African Civilizations


Egypt:  A Learning Module

(You can download the this from the Egypt unit, if you haven't already done so.)



The first African civilization after Egypt was built by an Egyptianized people who lived between the Nile River's first and third cataracts and spoke Nilo-Saharan languages. This region around the first cataract, called Nubia, had been conquered and colonized by Egypt in the fourth millennium BC. Because of this, Egyptian civilization diffused southward and a new African kingdom was built up in the floodplain around the Nile's third cataract: the Kush. Their capital city was Kerma and it served as the major trading center for goods travelling north from the southern regions of Africa.

Kush attained its greatest power and cultural energy between 1700 and 1500 BC during the Third Intermediate period in Egypt. The domination of Egypt by the Hyksos allowed Kush to come out from under the hegemony of Egypt and flower as a culture; this period ended, however, when the New Kingdom kings, having thrown the Hyksos out of Egypt, reconquered Kush and brought it under Egyptian colonial rule.

However, when the New Kingdom collapsed in 1000 BC, Kush again arose as a major power by conquering all of Nubia. The conquest of upper Nubia, which had been in the hands of the Egyptians since the fourth millennium, gave to Kush wealthy gold mines.

Following the reassertion of Kushite independence in 1000 BC, the Kushites moved their capital city farther up the Nile to Napata. The Kushites by and large considered themselves to be Egyptians and the proper inheritors of the pharoanic titles and tradition. They organized their society along Egyptian lines, assumed all the Egyptian royal titles, and their architecture and art was based on Egyptian architectural and artistic models. Their pyramids were smaller and steeper and they introduced other innovations as well, but the Napatan culture does not on the surface appear much different than Egyptian culture.

The Kushites even invaded and conquered Egypt in a magnificent irony of history. The Napatan kings formed the twenty-fifth pharaonic dynasty in the eighth century; this dynasty came to an end with the Assyrian invasion of Egypt in the seventh century BC.

The Assyrians, and later the Persians, forced the Kushites to retreat farther south. This retreat south eventually closed off much of the contact that the Kushites had with Egypt, the Middle East, and Europe. When Napata was conquered in 591, the Kushites moved their capital to Meroe right in the heart of the Kushite kingdom. Because of their relative isolation from the Egyptian world, the Meroitic empire turned its attention to the sub-Saharan world. For most of its prosperous life, the Meroitic empire served as the middle term in the trade of African goods to northern Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. While it still continued the cultural traditions of pharoanic Egypt, the Meroites developed newer forms of culture and art because of their isolation from the northern kingdoms.

Many of these innovations occurred in the realm of government. Unlike pharoanic Egypt, the king ruled through a customary law that was established and interpreted by priests. The king was also elected, but he was elected from the royal family. As in Egypt, descent was reckoned through the mother's line. Eventually, however, this descent model produced a series of monarchs who were women, an innovation not seen in any other major civilization.

The Kushite religion closely resembled Egyptian religion. It was polytheistic and contained all the major Egyptian gods. Amon was the principal god, but as in Egyptian religion, Meroitic religion involved regional gods which were served as principal gods in their region. There are some non-Egyptian gods, such as a lion warrior god, which the Meroites probably derived from southern African cultures, but these gods were few.

The Meroitic Empire thrived throughout the last half of the first millennium BC. After three centuries of decline, it was finally defeated by the Nuba people. It's commercial importance was replaced by Aksum to the east.



The Aksumites were a people formed from the mix of Kushitic speaking people in Ethiopia and Semitic speaking people in southern Arabia who settled the territory across the Red Sea around 500 BC. The Aksumites lived in the Ethiopian highlands near the Red Sea, and so enjoyed a strategic position in the trade routes between Yemen (in the south of the Arabian peninsula) and the cities of Nubia. They spoke a strongly Semitic language and wrote in Semitic characters; Ethiopia, in fact, has one of the longest continuous literate traditions in Africa.

We know very little about the early Axumite kingdom. Roman and Greek sources indicate that an Axumite kingdom was thriving in the first century AD; the city of Adulis is frequently mentioned because it had become one of the most important port cities in Africa.

