Empires of the Forgotten Continent: 8 Fascinating Medieval African Kingdoms
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

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.

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