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Despite its name, the old Empire of Ghana is not geographically, ethnically, or in any other way, related to modern Ghana. It lies about four hundred miles north west of modern Ghana. Ancient Ghana encompassed what is now modern Northern Senegal and Southern Mauritania.
Nobody is sure when Ghana came into being. But some time at the beginning of the first millennium AD, it is thought that a number of clans of the Soninke people, (in modern Senegal) came together under a leader with semi-divine status, called Dinga Cisse.
There are different accounts of who he was, but all reports emphasise that he was an outsider who came from afar. It is likely that this federation of Soninke was formed possibly in response to the attacks of nomadic raiders, who were in turn, suffering from drought, and seeking new territory. Further west was the state of Takrur in the Senegal valley. It was linked to the north via a coastal route leading to Morocco via Sjilmasa.
What is clear, is that the Empire derived power and wealth from gold. And the introduction of the camel in the Trans-Saharan trade boosted the amount of goods that could be transported.
Most of our knowledge of Ghana comes from Arab writers. Al-Hamdani, for example, describes Ghana as having the richest gold mines on earth. These were situated at Bambuk, on the upper Senegal River. The Soninke also sold slaves, salt and copper, in exchange for textiles, beads and finished goods. The capital of Kumbi Saleh became the focus of all trade, with a systematic form of taxation. Later Audaghust was another commercial centre.
The wealth of Ghana is also explained mythically through the story of Bida, the black snake. This snake demanded an annual sacrifice in return for guaranteeing prosperity in the kingdom. Every year a virgin was offered up, until one year, the fiancé of the intended victim, (his name was Mamadou Sarolle) rescued her. Cheated of his sacrifice, Bida took his revenge on the region. A terrible drought took hold of Ghana and gold mining fell into decline.
Archaeologists have found evidence that confirms elements of the story, showing that until the 12th century, sheep and cows, as well goats, were abundant in the region. But after that only the tougher, more drought resistant goats were common.
The route taken by traders of the Maghreb to Ghana would have started in North Africa in Tahert, sweeping down through Sijilimasa in Southern Morocco. From there the trail went south and inland, roughly running parallel with the coast. Then it curved round to the south east through Awdaghust, finally ending up in Kumbi Saleh - the royal town of Ghana.
Inevitably traders brought Islam with them. Initially, the Islamic community at Kumbi Saleh remained a separate community some distance away from the king's palace. It had its own mosques and schools. But, the king retained his traditional beliefs. He drew on the book-keeping and literary skills of Muslim scholars to help run the administration of the territory. The state of Takrur to the west had already adopted Islam as its official religion and evolved ever closer trading ties with North Africa.
MUSLIMS IN ANCIENT GHANA
"The city of Ghana consists of two towns situated on a plain. One of these towns, which is inhabited by Muslims, is large and possesses twelve mosques in one of which they assemble for the Friday prayer. There are salaried imams and muezzins, as well as jurists and scholars. The king's town is six miles distant from this one…
The king has a palace and a number of domed dwellings all surrounded with an enclosure like a city wall. Around the king's town are domed buildings and groves and thickets where the sorcerers of these people, men in charge of the religious cult, live. In them too are their idols and the tombs of their kings."
Taken from an account by geographer Al-Bakri.
Listen to Al Bakri's description of Muslims in Ghana
There were a number of reasons for Ghana's decline. The King lost his trading monopoly. At the same time drought was beginning to have a long term effect on the land and its ability to sustain cattle and cultivation. But the Empire of Ghana was also under pressure from outside forces.
There is an Arab tradition that the Almoravid Muslims came down from the North and invaded Ghana. Another interpretation is that this Almoravid influence was gradual and did not involve any sort of military take-over.
In the 11th and 12th century new gold fields began to be mined at Bure (modern Guinea) out of the commercial reach of Ghana and new trade routes were opening up further east. Ghana became the target of attacks by the Sosso ruler Sumanguru. Out of this conflict, the Malinke emerged in 1235 under a new dynamic ruler, Sundiata Keita. Soon Ghana was totally eclipsed by the Mali Empire of Sundiata.