Aksum lay dead in the path of the growing commercial trade routes between Africa, Arabia, and India. As a result, it became fabulously wealthy and its major cities, Adulis, Aksum, and Matara, became three of the most important cosmopolitan centers in the ancient world. Although they were off the beaten path as far as European history is concerned, they were just as cosmopolitan and culturally important in that they served as a crossroads to a variety of cultures: Egyptian, Sudanic, Arabic, Middle Eastern, and Indian. Perhaps an indication of this cosmopolitan character can be found in the fact that the major Aksumite cities had Jewish, Nubian, Christian, and even Buddhist minorities.

In the second century AD, Aksum acquired tribute states on the Arabian Peninsula across the Red Sea, conquered northern Ethiopia, and then finally conquered Kush. The downfall of the Nubian powers led to the meteoric rise of Aksumite imperial power. The Aksumites controlled one of the most important trade routes in the world and occupied one of the most fertile regions in the world.

The Aksumite religion was actually derived from Arabic religion. It was a polytheistic religion which believed that the gods controlled the natural forces of the universe. However, in the fourth century, Ezana, who was a follower of Axumite religion, converted to Christianity under the tutelage of a Syrian bishop named Frumentius. Ezana declared Axum to be a Christian state, thus making it the first Christian state in the history of the world, and began actively converting the population to Christianity.

Ethiopian Christianity was slightly different from its Greek origins. Under the influence of Egyptian Christians, the Axumites believed that Christ had a single rather than a double nature (man and god): this is called Monophysite (mono=single, physis=nature) Christianity and was considered heretical in the European churches. In the fifth century AD, the Axumites replaced Greek in the liturgy and began using their own native language, Ge'ez. Finally, because of their Semitic origins, the Ethiopians believed that they were descendants of the Hebrews, who were also Semitic. They traced their origins all the way back to David. So the Ethiopians, unlike other Christians, really saw themselves as inheriting the covenants that Yahweh entered into with his chosen people (as a side note, the Ethiopic Church claims to have the Ark of the Covenant which is the chest in which the Decalogue was kept by the Hebrews).

Axum remained a strong empire and trading power until the rise of Islam in the seventh century AD. However, because the Axumites had sheltered Muhammad's first followers, the Muslims never attempted to overthrow Axum as they spread across the face of Africa. Even though Axum no longer served as a center or hub of international trade, it nonetheless enjoyed good relations with all of its Muslim neighbors. Two Christian states north of Axum, Maqurra and Alwa, survived until the thirteenth century when they were finally forced by Muslim migration to become Islamic. Axum, however, remained untouched by the Islamic movements across Africa. Because of this, the Ethiopic (or Abyssinian) Church has lasted until the present day. It is still a Monophysite church and its scriptures and liturgy are still in Ge'ez.


The Iron Age south of the Sahara

African south of the Sahara lived largely in nomadic, hunter-gatherer groups up until 200 BC. As a result, African populations were very sparse. There are several speculations as to why sub-Saharan Africans remained in hunting-gathering groups, but they are all guess-work. Perhaps the most reasonable explanations involve the abundance of resources and the protection that their isolation gave them from invasion and migration pressures.

Still, early sub-Saharan Africans developed metallurgy at a very early stage, possibly even before other peoples. Around 1400 BC, East Africans began producing steel in carbon furnaces (steel was invented in the west in the eighteenth century). The Iron Age itself came very early to Africa, probably around the sixth century BC, in Ethiopia, the Great Lakes region, Tanzania, and Nigeria. Iron technology, however, only spread slowly across Africa; it wasn't until the first century AD that the smelting of iron began to rapidly diffuse throughout the continent.

