Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Songhai from The Columbia Encyclopedia

or Songhay both: sŏng'gì', largest of the former empires in the western Sudan region of N Africa. The state was founded (c.700) by Berbers on the Middle Niger, in what is now central Mali. The rulers accepted Islam c.1000. Its power was much increased by Sonni Ali (1464–92), who occupied Timbuktu in 1468. Songhai reached its greatest extent under Askia Muhammad I (c.1493–1528). He was deposed by his son, and in the subsequent conflicts among his successors the empire slowly began to decline. The breakup of the state was accelerated by a Moroccan invasion in 1591.


Summary Article: Songhay Empire from Cultural Sociology of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa

The Songhay Empire emerged in the west Africa region around 1464 and lasted until 1591. Behind this successful empire were the emperors Sonni Ali Ber and Askia Muhammad Ture. Sonni ruled from 1463 to around 1492, while Askia Mohammad Ture succeeded Sonni's death and ruled to 1529. Both these leaders are well known for their innovativeness and for developing the Songhay Empire into an accomplished administrative, commercial, and educational center. After the demise of the Songhay Empire, sections of the fragmented empire continued to rule as kingdoms until the coming of the French to west Africa in the early 1900s.

The Songhay Empire, also identified as Songhai Empire, covered the west African region of the Sahara in the 15th and 16th centuries. Other empires in the region included the Ghana and Mali empires. However, when the Songhai Empire rose to power, it conquered the powerful Mali Empire to become the dominant empire of its time in the region. Sonni Ali, also known as Sunni Ali, conquered the Mali Empire and made the city of Gao its commercial hub, learning center, army headquarters, and administrative center. Sonni Ali also made Gao a significant point on the trade route for the merchants.

The Songhay Empire was named after the Songhay peoples. They had their own distinct Songhay languages and dialects, which were spoken by the subjects of the empire. The Songhay peoples were divided into a caste or class system, in which the nobles made up the upper class of the society. Other classes in the system were determined mainly by virtue of the family into which one was born. Some of these class groups were farmers, fishermen, and ironworkers. Put in other words, the class categorization determined one's status in the society and what his or her occupation would be.

Sonni Ali was known to be an extremely intelligent bureaucrat and great warrior. One of his greatest achievements was extending the borders of his territory by conquering the neighboring nations. Also noteworthy is the increased wealth of the Songhay Empire during his reign. Through the trans-Saharan trade, he managed to develop and increase the empire's wealth by establishing trade centers. The trans-Saharan trade was a long-distance trade across the Sahara. Emperor Sonni Ali made it favorable for the merchants to travel and bring in goods such as ceramics, glass, and salt from the northeast Sahara near the Mediterranean region and exchange these goods for gold and kola nuts from west Africa. Gao emerged as the hub of trade because of its vital position along the left bank of the Niger River. In other words, Gao was an important center and highway to other points on the trans-Saharan trade route such as Timbuktu and Djenne in the west Africa region.

Furthermore, Sonni Ali developed Islamic studies and religion, and made the city of Gao the center for Islamic education. As a devout Muslim, Sonni Ali built several Koranic schools to teach Islam. However, it is claimed that not all of the Songhay peoples appreciated Sonni Ali's construction of the Songhay Empire. For the Muslims, Sonni Ali was said to be the epitome of greatness because he enforced Islamic religion and culture. But to non-Muslims, he is said to have been a tyrant. This is because he forced Islamic law, education, and religion on the non-Muslim people. Most of the non-Muslim people followed the indigenous religions, beliefs, and practices, which Sonni sought to destroy.

After Sonni Ali's death in 1492, his son Sonni Baru took over, only to be overthrown in 1493 by Askia Muhammad Ture, a general in his father's army. Sonni Baru's short rule was not marked by any major events. Muhammad Ture, another devout Muslim, followed closely in the steps of his successor and continued conquering neighboring nations surrounding the empire. While Sonni Ali was warlike, Muhammad Ture was not. He mostly used concessions to win over other territories, and was quite successful in this regard. He expanded the empire farther than his predecessor. Like Sonni Ali, he managed to develop the empire's economy by extending the trans-Saharan trade outside Africa. He built more schools to increase literacy in the empire. One direct result of these learning institutions in the empire was the production of a considerable number of scholars. Unlike Sonni Ali, who enforced Islamic law and religion, Muhammad did not force non-Muslims to follow Islam. He also decentered his governing system and appointed administrators in charge of the different sectors of society, such as agriculture, army, and education. Muhammad Ture's reign and method of administration extended the Songhay Empire to prosperity.

In 1528, Muhammad Ture's sons rebelled against him during his old age, and removed him from power. One of his sons took over as emperor. Nevertheless, Askia Muhammad Ture inaugurated the Askia dynasty, which lasted nearly 500 years. Later, because of disputes over succession and civil war, the empire became more and more fragmented. Songhay faced attacks from neighboring states, leaving it weak and vulnerable. By 1591, the Songhay Empire had weakened considerably. The ultimate blow was the attack by the Moroccan army that same year, which totally weakened the Songhay Empire and led to its demise. Only the Dendi kingdom, a section of the Songhay Empire, remained in existence in the region until the coming of the French to west Africa in the early 1900s.

See Also:

Askia Mohammed (Songhay) , Islam , Religion, Traditional

Further Readings
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art. “The Empires of the Western Sudan: Songhai Empire.” http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/sghi/hd_sghi.htm (Accessed June 2011).
  • Singleton, Brent. “Rulers, Scholars, and Invaders: A Select Bibliography of the Songhay Empire.” African Studies Association, v.31.
  • Waliaula, Anne Jebet
    Copyright © 2012 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

    Related Credo Articles

    Full text Article SONGHAY (MEDIEVAL EMPIRE)
    Africa and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History

    The Songhay Empire was an African kingdom that began in the fifteenth century and grew to prominence in the sixteenth century. The three great...

    Full text Article Songhai Empire
    Encyclopedia of World Trade: From Ancient Times to the Present

    An empire in the Sahel, western Sudan, from the mid-fifteenth century to the end of the sixteenth century. Songhai took advantage of the decline of

    Full text Article Songhay
    Greenwood Encyclopedia of International Relations

    Also known as Songhai. This Mande -speaking, West African empire straddled the great bend of the Niger, profiting as middleman in the...

    See more from Credo