Empires of the Forgotten Continent: 8 Fascinating Medieval African Kingdoms

Empires of the Forgotten Continent: 8 Fascinating Medieval African Kingdoms

Stephanie Schoppert - March 31, 2017

Stories of European medieval kingdoms abound with tales of crusades, knights, wars, and rulers. There are tales of Asian heroes and medieval legacies and the Byzantines ruling throughout eastern Europe. There are even numerous stories of central American medieval kingdoms, with the Aztecs ruling massive cities. But very little attention is paid to the great kingdoms that flourished throughout Africa during the Middle Ages. Here are some of the major medieval African kingdoms that are as fascinating as those of Europe, Asia, and the Americas.


The ancient Aksumite Kingdom lasted from the 1st to the 8th centuries CE. The Kingdom had tremendous influence in the world as a trading partner because it stood on the crossroads of three continents: Africa, Arabia, and the Greco-Roman World. Fleets from Aksum controlled trade on the Red Sea through its main port of Adulis and through the inland routes of north eastern Africa. The kingdom rested in the present-day location of Eritrea and the Tigray region of Ethiopia.

Empires of the Forgotten Continent: 8 Fascinating Medieval African Kingdoms
The ruins of the city of Aksum. Whc.unesco.org

The Aksum culture had a significant number of achievements. They had their own alphabet and currency to facilitate their trade. They were also known to build massive obelisks to mark the graves of emperors and nobles. The most notabl is the Obelisk of Askum, which is 1,700 years old and stands 79 feet tall.

The people of Aksum made their fortunes through agricultural products. The rich, fertile soil allowed for wheat and barley, which was then traded throughout the surrounding continents. There was also money to be made from hunting wild animals for ivory. Minerals were also in abundance for the Aksum people and they were able to trade gold, iron, and large quantities of salt in order to keep the kingdom prosperous into the 8th century.

The Aksum kingdom was one of the four great powers of the region during its height, rivaling that of Persia, Rome, and China. Prior to their conversion to Christianity in the 4th century CE, they were a polytheistic people. The kingdom fell into decline when the Islamic Empire spread to the Red Sea and took over much of the Nile, which then isolated the once vibrant trading culture from the rest of the world. This, coupled with climate changes, caused the Aksum Kingdom to fall into decline and it ceased to be sometime around 940 CE.

Empires of the Forgotten Continent: 8 Fascinating Medieval African Kingdoms
Ruins of Kumbi Saleh believed to be the capital of the Ghana Empire.. Atlantablackstar.com

The Awkar or Ghana Empire

The Awkar empire existed from 400 CE until in 1200 CE in the area now known as southeastern Mauritania and western Mali. The Awkar was another empire in Africa that got its wealth from trade in gold and salt. Camels allowed for reliable trans-Saharan trade routes and allowed for urban centers to develop. As the urban areas grew, the desire for territorial expansion grew as well, with more land the empire would have control over other trade routes.

The circumstances surrounding the estbalishment of the Awkar empire are largely unknown. It was first mentioned in written records in 830 CE. It wasn’t until the 11th century that a detailed description was given of the kingdom, taken from stories of travelers to the region. There was a long-held belief that the Ghana Emperor could put 200,000 men in the field for battle with more than 40,000 of them being archers. They were also known to have an established cavalry.

The people of the Awkar empire acted as the intermediaries between the Arab and Amazigh salt traders in the north and the gold and ivory producers of the south. The people of Ghana were Soninke and rarely controlled the sources of the goods they traded. They were a nomadic people and would follow the trade routes to trade with other civilizations as intermediaries. It was the reliance on caravans and trade that would bring about the decline of the empire.

The Almoravid dynasty of Morocco had their own plans for expansion and launched a campaign that spread to the Awkar empire. They were able to conquer the capital in 1076 CE, but the people of Ghana were able to reclaim it a few years later. Despite getting back their territory, their trade networks were now broken and the introduction of pastoral animals caused desertification that ruined the land for the people. The kingdom fell into decline and was eventually incorporated into the Empire of Mali in the 13th century.

Empires of the Forgotten Continent: 8 Fascinating Medieval African Kingdoms
Depiction of Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage. Medium.com

Mali Empire

The Mali empire existed in West Africa from the 13th to 16th centuries. The empire was founded by Sundiata Keita and was known for the immense wealth of its rulers. It was the largest empire in West Africa and continues to have an influence on West African culture today.

The height of the Mali Empire was around 1350, when it was a confederation of three states and 12 provinces. The emperor (or mansa as he was called) was the ruler of over 400 cities, towns, and villages of a range of ethnicities. In total the empire had a population of 20 million and an army that numbered 100,000 men, including 10,000 cavalry. It was the mansa that had the power to dispense justice and tax local and international trade.

