The 15th and 16th centuries have been called the Age of Empires. We are taught in western public schools about how Spain and Portugal explored the world’s seas and colonized large parts of Africa and the New World.
We are taught about the Mughal Emperor Akbar who extended the power of his empire across the Indian sub continent. And we are even taught about the rise of China was a world superpower during the Ming Dynasty.
But we are rarely told of the far more powerful and influential African empires that rivalled them all. One such empire was Songhai, which reached its full scope, strength, and power under the leadership of a Black man named Askia the Great.
Little is known about the life of Muhammad Toure prior to his military career, but we do know that his reputation was that of an intelligent and ambitious statesman, a wise tactician, and a man of great spiritual fortitude.
With his military and political genius, Askia Muhammad ruled Songhai from 1493 until 1528 – 35 years of unprecedented prosperity in the region.
Askia The Great’s Rise To Power
The man who would later be known as Askia the Great was born Muhammad Toure in a region along the Senegal River around 1443 A.D. Muhammad Toure was born to the sister of Emperor Sunni Ali Ber, the first king of the newly created Songhai Empire, who was then at the height of his conquests. His forces had swept across west Africa, had built and fortified many cities across the region, including Timbuktu, expanded the empire’s Naval force, and had expanded the borders of his empire to engulf the regions formerly occupied by the empires of Ghana and Mali.
When Sunni Ali Ber died in November of 1492 after mysteriously drowning in the Niger River, his son Sonni Baru naturally ascended to the throne. Sonni was nothing like his father; weak, liberal, and incompetent. The people could tolerate an ineffective ruler. What they could not tolerate was a ruler who turned his back on Islam – which is exactly what Sonni Baru had done.
Islamic fundamentalists led by Muhammad (Askia) began a violent campaign to overthrow Sonni Baru. Over 150,000 men mobilized in what would became one of the bloodiest wars in west African history to decide the fate of the empire. In the Battle of Anfao on April 12, 1493, Muḥammad’s forces, though inferior in number defeated Sonni Baru’s forces decisively.
With this victory, Muḥammad assumed the royal title of Askia (or Askiya) which translates directly as “forceful one”.
Reorganizing the Songhai Empire
Askia’s reign began with the re-organization of the administration of the empire. He first selected members of his family to occupy the newly-created positions of director of finance, justice, interior, protocol, agriculture, waters and forests, and of “tribes of the white race”.
To ensure the loyalty of his chiefs, Emperor Askia chose the daughters of his Chiefs as wives, and married off his own daughters and nieces to generals, judges, ministers, and officials within the government. By doing this, the majority of the prominent families within the empire were in some way related to him.
Even though Askia was tolerant of other faiths (his empire encompassed traditional African faiths, Judaism, and several Islamic sects), he established Islam as the official faith of the nobility. He consulted with Muslim scholars at Timbuktu, and began an aggressive campaign to produce the most well educated citizens in the Muslim world. Songhai would give birth to intellectual giants including Mahmoud Kati, who published Tarik al-Fattah and Abdul-Rahman as-Sadi, author of The History of the Sudan (an ancient reference to Africa, not political Sudan).
Under Askia Mohammad, scholarship flourished in Timbuktu and throughout the region. In the rest of the empire, Askia encouraged literacy, academic proficiency, and allowed scholars and students to study abroad in Europe and Asia. The knowledge that they brought back fueled the economic, scientific, and military innovations that would lead to the golden age of the empire. Likewise, students from all over the world traveled to Timbuktu to study scrolls so old that some were said to be remnants of the Great Library of Alexandria.
He divided the empire into four parts (identified by the territories of Timbuktu, Jenne, Masina and Taghaza) and chose a Viceroy to preside over each. The Provinces were then grouped into regions, which were administered by Regional Governors. An advisory board of Ministers supported each Regional Governor. The nucleus of the bureaucracy was Askia himself, assisted by a council of Advisers. Islamic law replaced traditional law in the larger districts, while smaller districts retained their old ways.
