Songhai Empire (ca. 1375-1591)

Largest and last of the three major pre-colonial empires.


Traditional African Music by MBarakat


  • located in Western Africa
  • Latitude: between 25 degrees north and 0 degrees (Equator)
  • Longitude: between 15 degrees west and 7 degrees east
  • Capital: Gao, located on the bend of the Niger River, thought to have settle at Gao as early as 500 C.E., didn't become capital until 11th century
  • Other Major cultural and commercial centers: Timbuktu and Djenne
  • Around eastern part of the empire's land there were many droughts and land problems
  • Around the western area there were many water masses, lakes and rivers.
  • Land forms inside area are lake Faguibine, lake debo, the red volta, the white volta, and the Sahel
  • conquered Mema in 1465 and Timbuktu 3 years later
  • Moroccan invasion force came from the North when the Emperor Askia Pauod died


  • rough climate
  • cool and dry from November to February
  • hot and wet from May to October
  • hard place to far crops

Economic Activity

  • very strong trading kingdom
  • economic trade existed throughout the Empire, due to standing army stationed in the provinces
  • central to regional economy
  • controlled much if the gold and salt trade across West Africa
  • Merchants form partnerships
  • state protects these merchants and the port cities on the Niger
  • known for the production of practical crafts and religious artifacts
  • the clans decide a person's occupation
  • taxes imposed onto peripheral chiefdoms and provinces; to ensure the dominance of Songhai, and in return provinces are given almost complete authority

Political Boundaries

  • Expanded in all directions, from the Atlantic (modern Senegal and Gambi) to what is now Northwest Nigeria and central Niger
  • Sahara Desert is directly North of the Empire
  • Sunni Ali Ber enlarged the empire, taking control of important Trans-Saharan trade routes and cites and provinces of Mali


  • Was one of the largest Islamic Empires in history (15th-16th century)
  • Ruled by royal family or Sonni
  • Language: Dialects of Songhai; french
  • Religion: Islamic combined with indigenous beliefs
  • Many folklore
  • the people observe the secular holidays of the countries which they lived in
  • celebrated Islamic holidays
  • has a rite of passage follow Islamic models, but some practices go back to the days before Islam was introduced into sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Families tend to be large
  • men and women live separate lives
  • Clothing are traditional western clothing
  • Timbuktu was the educational capital of the empire


  • based on clan system
  • Sonni Ali established a system of government under the royal court
  • Later expanded by Askia Muhammad
  • the Emperor appointed governors and mayors to preside over local tributary states (Niger valley)
  • local chiefs were granted authority over their respective domains as long as they did not undermine Songhai policy.
  • each town represented by government officials (similar to today's central bureaucrats)