The empire of Mali depended on trade for their riches, namely the trade of gold and salt. Mali’s trade focused around three major cities, Timbuktu, Djenne, and Gao. In 1324 the Mali empire became known around the world because of a pilgrimage made by Emperor Musa to Mecca in Arabia. He brought with him thousands of followers and camels laden with gold. The pilgrimage was very publicized, and an accompanying gold trade reached the capitals of Europe and Asia, which put the name of Mali on everyone’s lips.

However, it would be political intrigue that would be the downfall of the empire. There was no rule for orderly succession of the throne and the smaller states decided they wanted to break free so as to stop sending their riches to an emperor. A rebellion in Gao led to the rise of Songhai, which gradually took control of large areas of Mali including the gold and copper mines and the eastern sites for the commercial exchange. While Mali was never completely conquered, by 1545 the empire largely fell out of power and importance.

Empires of the Forgotten Continent: 8 Fascinating Medieval African Kingdoms
16th Century drawing of the capital city of the Kongo Empire. Africanagenda.net

Kingdom of Kongo

The Kingdom of Kongo lasted from 1390 until 1857 when it came under the rule of the Kingdom of Portugal. The large empire spanned from the Atlantic Ocean in the West to the Kwango River in the east, and from the Congo River in the north to the Kwanza River in the south. The Kingdom consisted of several main provinces and had a sphere of influence that reached neighboring kingdoms such as Ngoyo, Kakongo, and Ndongo. The Kingdom of Kongo was largely expanded through trade, alliances, and marriages rather than through military conquest.

The capital and surrounding area were densely packed with people, much more so than the other towns and areas in the Kingdom. This allowed the King to keep manpower and supplies close so that he could centralize the state and maintain an impressive amount of power and control over the populace. In 1578 the kingdom stretched 1,685 miles and had six main provinces that each played a special role. At its height, it was the biggest state in west-central Africa.

The Mbamba province was the military stronghold and had the ability to raise a force of 400,000 trained men into battle for the service of the King. Sofala had the gold mines which was what originally drew the Portuguese to the region. The Portuguese began marrying Africans in order to curry favor and be able to move deeper into Africa. The plan worked and by the end of the 15h century, Christianity began to spread throughout the Kingdom of Kongo.

It was the Portuguese and their boundless desire for gold and slaves that would be the undoing of the kingdom. The King tried to set limits and restriction on the trade of slaves and for a while this worked to maintain a good relationship with the Portuguese. But as demand for slaves continued to grow, the population of the kingdom began to dwindle until it became nothing more than a colony to the Portuguese.

Empires of the Forgotten Continent: 8 Fascinating Medieval African Kingdoms
The Tomb of Askia built at the end of the 15th century. Whc.unesco.org

Songhai Empire

The Songhai Empire emerged from the Songhai state which existed in and around the region of Gao since the 11th century. However, in the latter half of the 13th century, Gao was conquered by the Mali empire and remained under Mali control for nearly 100 years until the Songhai managed to regain control. Then then expanded to take over Mema and Timbuktu from Mali as well. In 1464, Sunni Ali became the first emperor of the Songhai empire.

The Songhai empire struggled to find stability as Sunni Ali’s son Sonni Baru was unable to rule as effectively as his father and was overthrown. Askia Muhammad Toure took over the Songhai Empire and he continued a period of conquest for the Songhai Empire. He was a devout Muslim and established Sharia Law throughout the empire and built numerous schools. He also encouraged the immigration of scholars and skilled workers from around the world.

The empire enjoyed peace and prosperity that continued after Muhammad Toure’s death. Trade flourished, but the majority of the empire’s residents were farmers who relied on agriculture more than trade. Succession was never orderly for the Songhai Empire, as there were frequent plots and coups that culminated in a civil war in 1591. The civil war weakened the empire so much that the Sultan of Morocco sent in an army to conquer the region.

The Songhai outnumbered the invading army, but the Moroccans had muskets and six cannon which were used for the first time. The Songhai were quickly brought under control, but the Moroccans found it difficult to govern them. There were frequent rebellions, constant resistance, and it was difficult to send supplies all the way across the Sahara. Since the Moroccans could not maintain stable control of the gold mines (the reason for the invasion), they pulled out of Songhai in 1661. However, the empire was never fully re-established.

Empires of the Forgotten Continent: 8 Fascinating Medieval African Kingdoms
Church of Saint George a rock carved church dating back to the 13th century. Wikipedia

The Ethiopian Empire

The Ethiopian Empire is known as the last stronghold of Africa. It covered the northern half of modern-day Ethiopia beginning in 1137 with the Zagwe dynasty. The Zagwe dynasty continued the Christianity of the Aksum Empire that existed prior to the conquest of the region by Queen Yodit (whose successors were overthrown by Mara Takla Haymanot the founder of the Zagwe dynasty).