The instrument of that spread was the Bantu migrations. Bantu is a family of languages that are closely related and represent the largest linguistic family of African languages. Bantu speaking people migrated out of north-central Africa in the last century BC and these migrations continued all throughout the first millennium AD. They migrated south into the rain forest regions around the Congo and they migrated east into the East African highlands. Wherever they migrated, they imposed their language, which mixed with and replaced indigenous languages. How they managed to impose their language on such a wide range of people across such a huge swathe of territory is anyone's guess. Further migrations in the first millennium then displaced the earlier Bantu immigrants, who pushed farther east and south. These Bantu immigrants would eventually found the civilization of the Mwenumatapa, or "Great Zimbabwe" civilization. Not only did the Bantu spread iron-smelting techniques across Africa, they also were responsible for diffusing agriculture, particularly agriculture of high-yield crops such as yams, bananas, and plantains. The spread of agriculture led to the explosive growth of village life all throughout Africa.

Urban settlement began at a very early date in Africa. The earliest urban settlements were stone-walled towns in southern Mauritania that date back to sometime in the second millennium BC. An explosion of urban settlement in the Sahel region immediately south of the Sahara began between 600 and 200 BC. The Sahel is a hot, dry savanna that can support human agriculture and settlement. The first urban settlements were Sahelian: Jenne, Gao, and Kumbi (later Kumbi Saleh, the capital of the kingdom of Ghana). All of these urban centers grew up in oasis and river regions which could support such large populations.



The single most important development in the history of northwestern Africa was the use of the camel as a transport vehicle. In ancient times, the Egyptians and Carthaginians engaged in just a trickle of commercial trade with west Africa, even though west Africa was rich in gold, precious metals, ivory, and other resources. The reason for this was the imposing barrier of the Sahara, which in Arabic simply means "The Desert." Around 750 AD, under the influence of Islamic peoples, northern and western Africans began to use the camel to transport goods across this forbidding terrain. Camels do several things exceptionally well: they can carry unbelievably heavy loads for impossibly long distances and they can keep their footing on sandy terrain. It was as if someone had invented sand ships and its effect on western African culture was just as profound as if they were sand ships. The most important developments occurred in the Sahel area just south of the Sahara; the Sahel provided southern terminal points for the goods being shipped across the Sahara. The Sahel is a dry, hot area with fertile areas and grasslands; all of the major north African kingdoms grew up in this area: Ghana, Mali, Songhay, and Kanem-Bornu: the Sahelian kingdoms.

Since the Third Punic War, the Romans controlled all the coastline of northern Africa. In the fourth century, however, the Romans gradually pulled out of their northern African provinces and territories. The power vacuum that they left was filled by desert Berbers, an indigenous African people (Saint Augustine, born in Carthage, may have been part Berber). The Berbers were primarily a nomadic people and would eventually play a crucial role in the spread of Islam across northern Africa. In the fifth century, however, they formed a new kingdom, called Ghana or Awkar in an area that is now southeastern Mauretania. This Berber kingdom would form the model from which all the Sahelian kingdoms would be built.

Although it originated in the late fourth century, Ghana only became a major regional power near the end of the millennium. Although the state was originally formed by Berbers, it was built on the southern edge of Berber populations. Eventually the state became dominated by the Soninke, a Mande speaking people living in the region bordering the Sahara. They built their capital city, Kumbi Saleh, right on the edge of the Sahara and the city quickly became the most dynamic and important southern terminus of the Saharan trade routes.

The state was ruled by a hereditary king called the Ghana (this is why we now call the kingdom, Ghana). The kingship was matrilineal (as was all Sahelian monarchies to follow); the king's sister provided the heir to the throne. In addition to military power, the king appears to have been the supreme judge of the kingdom.

Fueled by its economic vitality, the kingdom of Ghana rapidly expanded into an empire. It conquered local chieftains and required tribute from these subordinate states. This tribute, however, paled next to the wealth generated by the commerce of goods that passed from western Africa east to Egypt and the Middle East. This trade primarily involved gold, salt, copper, and even human beings.

The kingdom of Ghana never converted to Islam, even though northern Africa had been dominated by the faith since the eighth century. The Ghanaian court, however, allowed Muslims to settle in the cities and even encouraged Muslim specialists to help the royal court administer the government and advise on legal matters.

