Sonni Ali brought trade routes and wealthy cities like Timbuktu under his control. Unlike the rulers of Mali, he did not adopt Islam, but instead followed traditional religious beliefs.
Soon after Sonni Ali's death in 1492, however, the emperor Askia Muhammad set up a Muslim dynasty. He further expanded the territory of Songhai and improved its government.
To run the empire more efficiently, he set up a bureaucracy with separate departments for farming, the military, and the treasury. Officials appointed by the emperor supervised each department.
Like Mansa Musa, Askia Muhammad made a pilgrimage to Mecca that led to stronger ties with the wider Muslim world. Scholars from Muslim lands flocked to Askia Muhammad's court at Gao. In towns and cities across Songhai, he built mosques and opened schools for the study of the Quran.
Songhai continue to prosper after Askia Muhammad died in 1528, but disputes over succession led to frequent changes in leadership. In 1586, a dispute erupted that led to civil war. Soon after, the ruler of Morocco sent his armies south to seize the West Africa gold mines. The invaders used gunpowder weapons to defeat the disunited forces of Songhai.
Like the Almoravids who conquered Ghana, the Moroccans were not able to rule an empire that reached so far south of the Sahara. With the downfall of Songhai, this part of West Africa splintered into many small kingdoms. Memories of the splendid gold kingdoms of the region survived.
In which ways did Askia Muhammad shape the Songhai empire?
In the period from 500 to 1500, other kingdoms and societies flourished in various part of West Africa. The kingdom of Benin (beh NEEN) developed in the rain forest, while the fertile northern lands of modern-day Nigeria were home to the Hausa (HOW suh) people. They were both successful farmers and traders.
South of the savanna, Benin rose in the rain forests of the Guinea coast. The forest peoples built farming villages and traded pepper and ivory—and later, slaves—to their neighbors in the savanna.
The rulers of Benin organized their kingdom in the 1300s, probably building on the achievements of earlier forest cultures. Their oba, or king, was a political, judicial, and religious leader.
|Timbuktu was one of the grandest and greatest cities in West Africa. Founded in the 5th century, the city was a great cultural, religious, and economic center. The city reached the zenith of its power in the 1400s and 1500s.|
|CENTER OF TRADE||Salt from Taghaza came into Timbuktu by camel in 200–pound (90.7 kg) blocks. Once it arrived, merchants in Timbuktu dispersed the salt throughout western Africa. Merchants from Ghudamis traveled to Timbuktu to buy gold and slaves|
|CENTER OF LEARNING||University of Sankore encompassed 180 Quranic schools with 25,000 students. Sacred Muslim texts were carried into Timbuktu, so scholars from Cairo, Baghdad, and Persia could study them.|
|LOOKING TO THE STARS||Astronomers in Timbuktu charted the movement of the stars while physicians studied the healing properties of plants.|
|CITY OF READING||In the mid–1500s, an Islamic scholar named Mohammed abu Bakr al–Wangariai amassed thousands of manuscripts and books on subjects ranging from history to astronomy.|
|THE FALL||The city began its decline in the 1500s when Moroccan invaders arrested or exiled the Muslim scholars and trading patterns began to shift to the coasts.|
Founded in the 5th century, Timbuktu was a great cultural, religious, and economic center. The city reached the height of its power in the 1400s and 1500s.