In 1270, the Zagwe dynasty was overthrown by a King who claimed to be of the same lineage of the Aksumite kings who were descended from Solomon. Thus, the Solomonic dynasty was founded by the Habesha, who gave Abyssinia its name. This dynasty lasted until the late 20th century and conquered and incorporated all the people within modern Ethiopia. The Empire also fought off the Italian, Arab, and Turkish armies in order to maintain independence for hundreds of years.

There were numerous monasteries built during the early period of the Ethiopian Empire which perpetuated the Christian culture. From 1200 to 1250, beautiful rock carved churches were created to show the religious mindset of the Ethiopian kingdom and its reconnected ties to Jerusalem. Economic revival came during the Zagwe dynasty, and trade with the Muslim world flourished. Gold, ivory, frankincense, and slaves were exported out of Ethiopia. However, Abyssinian law forbade that Christian slaves be exported to Muslim lands.

It was during the Solomonic dynasty that much of the expansion of the Empire occurred, and the export of slaves exploded. Thousands of slaves were sold to the Ottoman Empire, and the population drastically declined in the Lake Tana region. The expansion caused problems with other regions and many tried to conquer Ethiopia. None of them completely succeeded until Italy finally got the upper hand against the Ethiopians in 1935.

Empires of the Forgotten Continent: 8 Fascinating Medieval African Kingdoms
The Ruins of Great Zimbabwe. africazim-travel.com

Kingdom of Zimbabwe

The Kingdom of Zimbabwe existed from 1220 until 1450 and is most remembered for Great Zimbabwe. Great Zimbabwe is the largest stone structure is southern Africa and it dates back before the colonial era. The region was settled in the 11th century but it was not until the 13th century that the kingdom was formally established. Records left by 16th century explorer Joao de Barros indicates that Great Zimbabwe was still inhabited at that time.

The Kingdom was known for building elaborate stone buildings and walls. Great Zimbabwe was made through a method of dry stonewalling which required a significant level of expertise. It was at Great Zimbabwe that the monarch of the Kingdom resided with 200 to 300 advisers and royals within the main city.

The city was the center of the society and as many as 20,000 people lived on the outside of the city, kept separate from the ruling class by large walls that still stand today. The Kingdom got its wealth from cattle, the staple food for the region. There was also a reliance on the gold trade because the city was built over a gold mine. There have also been some that claim the city was a religious center for the Shona people as a place to worship their main god, Mwari.

During the height of its power, there is evidence that the Kingdom was rich in gold and imported cloth, glass beads, and ceramics while the cattle and farming provided the basic needs of the people. Remains of Chinese pottery and stoneware, an Arabic coin, and a Persian bowl suggest that their trade extended into the East. Historians have debated what caused the decline of the Kingdom. Some believe it was due to changes in the environment that limited the usable land for cattle and that the gold trade declined. Others have suggested that their trade routes may have been disrupted by Portuguese merchants.

Empires of the Forgotten Continent: 8 Fascinating Medieval African Kingdoms
Bronze plaque from the 16th century depicting Benin warriors. Wikipedia

Benin Empire

The Benin Empire was located in southern Nigeria. It was one of the oldest and most highly developed states in the coastal hinterland of West Africa, dating as far back as the 11th century CE. The founders of the Empire were the Edo people, who were ruled at first by the Ogiso dynasty and called the land Igodomigodo. The Ogiso were somewhat mythical kings that lasted until the 13th century. During the 13th century the Edo people grew dissatisfied with the Ogiso and decided to ask Prince Oranmiyan of Ife to rule over them. It was his son Eweka who began the first king of Benin.

Despite taking the throne, authority of Benin did not rest with Eweka but rather with a hereditary order of local chiefs. Ewuare the Great reigned from 1440 to 1480 and was the most famous king of Benin. He firmly moved power from the chiefs to royalty. Ewuare the Great was described as being a warrior and a magician. It was his popularity and leadership that allowed him to establish a hereditary succession to the throne of Benin and vast expand the territory.

Eware was the political, spiritual, judicial, and economic leader for his people. He also built massive walls and fortifications and moats. The towering inner wall was surrounded by a deep moat that historians believe must have taken 1,000 men working 10 hours a day, seven days a week for 5 dry seasons in order to complete. Excavations have found evidence of 4,000 to 8,000 miles of earthen wall that were estimated to take 150 million man hours to complete.

The Portuguese eventually visited the empire at the end of the 15th century. Benin became known for artifacts of bronze, iron, and ivory. The British followed the Portuguese in the 16h century and established their own trading relationship and brought to Europe tales of the Great Benin. The empire lasted until 1897 when the British burned, looted, and destroyed Benin City. Countless priceless artifacts were destroyed, and the beautiful city that had entranced visitors for centuries was no more.