The Berbers who had originally formed the state ultimately proved to be its demise. Unlike the Ghanaians, the Berbers, calling themselves Almoravids, fervently converted to Islam and, in 1075, declared a holy war, or jihad, against the state of Ghana. We do not know exactly how this affected the kingdom. In one scenario, the Almoravids destroy the kingdom. In another, the Ghanaians also convert to Islam and join the Almoravids in their attempt to spread Islam across Africa. Nonetheless, Ghana ceases to be a commercial or military power after 1100; for a brief time (1180-1230), the Soso people, who were rabidly anti-Muslim, controlled a kingdom making up the southern portions of the Ghanaian empire, but the Almoravid revolution effectively halted the growth of kingdoms and empires in the Sahel for almost a century.


The Islamic Invasions

Islam entered Africa shortly after its inception in the seventh century AD. After the death of Muhammad, the rasul, or "messenger," and prophet of Islam, in 632, the first caliph ("deputy of the prophet") of Islam, Abu Bakr, ambitiously undertook a series of military conquests to spread the new faith across the world. Although he died two years later, his nephew, Umar, continued the ambitious program. In 636, the Muslims occupied Jerusalem, Damascus, and Antioch; in 651, they had conquered all of Persia. But they also moved west into Africa, for Arabic culture saw itself as continuous not only with Middle Eastern culture, but with northern African culture as well. In 646, the Muslims conquered Egypt and quickly spread across northern Africa. From northern Africa, they invaded Spain in 711. Look at the dates: Islam is founded in 610 when Muhammad has the first of his revelations in the caves above the city of Qumran. In 711, one hundred years later, the Muslims conquered the Middle East, Persia, the Arabian Peninsula, northern Africa, and had just entered Europe. The initial spread of Islam is the single most dramatic cultural change in the history of the world, and it loomed large in the subsequent history of African civilizations.

The largest African cities and kingdoms were located in the Sahel, a desert and savanna region south of the Sahara. After 750 AD, these cities and kingdoms arose because they served as way stations and terminus points for the trade routes across northern Africa. The northern Africans, however, were Muslim; one particular people, the Berbers, were a north African people who were fervently Muslim. The Berbers and their wars of conversion figure very large in the history of the Sahelian kingdoms; by the 1300's, these large kingdoms became Islamic and, more importantly, centers of Islamic learning.

Beyond religion, there are several important cultural practices that the Arabic culture of Islam gave to Africa. The first is literacy. Egypt and the Nilotic kingdoms of the Kushites and the Nubians had long traditions of writing, and the Ethiopians had acquired it through their ties to the Semitic peoples of southern Arabia. But these writing systems did not spread throughout Africa. Islam, however, as a religion of the book, spread writing and literacy everywhere it went. Many Africans dealt with two languages: their native language and Arabic, which was the language of texts. However, this gradually changed as Africans began using the Arabic alphabet to write their own languages. To this date, Arabic script is one of the most common scripts for writing African languages.

With literacy, the Arabs brought formal educational systems. In north Africa and the Sahel, these systems and institutions would produce a great flowering of African thought and science. In fact, the city of Timbuktu had perhaps the greatest university in the world.

Islam also brought social fragmentation. As the faith spread throughout Africa, political authority of established African institutions and kingdoms began to collapse under the burden, particularly when groups of Muslims declared holy war, or jihad, against pagan social groups.


The Almoravids

Ghana was the most powerful empire in Western Africa, but it was not an Islamic kingdom. By the 900's, Muslims controlled most of the desert oases along the commercial routes; because of this economic power, they were able to force the king of Ghana to divide his capital city into two distinct districts, one for Muslims and one for non-Muslims.

The Almoravid movement began among the nomadic Berbers, or Almoravids, living in the desert north of Ghana. They were fervent Muslims and they declared holy war, or jihad, against the kingdom of Ghana. The Almoravids pushed Ghana over the edge, for the kingdom had for a couple centuries been close to collapse because of the spread of the Sahara desert and the overuse of agricultural land. The Almoravids so weakened the Ghanaian empire, that it finally collapsed as individual tribal groups and chieftaincies seceded.

