied to its place in the medieval world economy. Ian Blanchard, a scholar of medieval economic history, has written a detailed study of the history of bullion (gold and silver) production and marketing in the Middle Ages that provides useful insights. He relates that during the years from 930 to 1130, an “industrial diaspora” occurred as the major focus of gold and silver production was relocated from Central Asia to Africa and Europe respectively, and a new intercontinental monetary-commercial system began to emerge. Technological changes in the production base of the West African gold industry—namely, the introduction of the mercury amalgamation process—resulted in a dramatic increase in annual gold production. One consequence of this development was the appearance (between 1136 and 1175) of a distinct North African zone of cheap and plentiful gold, extending from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. The presence of cheap African gold and equally cheap and plentiful European silver led to the emergence of a distinctive Afro-European bullion market that was characterized by long-term price stability and an “anti-cyclonic” circulation of the two metals. West African gold passed north to the Mediterranean world, and in exchange a countervailing supply of European silver fl owed south. The process created an Afro-European market structure that distributed the two metals between the continents. Blanchard goes on to say that the changes in African gold mining and the gold trade permanently established Africa’s position in an intercontinental monetary-commercial system for the next four hundred years. For several centuries the Wagadu Empire had a central role in this system as a distributor of West Africa’s gold.

Extending the Empire

Given its location between the desert and the savanna, the empire had two orientations: one was the northern frontier (irrigated farming and salt production) and the other the southern frontier (rainfall farming and gold production). From the sixth through the twelfth centuries, Soninke-speaking traders, peasants, and political elites moved northward from the empire’s core zone into the southern Sahara to found or to settle in oasis communities. Nomadic Berber-speaking groups were driven out, assimilated, or subjugated. Because of their social commitment to a specialized set of agricultural practices, when the northern “frontier” Soninke took over new land, they introduced a well-defined combination of intensive cultivation techniques and a particular social-administrative organization.

Southward expansion created a different kind of frontier. Soninke-speaking traders, officials, soldiers, and peasants from the core settled in the Middle Niger Valley and the Lakes region at the eastern end of the Middle Niger Valley—also referred to as the Niger Delta. Oral histories record the names of the towns and villages they founded between the eighth and the thirteenth centuries. Indigenous Mande-speaking fishing communities and rice cultivators were either assimilated or subjugated under a civil administration based on that of the core. Other Niger Valley groups—for example, cattle-herding Fulfulde-speaking pastoralists—became tribute-paying vassals, and local elites were incorporated into the Wagadu imperial system as minor functionaries.

The Capital

In his eleventh-century description of Wagadu, the Andalusian geographer al-Bakri (d. 1094) states that the empire’s capital (contemporary sources refer to the capital as “the city of [the] Ghana”) consisted of two large towns situated on a plain. One town was the residence of the king and his court and officials; the other was the town of Muslims, where there were twelve mosques, salaried imams and muezzins, jurists, and scholars. (Al-Bakri relates that the Wagadu king’s interpreters, his royal treasurer, and the majority of his ministers were Muslims. The king and the majority of his subjects, however, were not Muslims at the time al-Bakri wrote his account in 1068.) The towns were almost 10 kilometers apart, but the road that joined them was flanked by uninterrupted habitations. Archaeologists believe that the ruined city of Koumbi Saleh (discovered in 1913) in present-day Mauritania is al-Bakri’s Muslim town. Excavations reveal what was once a densely populated, fortified city of single and multistoried houses. It was a major craft and commercial center and possessed a great mosque, which was built in the tenth century.

Beyond the remains of the city’s fortifications are cemeteries and the remains of many constructions, including habitations, workshops, and a series of stone watchtowers that stretch for a distance of eight kilometers beyond the city’s walls. Beyond the last watchtower was a densely built-up hinterland that stretched a further 12 to 22 kilometers. Extending 100 kilometers beyond the capital are the remains of stone caravansaries (stone inns where caravans stopped), some of considerable size, and an abundance of tumuli and mounds. The largest tumuli represent the remains of towns. Others represent cemeteries, megaliths, and the ruins of villages, fortifications, and workshops. The building styles and material culture of the ruined sites are similar to those of Koumbi Saleh. The size of the capital and the demographic density and the scale of urbanization in the core can be attributed, in part, to the empire’s role in the trans-Saharan and intercontinental bullion trading networks.


Between the ninth and twelfth centuries, cattle herders and millet- and sorghum-producing peasants settled in the lands above the Niger Valley floodplain. Oral histories credit Wagadu governors with constructing irrigation canals and water reservoirs for the purpose of improving agricultural production. Between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, dry-farming agriculture gradually supplanted floodplain agriculture as the principal farming system in the Niger Valley. Dry-farming agriculture was established by migrant Bamana-speaking peasants who settled on the lands above the Middle Niger floodplain. Specializing in millet production, they represented a new and expanding market for the products of the fishing industry. In this way dry-farming stimulated the fishing industry and incorporated it into a wider commercial network that extended to the Upper Niger gold fields and Saharan oases. The growing Niger Valley population created a new market for Saharan salt, urban craft goods, and trans-Saharan imports.

