The Empire of Ghana

The Kingdom of Ghana, also known as Wagadu or Wagadugu, was the earliest known empire of western Sudan and was founded by a king of the Soninke people. Europeans and Arabs mistakenly named it Ghana, which means “ruler”. The first historical records of this nation are from the end of the 8th century, but it probably came into being long before that. Oral records maintain that it emerged by the 7th century and had over 144 kings. Modern day Ghana has no historical connection to the medieval kingdom.

The rulership of Ghana was matrilineal, which means that the sister of the king gave birth to the new ruler. The bloodline of the royal family was continued through its women. The king did not rule his state alone, but was helped by a People's Council whose members came from all levels of society. This type of social organization shows that Ghana's political system was well developed because it included citizens and didn't rely on the guidance of a single person.

Economy and Industry

This kingdom had a very advanced system of administration and taxation because traders had to travel through its lands to carry goods like gold and salt to and from North Africa to the southern parts of West Africa. The state's economy was dynamic and helped to expand the kingdom into an empire.

It also had large armies and defeated smaller states around it who had to pay tribute and taxes to its rulers. Although Ghana received great riches from its subordinates, it did not rely on them for its economic growth. Instead it developed agriculture, iron smelting, stone masonry, carpentry, pottery, cloth manufacturing and goldsmithing. The products they produced were traded along the Trans-Saharan trade routes from western Africa to Egypt and the Middle East in the north. They usually exchanged their goods for gold, salt, copper and sold war captives as slaves.

Even though there are written records of Ghana, like in the “Book of Routes and Kingdoms” by 11th century geographer Abu Ubayd al-Bakri, the kingdom is still a mystery. North Africans call it the “Land of Gold” because gold was plentiful in the area, but the locations of its gold mines were kept secret to maintain control over them.

Religion and Decline

Although the people of Ghana protected their good relations with Muslim traders, allowed Muslims to live in its cities, and even encouraged Muslim advisers to help the royal court with its administration of legal issues, the kingdom never converted to Islam. The Muslim religion had been the main faith in northern Africa since the 8th century and Ghana's northern neighbors were dedicated believers. These Muslims called themselves the Almoravids and in 1076, in the 11th century, they declared a holy war, or “jihad”, against Ghana under the leadership of Abdullah ibn Yasin.

The kingdom of Ghana was destroyed and many of its people converted to Islam. After this the once powerful state lost its military and commercial power. From 1180 to 1230 the southern parts of what used to be Ghana was controlled by the Sosa people, who were anti-Muslim, but the empire of Ghana had come to an end.

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