The story of the Sudanic empire, though, still had life in it. In 1224, one of the chief that had seceded from Ghana, attacked the capital city of Kumbi-Saleh and seized the royal family. He didn't last long, though. A mere ten years later, a legendary magician and a royal hostage named Sunjata overcame the usurper and began a new empire: Mali.



The second great Sahelian kingdom was that of Mali. The Sahel is the savanna region south of the Sahara which, after 750 AD, became the center of culturally and politically dynamic cities and kingdoms because of the strategic importance of the Sahel for trade across north Africa.

The first great Sahelian kingdom was Ghana, but the Islamic revolution of the Almoravids, a Berber people living north of Ghana, splintered that kingdom. The Almoravids did not succeed in building their own, Islamic kingdom in the region. The Almoravid revolution, however, led to energetic Islamic proselytizing all throughout the Sahel. Many of the ruling families converted to Islam.

One of these ruling families, the Keita, forged the successor to the Ghanaian kingdom, the kingdom of Mali. As with Ghana, Mali was built off of the monopolization of the trade routes from western and southern Africa to eastern and northern Africa. The most lucrative of these monopolies was the gold trade. Mali was located farther south than Ghana; the Malians lived in an agriculturally fertile land. Mali was also locate along the upper Niger river, while Ghana had been located to the west. The bulk of the gold trade proceeded up the Niger river, so this gave Mali a firmer grip on this lucrative monopoly. Mali was not a true empire, but rather the center of a sphere of influence. The territory controlled by Mali comprised three distinct regions: the Senegal region with people speaking Niger-Kongo languages, the central Mande states occupied by Soninke and Mandinke, and the region of Gao occupied by people who spoke Songhay.

The historical founder of Mali was the magician, Sundjata, one of the most legendary figures in African history. Sundjata, who ruled Mali from 1230-1255, began as a royal slave and magician among the Soso who had inherited the Ghanaian empire. According to African oral histories, Sundjata seized the major territories through which gold was traded and so built the foundation off of which Mali would be built. He also introduced into the region the cultivation and weaving of cotton.

The most significant of the Mali kings was Mansa Musa (1312-1337) who expanded Mali influence over the large Niger city-states of Timbuctu, Gao, and Djenné. Mansa Musa was a devout Muslim who built magnificent mosques all throughout the Mali sphere of influence; his gold-laden pilgrimage to Mecca made him an historical figure even in European history writing.

It was under Mansa Musa that Timbuktu became one of the major cultural centers not only of Africa but of the entire world. Under Mansa Musa's patronage, vast libraries were built and madrasas (Islamic universities) were endowed; Timbuktu became a meeting-place of the finest poets, scholars, and artists of Africa and the Middle East. Even after the power of Mali declined, Timbuktu remained the major Islamic center of sub-Saharan Africa.

After the death of Mansa Musa, the power of Mali began to decline. Mali had never been an empire proper, and subject states began to break off from the Mali sphere of influence. In 1430, the Tuareg Berbers in the north seized much of Mali's territory, including the city of Timbuktu, and the Mossi kingdom to the south a decade later seized much of Mali's southern territories. Finally, the kingdom of Gao, which had been subjugated to Mali under Mansa Musa, gave rise to a Songhay kingdom that finally eclipsed the magnificent power of Mali.



After the decline of Mali, the kingdom of Gao reasserted itself as the major kingdom in the Sahel. A Songhay kingdom in the region of Gao had existed since the eleventh century AD, but it had come under the control of Mali in 1325. In the late fourteenth century, Gao reasserted itself with the Sunni dynasty. Songhay would not fully eclipse Mali until the reign of the Sunni king, Sonni Ali, who reigned from 1464-1492.

Sonni Ali aggressively turned the kingdom of Gao into an empire, the Songhay empire. Sonni Ali based his military on a cavalry and a highly mobile fleet of ships. With this military, he conquered the cities of Timbuctu and Jenné, the major cities of the Sahel. The Berbers, who had always played such a crucial role in the downfall of Sahelian kingdoms, were pushed far north.

