Africa is known as the birthing place of humankind, since the oldest human fossils have been found in that continent. The north of Africa is also famous for being home to some of the oldest civilizations of the globe (Egypt, anyone?), but the powerful African kingdoms south of the Sahara receive less propaganda. Yet, these empires had incredible wealth, ruled of over vast lands, and lasted hundreds -or thousands- of years. Here are 4 of the kingdoms of sub-Saharan Africa that achieved all that 1,000 years ago, or more:
1. Kushite Empire (2400 BC-350 AD)
Kush was a powerful kingdom for almost 3,000 years. It had its own writing system and a highly stratified society. Rulers and priests were on top; scribes, artisans, and farmers in the middle; servants, workers, and slaves at the bottom. Kush’s wealth came from luxury trade, it was crossed by trading routes that connected the Mediterranean and Asia with the rest of Africa.
The Egyptians called this land Kush or Nubia (“gold”), while the Europeans used the term Ethiopia (“burnt-faced”). Nubia, as the Egyptians hinted, was rich in gold. But they were also blessed with other minerals such as copper, iron, as well as precious stones. They developed an advanced metal industry. And their fertile land allowed them to cultivate a range of products, from wheat to cotton. Their army, mentioned quite a bit in Egyptian inscriptions, was known for its cavalry and its deadly archers.
Kush’s first capital: Kerma
Since Kush lasted so long, historians usually subdivide it into three kingdoms. The first one had Kerma as its capital. It covered all the territory from the first cataract of the Nile to the fourth, that is 12,000 straight kilometers (750 mi).
During the First Kingdom, Nubians built distinct religious buildings called deffufas, which were towers that rose up to 18 m (59 ft) high. Their interiors were decorated with paintings and gold lief. The towers had an altar on the rooftop that was reached through inner stairs. Three deffufas stood in the middle of the Kerma.
The First Kingdom lasted from 2400 to 1500 BC.
The second capital and the Egyptian wars
The Second Kingdom (1500–591 BC) had constant frictions with Egypt, for the neighboring countries coveted each other’s territories and resources. In the centuries of fighting, sometimes Egypt won (Thutmose III conquered Kush), others, the winner was Kush.
In the 8th century BC, King Kashta of Kush became the ruler of southern Egypt, and then his son Piankhi conquered the rest of Egypt. They founded the 25th dynasty (770–656 BC) that governed Egypt for more than a century.
Thanks to the conquest, Kush now spanned from the Mediterranean to the sixth cataract of the Nile, ruling over about 1,000,000 km2 (386,000 mi²).
The pharaohs governed Egypt from Napata, the capital of Kush. In the core of Napata rose the temple of Amun, which had priests so powerful that they could say when it was a king’s time to die. That led to their downfall, for in around 290 BC they claimed Nubian king Arqamani had to kill himself, but instead of complying he killed the priests. At least that is how Greek historian Diodorus Siculus tells it.
The third and final Kushite capital, the prosperous Meroe
The Third Kingdom (300 BC-300 AD) moved its capital further south, to Meroe, after Napata was sacked.
Meroe was surrounded by fertile land and forests. It had palaces, royal baths, and temples. The rich lived in large houses, while the poor lived in mud-brick houses, a material that helps combat the heat. An inscription boasts that even the poorest citizen of Kush lived better than people elsewhere. Meroe’s streets were lined with statues, and its architecture made use of colonnades and high ceilings -another cooling device. In Meroe it became fashionable among the aristocrats to build Egyptian-inspired pyramids as their final resting place. One of Meroe’s cemeteries has more pyramids than all of Egypt.
Meroe had several female rulers. One of them, Amanirenas, raided southern Egypt after it had fallen under Roman rule (c. 25 BC). The Kushites took down the statues of Roman Emperor Augustus that decorated Egypt, severed their heads and took them home as trophies, along with captives, according to Greek historian Strabo. Most of the heads were returned to the Latins after negotiations. But archaeologists found one in Meroe in 1910. It was buried under the stairs of a temple dedicated to Victory. That way everyone that entered the temple stepped on the head of Augustus.
Kush, modern Sudan, was one of the great ancient empires of sub-Saharan Africa. It was called Bilad al-Sudan (“Land of the Blacks”) by the Arabs. It remained independent until 350 AD.
2. Aksumite Empire (c. 1-1000 AD)
Greek and Roman writers mentioned Aksum with reverence. By the 3rd century the Prophet Mani counts Aksum as one of the four powers in the world. He gives it the third place behind Rome and Persia (a hardly objective ranking since Mani was Persian). And names China as the fourth power.
Lasting fame through architecture
One of the lasting features of this sub-Saharan kingdom, and that earns it great praise, is its unique architecture. Specially their monolithic churches, carved out of a single rock. The interiors, windows, doors, and ornaments of these buildings have been chiseled out. Since large enough rocks are hard to come by on the surface of the Earth, most of these churches have been dug and carved in the ground.
Another characteristic of their sacred architecture is inaccessibility. The churches are placed on top of mountains or in remote places. It usually takes several hours and a lot of skill to reach them -it may involve climbing steep narrow paths. Some of the churches are still in use today.
Aksumites also had a predilection for stelae, grave-markers that looked like obelisks and were up to 30 m tall (98 ft). The city of Aksum has plenty of surviving ones decorating the landscape. Underneath the stelae are underground tombs with rooms and passages. Since they have been long looted, no one is sure of what treasures they held inside originally.
