Northern Africa is famous for its awe-inspiring civilizations, like Egypt and Carthage. But the powerful kingdoms south of the Sahara receive less propaganda.
Yet, these southern empires were impressive too. They had their unique cultures. And they had incredible wealth and vast territories. Some of them lasted for thousands of years -a feat few empires in the world achieved.
So here are 4 great, ancient kingdoms of sub-Saharan Africa:
1. Kushite Empire (2400 BC – 350 AD)
Kush was a powerful kingdom for almost 3,000 years.
It was in the perfect location to become wealthy through trade, as it did.
Kush was in northeast Africa. It was close to Egypt and close enough to Mesopotamia.
So when the Mediterraneans and Asians traded with the rest of Africa, they did it through Kush. Kushites specialized in luxury trade.
Now, ‘Kush’ is how Kushites called their own kingdom. But other civilizations came up with their own names for them. Some of those names are more familiar to us.
The Greeks called them ‘Ethiopians’. Ethiopia means ‘burnt-faced’ since Kushites were dark-skinned Africans.
The Arab’s name for Kush was ‘Bilad al-Sudan,’ aka ‘Land of the Blacks.’
Meanwhile, Egyptians called it ‘Nubia’ (‘gold’). That was not a random name, Nubia was indeed rich in gold.
Their land was blessed with many minerals, actually, such as copper and iron. The Kushites took advantage of it and developed an advanced metal industry.
They also had precious stones.
To add to their wealth, their land was fertile, bathed, as it was, by the Nile. Kushites cultivated a range of products, from precious wheat to cotton. So they were self-sufficient.
And wealth created a highly stratified society. Rulers and priests were on top. Scribes, artisans, and farmers belonged to the middle classes. While servants, workers, and slaves were at the bottom.
The kingdom also had a developed culture, which included their own writing system.
The Kushites relied on a powerful army, renowned for its cavalry and deadly archers.
The Egyptians, Kush’s neighbours, mention this army quite a bit in their inscriptions. It is not surprising. The two countries had more than one run-in through the millennia.
Kush’s first capital: Kerma
Historians have divided the Kushite Kingdom, artificially, into three periods. That way, it is easier to study its long history.
The first period is called the First Kingdom. It lasted almost a millennium, from 2400 to 1500 BC.
At that time, Kush spanned from the first cataract of the Nile to the fourth cataract. That is 12,000 straight kilometers (750 mi). And it had the city of Kerma as its capital.
Back then, the Nubians were already interested in grand scale architecture. One of the most distinctive things of this period are the buildings called deffufas.
Deffufas were religious buildings, Kush’s early temples. They were towers that could reach the 18 m (59 ft).
On top of the deffufas, on the last floor which was roof-less, was the altar. It was reached through inner stairs.
The interiors of the deffufas were decorated with paintings and gold leaf. These buildings stood in the middle of Kerma, the capital. Their ruins still stand.
The Second Kingdom and the Egyptian wars
The Second Kingdom (1500–591 BC) is marked by frictions with Egypt.
Egypt lies just north of Kush. Both countries were powerful and wealthy. And as they got stronger, they began coveting each other’s territories and resources.
They fought for centuries and raided each other’s lands. Sometimes Kush had the upper hand, other times, Egypt.
In c. 1490 BC, Egypt certainly got the upper hand. Pharaoh Thutmose I conquered the north of Kush. Through later campaigns, the Egyptians ended up controlling all Nubia. And they sent an Egyptian viceroy to rule it.
The Nubians rebelled against the occupation several times. And in c. 1070 they finally expelled the Egyptians and regained their freedom.
Now it was Kush’s turn.
In the 8th century BC, King Kashta of Kush invaded southern Egypt. And his son Piankhi conquered the rest of the country.
Egypt was under Nubian control. The duo founded the 25th dynasty, which governed Egypt for more than a century, from 770 to 656 BC.
Kush now had shores in the Mediterranean. And since they had also gained territories in the south, it extended to the sixth cataract of the Nile. So the empire had about 1,000,000 km² (386,000 mi²).