With his empire well organized, self-sustaining, and firmly under his control, Askia was able to leave the capital at Gao to embark upon the mandatory Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca in 1496. Askia’s pilgrimage has remained legendary as much for the pomp with which it was carried out as for the marvelous tales to which it gave rise. Mahmud Kati, a chronicler who accompanied Askia on the journey, noted that more than 1,000 infantrymen, 500 horsemen, and 300,000 pieces of gold valued at 2.5 BILLION dollars travelled with Askia on his journey.
Askia’s trip to Mecca was as political as it was religious. Once he arrived, he met the Caliph of Egypt (the Pope of the Islamic church) so that he may be appointed as his religious representative in West Africa. The Caliph agreed. El-Hajj Askia Mohammed Toure returned to Gao in 1497, with a new title. He was now the Caliph of the Western Sudan, spiritual ruler of all the West African Muslims, and thus able to completely unify West Africa’s Muslims.
The Golden Age of Songhai
Having successfully established himself as both the political and spiritual leader of his empire, Askia began his military conquest of West Africa. Songhai had already grown to become the one of the strongest empires in African history, but Askia would expand the empire far beyond what Sunni Ali Ber could have ever hoped to achieve.
He immediately waged a successful jihad against the Mossi of Yatenga, captured Mali, defeated the Fulani and extended the borders farther north than any other Sudanic empire to the ancient salt mines of Taghaza. Years later, he conquered Hausaland (in present day Nigeria) and in a subsequent campaign gained control over the trade routes leading to Tunis, Tripoli, and Egypt. In some of the newly conquered territories, Askia allowed the regional kings to rule as they had before, as long as they paid tribute. In other territories, the Askia created a parallel post to the local governor called the Mondyo (i.e. inspector), who formed the official link to the imperial Songhai government.
None of this would have been possible without the powerful Songhai Navy. Askia’s ships dominated the Niger River with dozens of ports and hundreds of massive warships. A side benefit of the increase in Songhai naval power was an expansion of trade. Ships carried goods to and from Portugal, the Mediterranean, Cairo, Algiers, Morocco and Baghdad. The abundance of new goods and wealth meant the people of Songhai enjoyed a quality of life better than any in Europe at the time.
The army of Songhai was reorganized in an effort to increase speed of deployment, and a new fully-armored Calvary unit was assembled and equipped with lances and archery. Tactically, this gave his army an advantage by putting more distance between them and their enemies while still allowing them to inflict damage.
During this period, Songhai had reached the heights of glory. It had effectively become the richest, most intelligent, strongest, and the largest empire in African history. Its wealth and might would be the 15th century equivalent of the United States of America.
The Decline and Fall of Askia The Great
When Askia defeated Sonni Baru in 1493, he was already in his 40s. By the time Songhai had reached its full glory, Askia was approaching his 80th birthday. Crippled by old age and blind, he was deemed unable to conduct the affairs of the crown.
Askia’s sons began a mad power grab for the kingdom that Askia the Great had built even while the old man quietly faded from life. First, Faria Mousa revolted against his father, forcing Askia to abdicate the throne completely. Faria was replaced by Benkan who took possession of the entire palace and exiled the old man to an island on the Niger River.
However, legend has it that a loyal son of Askia named Ismail traveled to the island to see his father. Askia felt the muscular arm of Ismail and asked him how it was possible that one so strong permitted his aged father to be “eaten by mosquitoes and leapt on by frogs.” When Ismail replied that he had no money to make war, Askia directed him to a spot where he had hidden a treasure. Telling him the names of those who could be counted on for support, Askia dictated a plan of battle. Ismail was victorious and Askia returned to the palace.
In 1538 at the age of 96 Askia the Great, one of the greatest scholars, generals, politicians, and leaders in African history, passed into legend. He is buried in a step pyramid in the heart of Timbuktu.