Sonni Ali was succeeded by Askia Muhammad Touré (1493-1528), who established a new dynasty, the Askia. Muhammad Touré continued Sonni Ali's imperial expansion by seizing the important Saharan oases and conquering Mali itself. From there he conquered Hausaland. In addition, Muhammad Touré further centralized the government by creating a large and elaborate bureaucracy to oversee his extensive empire. He was also the first to standardize weights, measures, and currency, so culture throughout the Songhay began to homogenize. Muhammad Touré was also a fervent Muslim; he replaced native Songhay administrators with Arab Muslims in order to Islamicize Songhay society. He also appointed Muslim judges, called qadis , to run the legal system under Islamic legal principles. These programs of conquest, centralization, and standardization were the most ambitious and far-reaching in sub-Saharan history until the colonization of the continent by Europeans. Songhay reached its greatest territorial expansion under Askia Daud (1549-1582), when the empire stretched all the way to Cameroon. With literally several thousand cultures under its control, Songhay was the largest empire in African history.

While the urban centers were dominated by Islam and Islamic culture, the non-urban areas were not Islamic. The large majority of the Songhay people—around 97%—followed traditional African religions.

Songhay, however, had gotten too large; it encompassed too much territory to control. After the reign of Askia Duad, subject peoples began to revolt even though Songhay had an army of over 35,000 soldiers. The first major region to go was Hausaland; then Maghreb (Morocco) rebelled and gained control over crucial gold mines. The Moroccans defeated Songhay in 1591 and the empire quickly collapsed. In 1612, the cities of Songhay fell into anarchy and the greatest empire of African history came to a sudden close.


The Hausa Kingdoms

Hausaland is in the center of northwestern Africa immediately south of the Sahara desert. Until the 1100's, Hausaland was made up of a number of decentralized agricultural and pastoral villages. However, beginning in the late twelfth century, these villages combined into several kingdoms ruled by partly divine kings. The first of these centralized kingdoms was Daura.

These kingdoms were in close contact with one another since they all shared a common language, Hausa. In the late 1300's, Islam began to filter into Hausaland, but only very slowly and only by means of commercial activities. However, in the 1450's, a group of people from the Senegal River, the Fulani, began immigrating in large numbers into Hausaland. The Fulani immigration was driven by the desertification of north and western Africa; a pastoral people, the Fulani were in search of a land that could support them and their herds. The Fulani were also fervent Muslims, so they not only brought Islam and its books, they also began to set up Islamic schools and learning centers all throughout Hausaland.

The Hausa kingdoms, particularly after the influx of Islam, were closely allied with Kanem-Bornu to the east. Because of the military presence of Kanem-Bornu, the Hausa kingdoms were stable and peaceful.



The Sahel region of the Sudan, that is the region immediately south of the Sahara desert in central and western Africa, saw four of the greatest African empires. The largest and longest lasting was Ghana, followed by Mali and its successor, Songhay. Near central Africa, however, arose another great empire called Kanem around 1200. Kanem was originally a confederation of black tribes, but by 1100, a group of tribes called the Kanuri settle in Kanem and in the thirteenth century the Kanuri began to conquer the surrounding areas.

They were led by one of the great figures of African history, Mai Dunama Dibbalemi (1221-1259), who was the first of the Kanuri to convert to Islam. Dibbalemi declared jihad, or "holy war," against surrounding chieftaincies and so precipitated one of the most dynamic periods of conquest in Africa.

At the height of their empire, the Kanuri controlled territory from Libya to Lake Chad to Hausaland. These were strategic areas: all the commercial traffic through north Africa had to pass through Kanuri territory. As a result of the military and commercial growth of Kanem, the Kanuri slowly changed from a nomadic to a sedentary people.