The kings governed Egypt from Napata, the new capital of Kush.
In the core of Napata rose the temple of the god Amun. For centuries, the god’s priests were all-powerful. They could even say when it was a king’s time to die.
But that trick would be their downfall. In 290 BC, they were at odds with the Nubian King Arqamani. So they announced that the god said Arqamani had to kill himself.
But instead of complying, the king killed the priests. At least, that is how Diodorus Siculus, the Greek historian, tells the story.
The third and final kingdom
The Third Kingdom lasted almost 600 years, from 300 to 350 AD.
In c. 591, Napata, the capital, was sacked. So the Kushites chose a new, safer capital farther south: Meroe.
Meroe was the capital of Kush throughout the Third Kingdom.
Meroe was a great city. It had monumental architecture. There were palaces, royal baths, and temples.
For their public buildings, Kushites used colonnades and high-ceilings -a cooling device.
And Moroe’s streets were lined with statues.
The rich lived in large houses. The poor lived in mud-brick houses, which is a material that, again, helps combat the heat. An inscription of the time boasts that even the poorest citizen of Kush lived better than people elsewhere.
In Meroe, it became fashionable to build pyramids. They were modeled after the Egyptian ones. And like the Egyptian, they served as tombs. But they were not for kings but for nobles. So they were much smaller than the Egyptian ones.
One of Meroe’s cemeteries has more pyramids than all Egypt.
Another interesting fact of Meroe is that it had many female rulers.
So the Kushites took down the statues of Roman Emperor Augustus that decorated Egypt. They severed the statues’ heads and took them home as trophies. Along with plenty of human captives, according to the Greek historian Strabo.
The Romans did not take the raid kindly. And after negotiations, the Nubians returned the captives and the severed Augustan heads to the Latins.
Yet in 1910, archaeologists found one of the heads in Meroe. The bronze head of the statue was buried under the stairs of a temple dedicated to Victory. That way, everyone who entered the temple stepped on the head of Augustus.
Kush, modern Sudan, was one of the great ancient empires of sub-Saharan Africa. It remained independent until 350 AD when it fell to Aksum (modern Ethiopia).
2. Aksumite Empire (c. 1 – 1000 AD)
Greek and Roman writers mention Aksum with reverence.
And by the 3rd century AD, the Prophet Mani counts Aksum as one of the four powers in the world.
He gives Rome the first place. The second place goes to Persia (a hardly objective ranking since Mani was Persian). Aksum comes in third and China in fourth. That is some company Aksum keeps.
A kingdom built on trade
Aksum is modern Ethiopia, so it is rather well located. To the north, it had the Kingdom of Kush/Sudan. It had coasts on the Red Sea and, across the sea, there laid the wealthy Asian countries.
So it is no surprise that Aksum became powerful through trade.
Aksum’s capital, also called Aksum, was built 300 km (186 mi) from the sea, inland. And it was a center of commerce. It was located near the routes of the trading caravans. These routes connected it with the rest of Africa.
Aksum’s capital covered 75 hectares.
The kingdom began as a self-sufficient state. It had fertile land, so the inhabitants cultivated cereals and raised livestock.
Aksum also had plenty of minerals, from gold and silver to copper and zinc. And precious stones could be mined. Other exploited products were ivory, salt, and an array of stones used for construction -from marble to granite.
The kingdom reached its height between the 3rd and 6th centuries AD.
Conquest and expansion
Aksum used its riches to build a fearsome army and a mighty navy.
With them, it conquered the neighboring countries. It ended up having territories in what are now Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Djibouti, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan.
The Aksumite Empire reached an extension of 1,250,000 km² (482,000 mi²).
After conquering the Kingdom of Kush in 350 AD, Aksum started calling itself Ethiopia. That is the name Greeks and Romans had used for Nubia and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.
Lasting fame through architecture
One of the most impressive features of this sub-Saharan kingdom is its unique architecture.
