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I. Introduction

African history is filled with many developments and events which help students to better understand world history, as well as the condition of societies today. In learning about Africa, exposure to specific communities, cultures and civilizations can provide greater insight to general trends throughout the continent's history. Three distinct ancient kingdoms of West Africa, help to bring out this point. These are Ghana, Mali and Songhay, known as the Sahelian kingdoms.

The Sahel, which is the region of West Africa just south of the Sahara desert became established as an important area of trade around 700 A.D. Advancements in transportation, such as with the use of camels instead of horses, allowed for long-distance travel across the Sahara, This region and the kingdoms which arose in it were connected by trade with various parts of Africa, Europe and Asia. In the course of almost a millennium, it flourished at varying times as an economic, political, cultural and religious center.

II. Time Period of Kingdoms

A) Ghana: One of the earliest known kingdoms in this part of West Africa, Ghana was dominated by the Soninke, a Mande speaking people living near the southern border of the Sahara. This kingdom lasted from 750 A.D. to 1200 A.D. It became known as the "land of gold" for its role as an economic intermediary within the gold trade from south to north. Ghana came to a decline in 1075 with the invasion of the Almoravids, who were mainly Berbers from the north.

B) Mali: Also built upon the monopolization of trade, this kingdom came to power in 1200 A.D. and lasted until 1500 A.D. It encompassed most of West Africa north of the forested region. One of its greatest leaders, Sundiata is praised in several accounts by griot story-tellers for uniting the Malian empire. It was in the 1400's that Mali began to decline due to a series of weak kings and the decentralization of its influence.

C) Songhay: This kingdom existed under the control of Mali, but began to break away and establish itself around 1350 A.D. and remained until 1600 A.D. Songhay was larger than Mali and was centered along the Niger river. During this time, the city of Timbuktu intensified as a center of Islamic learning, attracting scholars from around the world. The empire was so large that it became quite difficult to control and fell due to a series of revolts.

III. Historical Figures and Places

A) Tunka Manin: One of the most notable kings of Ghana, he was known for his formidable army and a splendid royal court. He ruled during the 11th century.

B) Sundiata Keita: The founder of Mali, Sundiata rose from a royal slave and magician to a leader, establishing major territories through which gold was traded. He introduced, the cultivation and weaving of cotton into the region. Sundiata unified the empire not only through commercial links but by laying the foundation for a common cultural identity. As one of Mali's greatest heroes, his life is recounted in griot storytelling tradition. The epic stories tell that he was born lame, but was cured by a miracle and later became a great hunter and warrior. Sundiata's use of supernatural powers are said to have helped him to defeat his enemies and form the empire of Mali, which means "where the king resides".

C) Mansa Musa: This king of Mali ruled from 1312 to 1337 and under his regime, the borders of Mali expanded greatly into more trade routes and wealth-producing areas. As a devout Muslim, he embarked on a pilgrimage to Mecca, the holy city of Islam. It is said that he caused quite a stir due to the enormous number of attendants and amount of gold he took on his journey. When he passed through Cairo, he gave so much gold to the residents that the price of the commodity fell and the whole economy of the city was affected.

D) Timbuktu: This Malian city first gained prominence under the reign of Mansa Musa. It became a major cultural and religious center of the world. Through Mansa Musa's patronage, vast libraries were built and Islamic universities were endowed. It served as a meeting place for the finest poets, scholars and artists of Africa and the Middle East.

E) Askia Muhammad: Renowned not only for political and military genius, this ruler of the Songhay empire from 1493 to 1528 was also praised for his piety. He was quite charitable to those in need and like Mansa Musa, made a pilgrimage to Mecca. As he commanded more territory than any other West African ruler, Muhammad developed the art of government to a high level of sophistication. He opened the ranks of government offices, establishing an organization which was a precursor to the modem concept of a professional civil service. He also modernized his army, developing better training and discipline methods.

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