As to housing, the nobles lived in palaces, while commoners dwelt in buildings that were usually two stories high.
A kingdom built on trade
Aksum began as a self-sufficient state that had fertile land to cultivate cereals and raise livestock. The African country was also rich in minerals such as gold, silver, copper and zinc. On top of that, it had precious stones, ivory, salt, and an array of stones used for construction – from marble to granite. As an extra blessing, it was in the ideal location for trade. And it is through trade that Aksum became powerful, reaching its height between the 3rd and 6th centuries AD.
The wealthy kingdom was part of the Silk Road, both by land and sea. Aksum’s port Adulis was the busiest port in the Red Sea. And three hundred kilometers (186 mi) from the sea, inland, rose the capital, which was a center of commerce. It spanned 75 hectares and was located near the route of the trading caravans, connecting it with the rest of Africa.
Conquest and expansion
With wealth came expansion. And Aksum used its riches to build a fearsome army and a mighty navy. With them, it conquered the neighboring countries, eventually having territories in what are now Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Djibouti, Yemen, Arabia, and Sudan. Thanks to the conquests the Aksumite Empire reached an extension of 1,250,000 km2 (482,000 mi²).
3. Ghana Empire (c. 600-1200’s)
A side note: the Ghana Empire is unrelated to modern Ghana.
“Ghana, the land of gold” is how Persian Ibrahim al-Fazari calls the Empire in the 700’s AD. Another writer, Al-Bakri, from Spain, goes into more detail, describing the capital of the kingdom as a large city with some 30,000 inhabitants.
The city was actually made up of two towns, originally built 9,5 km (6 mi) apart. But the gap between them had been filled with houses by Al-Bakri’s day, so it looked like one large settlement.
The capital and its palace
One of the towns, El-Ghaba, housed the palace of the king. The king held “audience in a domed pavilion” adorned with ten horses covered with clothes made of gold. “On his right, are the sons of the vassal kings of his country, wearing splendid garments and their hair plaited with gold. At the door… are dogs of excellent pedigree. Round their necks they wear collars of gold and silver (..),” writes Al-Bakri. Apparently, the king himself wore gold from head to toe, which makes sense, since Ghana’s famous wealth came from the gold trade.
Surrounding the palace were domed buildings, royal tombs, and sacred groves where the priests lived and conducted their religious ceremonies. The second town that made up Koumbi Saleh was inhabited by Muslim traders (the king and his subjects were not Muslims). The town had 12 mosques and schools.
An empire built on trading and taxes
Commerce was the motor of this ancient African kingdom, so towns like Awdaghust, Tegda, Chinguetti, and Oualata flourished in Ghana along the trading routes. “The people of Awdaghust enjoy… huge wealth,” wrote Al-Bakri. Some residents owned 1,000 slaves or more. The stone cities had mosques and schools for the traveling Muslim traders, and markets, of course, where gold, ivory, salt, slaves, textiles, and leather goods were exchanged. Since imports and exports were taxed by the king, as were his vassals, the kingdom needed bureaucracy to keep the books straight. It had treasurers, book-keepers, and court officials.
Although stone settlements in the area date back to 1600 BC, the Soninke tribes probably united under one king only around the 1st century AD. And perhaps by the 4th century Ghana had already become an empire. Confirmation of its status as a powerful African empire comes from Arab writers of the 7th century – a time when Ghana was expanding to control more trading routes. Eventually, its 200,000 army conquered territories in what are now Mauritania, Mali, and Senegal.
You may also like: These Big Cities Were Thriving 4,000 Years Ago
4. Kanem Empire (c. 700-1800’s)
The Kanembu nomadic tribes had settled in Nijmi by 700 AD. How long before that, nobody knows. But in that year their king, Sef, established a dynasty called the Duguwa, that was to conquer the neighboring territories and create the mighty Kingdom of Kanem.
At its height, the empire encompassed most of Chad, and parts of Libya, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, and The Central African Republic.
Sacred war turns into civil war
In 1085 the Sayfawa dynasty deposed the Duguwa. While they were of Muslim faith, most of their subjects were not. The Sayfawa wanted to change that. So King Dunama Dabbalemi (1221-1259) declared a sacred war, conquered territories, and sold the losers as slaves. As part of the effort to convert Kanem’s population he destroyed a local sacred object called Mune. But it backfired, its destruction started a civil war that lasted for more than a century and saw the capture of the capital, Nijmi. The Sayfawa kings and their entourage had to retire to Bornu in 1380. Bornu already was the economic center of the empire, and with the king’s arrival it became the capital as well. In the 16th century the kings were able to recapture Nijma, establishing the Kanem-Burno Empire.
Administration of the empire
The ancient sub-Saharan empire was ruled by the king and his council of twelve. The monarch chose the twelve among his family and/or the worthy citizens of the state. The king consulted with the twelve before making any major decisions. There was another council of three that held power. Its members were the mother, oldest sister, and first wife of the emperor. The administration of the territory was in the hands of four governors chosen by the king. To keep them from becoming independently powerful, they remained in the capital, and designated a representative that lived in their region, picked from the local high class. The governors were in charge of the law, recruiting men for Kanem’s army of 100,000 soldiers (40,000 were cavalry), and collecting taxes, among other duties.
Kanem’s wealth came from its control of some of the sub-Saharan trading routes. Since the 6th century, its main exports were ivory and slaves. The African empire, still governed by the Sayfawa, lasted until the 1800’s.