Especially its monolithic churches. These temples are not built but carved out from rock. Their creators dug a hole in the rocky ground. And then, they chiseled out these churches. They got rid of the excess rock as they chiseled out windows, doors, and ornaments. These churches are more giant sculptures than true buildings.
They are called ‘monolithic’ (‘one-stone’) since they are carved from a single block of rock.
Another characteristic of these churches is how difficult they are to access. They are placed on top of mountains or in other remote places. It can take several hours -and a lot of physical skills- to reach them. To get to some of them, you may have to climb a steep, dizzying narrow path not suited for those with fear of heights.
Some of these Christian churches are still in use today.
Aksumite stelae have also survived to our days. Aksumites loved their stelae. They used them as grave-markers or tombstones. The stelae looked like obelisks and could be 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. And the commoners dwelt in buildings that were usually two stories high.
Around 960 AD, a female usurper overthrew the royal family of Askum. And the kingdom came to an end.
3. Ghana Empire (c. 600 – 1200s)
A side note: the Ghana Empire is not related to modern Ghana.
“Ghana, the land of gold” is how Persian Ibrahim al-Fazari calls this Empire in the 700s AD.
Another writer, Al-Bakri, from Spain, goes into more detail. He describes the capital of the kingdom as a large city with some 30,000 inhabitants.
The capital, Koumbi Saleh, was actually made up of two towns. They had originally stood 9.5 km (6 mi) apart. Both the towns had grown, and by Al-Bakri’s day, they 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, says Al-Bakri. “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 the Spaniard.
Apparently, the king himself wore gold from head to toe. It makes sense, since Ghana’s famous wealth came from the gold trade.
Domed buildings and royal tombs surrounded the palace. The sacred groves where the priests lived and conducted religious ceremonies where also close to the palace.
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
“The people of Awdaghust enjoy (…) huge wealth,” wrote Al-Bakri. Some residents owned 1,000 slaves or more.
These stone cities had mosques and schools to receive the traveling Muslim traders. They also had markets where gold, ivory, salt, slaves, textiles, and leather goods were exchanged.
The king taxed imports and exports. He also taxed his subjects. Therefore, the kingdom needed bureaucracy to keep the books straight. It had treasurers, book-keepers, and court officials.
As to the origins of the kingdom, they are difficult to pinpoint. The earliest stone settlements date to 1600 BC. But the Soninke tribes probably first united under a king around the 1st century AD.
Probably by the 4th century, Ghana had become an empire. Confirmation of its power comes from Arab writers of the 7th century. At that time, Ghana was expanding and gaining control of more trading routes.
Eventually, Ghana’s 200,000-men army conquered territories in what are now Mauritania, Mali, and Senegal.
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4. Kanem Empire (c. 700 – 1800s)
The Duguwa conquered the neighboring territories and created 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.
Administration of the empire
This 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 them before making any major decisions.
There was another council that held power. It was a council of three, and 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. So the governors chose a representative who lived in their region. The representatives were picked from the local high class.
The governors were in charge of the law and of collecting taxes, among other duties. They also recruited men for Kanem’s army of 100,000 soldiers (40,000 were cavalry).
Kanem’s wealth came from its control over some of the sub-Saharan trading routes.
Since the 6th century, its main exports were ivory and slaves.
Sacred war turns into civil war
In 1085, the Duguwa ruling family was overthrown by the Sayfawa dynasty. The Sayfawa were of Muslim faith, but most of their new subjects were not. The Sayfawa wanted to change that.
So King Dunama Dabbalemi (1221-1259) declared a sacred war. He conquered territories and sold the infidel captives as slaves.
As part of the effort to convert Kanem’s population, he destroyed a local sacred object called Mune. But it was a mistake.
The people rebelled, and civil war broke out. It lasted for more than a century. The people captured Kanem’s capital, Njimi. So the Sayfawa kings were forced to flee 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 Njimi. And the empire was renamed. It became the Kanem-Burno Empire.
This African empire, still governed by the Sayfawa, lasted until the 1800s.