Labor Control

In the context of an expanding intercontinental bullion market, Wagadu sought to exploit more effectively and systematically the natural riches of the Niger River, principally through the development of the fishing industry, the hunting of aquatic animals, and the trade in these resources. The expanding bullion market was connected to the general expansion of long-distance commerce, including the trans-Saharan trade. Urbanization (population growth in established towns and the founding of new ones) and the growth of urban crafts were crucial both to the expansion of trade and efforts to exploit the riches of the Niger River. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, new occupational groups of free-status people known collectively as the Somono were created. Drawn from the ranks of the bonded and war captives, the Somono were settled in new villages or in preexisting ones. In obligatory service to the Wagadu ruler, they specialized in river transport as boatmen and in boat building, aquatic hunting, and the production of fish and fish oil. In return for their obligatory services to the ruler, the Somono were granted, by the ruler, a monopoly over certain economic activities within the Middle Niger Valley. If the ruler did not protect their monopoly, they were no longer obligated to provide him with their services.

A concomitant development was the creation of a number of hereditary slave groups. They included blacksmiths, cultivators, fishermen, herders, masons, armed retainers, messengers, and boatmen. Known collectively as the Zanj, they were royal property and were in lifelong service to the king. In this and later periods there were different categories of servitude in the western Sudan, and some of these categories do not have counterparts in other areas of the world. The Zanj consisted of specialized economic groups, each of which was endogamous. They were royal property in the sense that they were obligated to pay “tribute” to the rulers in the form of economic and service activities. They owned property (for example, their instruments of production), and they could also own slaves (just as slaves could own slaves). Their property was their own and not the rulers, which gives a distinct twist to the condition of servitude in the Wagadu Empire. The specialized economic groups—the Somono and the Zanj—exercised monopolies over their specific activities and occupations, in return for which they paid tribute to the Wagadu rulers.

Long-Distance Trade

The Middle Niger Valley was known to medieval Muslim geographers as the “Land of the Wangara.” In this context, the name Wangara refers to the principal gold merchants of the empire and to the towns they inhabited. (Wangara is a generic name given to long-distance traders, specifically gold traders; hence it refers to an occupational/economic group and an accompanying social status.) The Wangara trade network covered an immense area, joining the entire Niger Valley into a single commercial-craft system, running from the goldfields in the Upper Niger basin in the west to the Lakes Region in the east. In addition to bullion, this system distributed a wide range of products—salt, copper, iron, craft goods, produce, fish, and so on—both within and beyond the empire. Exporting perhaps 13 to 18 metric tons of gold to North Africa under the most favorable conditions and perhaps 4 to 9 metric tons in less favorable circumstances, it was responsible for ensuring the empire’s place in the international bullion market.

Islam and the Empire

The history of Islam in the Wagadu Empire can be divided into two phases. The first phase (eighth to eleventh centuries) belongs to Kharijite Islam; the second (eleventh to twelfth centuries) to Sunni Maliki Islam. Muslims of the Ibadi stream of Kharijite Islam introduced Islam into Wagadu in the eighth century. From that date until the twelfth century Ibadi merchants and clerics settled in the empire’s urban centers, trading and proselytizing. The earliest converts were the Wangara gold merchants. Ibadi- Wangara relations were not only commercial; they were also scholarly. Between the ninth and eleventh century the Ibadi-Wangara communities produced an influential religious-philosophical culture, which embraced a significant part of the western Islamic world.

The Sunni Maliki phase is associated with the religious reforms of the Berber Almoravid dynasty in North Africa (1039/40–1147). The ruling dynasty and the political elites of Wagadu converted to Sunni Islam in the 1070s or 1080s and joined the Almoravids (a coalition with the Senegal Valley–based Takrur Kingdom; Wagadu joined this coalition in order to take part in controlling the western trans- Saharan routes up to the Maghrib). Thus, Islam became the state religion of Wagadu. The inhabitants of the capital’s Muslim section were Kharijites and Sunni Maliki believers. In the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Kharijites became a minority among the faithful. The Almoravid-Wagadu connection had both a military and intellectual dimension. Writing between 1137 and 1154, the Andalusian geographer al-Zuhri refers to prominent Wagadu scholars, lawyers, and Qur’an readers in Andalusian towns. He also mentions the Wagadu army commanders who traveled to al-Andalus to participate in the jihad against the Christians of northern Iberia.


By the early thirteenth century Wagadu ceased to be a state system in the political geography of West Africa. The Soso kingdom, a former tributary located along the southern frontier of the empire (late twelfth to early thirteenth century) and then the Mali Empire (midthirteenth to mid-fifteenth century) that arose on the Upper Niger River reduced Wagadu to a tribute-paying vassal state. Nevertheless, Wagadu’s core zone continued to flourish until the first half of the fifteenth century, after which it ceased to exist as a political entity.


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  9. McIntosh, S. (Ed.). (1995). Excavations at Jenne-Jeno, Hambarketolo, and Kaniana (Inland Niger Delta, Mali), the 1981 season. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
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  11. Miller, J. A. (2001). Trading through Islam: The interconnections of Sijilmasa, Ghana, and the Almoravid movement. The Journal of North African Studies, 6(10), 29–58.
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