In the late 1300's, civil strife within Kanuri territory began to seriously weaken the empire so that by the early 1400's, Kanuri power shifted from Kanem to Bornu, a Kanuri kingdom south and west of Lake Chad. When Songhay fell, this new Kanuri empire of Bornu grew very rapidly. The Kanuri grew powerful enough to unite the kingdom of Bornu with Kanem during the reign of Idris Alawma (1575-1610). Idris Alawma was a fervent Muslim and set about building a Muslim state all the way west into Hausaland in northern Nigeria. This state would last for another two hundred years, but in 1846, it finally succumbed to the growing power of the Hausa states.


The Forest Kingdoms

In the forestlands of western Africa south of the Sahelian states (the Sahel is the area immediately south of the Sahara), Africans lived in small villages that were tribal and ruled over by chiefs. Sometime between 1000 and 1500 AD, many of these villages began to consolidate into larger units and eventually formed powerful and centralized states; the largest and longest lasting of these centralized states was Benin.

The reasons for this development are lost to history since the forest kingdoms of western Africa left no writing in their early history. Part of the reason for the development of centralized states may have been an influx of grassland-dwelling people from the Sudan, driven south by the increasingly harsh climactic conditions. They brought with them new forms of government, including hereditary monarchy, and the villages of the Ibo, Asante, and Yoruba speaking peoples gradually fused into small city-states. The Yoruba were the first to expand the power of these city-states over other territories: the Ile Ife Yoruba began a series of military incursions in order to set up tribute monarchies throughout the Niger area. Among these tribute monarchies were Oyo and Benin.

Benin in southern Nigeria was an area occupied by a people speaking Edo, and in their account of history, the Edo say that they have occupied this area for several thousand years. The Edo had always been surrounded by larger populations to the north and west (the Yoruba) and to the east (the Ibo).

Edo society is founded on the village which is kinship-organized. Village authority is based on groups of males according to their age. Around 1300, the Ile Ife sent a member of the Ife ruling family to rule the Benin area, but basic social and political organization did not change profoundly. For this foreign king, or oba, was strictly controlled by the Edo chiefs, called the uzama. The Edo loose village system, however, was profoundly changed by Eware (1440-1473), called Eware the Great. Eware transformed the village system into a hereditary and centralized monarchy that ruled through a royal council. This council was made up of the members of the uzama , and each member of the council had specific administrative duties. Through strategic military expansion, Benin expanded into an all-out empire in the Nigerian region.

Eware based his kingdom in the capital city of Benin City. Early on in its history, people within the cities formed a rudimentary class system with the growth of craft and art guilds. Benin is particularly known for the explosion of artistic creativity following its formation and throughout its entire history. Benin art centered around sculpture, either terra cotta, ivory, or brass. In its early forms, Benin sculpture is primarily historical, recounting important events, such as the arrival of the Portuguese, in magnificently detailed brass plaques and statuary. The Benin sculptors developed two unique features in the art: high realism and a high stylization of detail and ornament. Benin art became one of the most influential art traditions in west Africa, spreading throughout the cultures west and north of the Niger River.

Between 1500 and 1800, the forest kingdoms were gradually incorporated into European mercantile and capitalist activities. Those forest kingdoms that occupied the coastline of western Africa, such as Benin, the Oyo empire (Yoruba), and the Manikongo kingdom in the Congo, eagerly welcomed the Portuguese traders and benefited greatly. The period of initial contact in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries began an amazing process which, if it had been followed, African and European history would be entirely different than it is now. For the Europeans regarded the Africans as an exotic but nonetheless dignified and equal partner in civilization. The Africans for their part treated the Europeans as an exotic but equal partner in civilization. Both the Portuguese and the Africans speculated about what they could learn from each other. The kingdoms of Benin, Oyo, and the Manikongo sent ambassadors, intellectuals, and students to Lisbon and to Rome to study European ways and to represent their civilizations to the Europeans. This beginning of African and European contact, which was so promising and would have produced a far different world, was cut short by the discovery of America. It became evident that the agricultural exploitation of America would require immense amounts of cheap labor. At first, the Spanish and the Portuguese enslaved Native Americans, but they died under the burden or escaped and easily disappeared among other Native Americans. The Europeans tried to use other Europeans (for quite a long time, in fact), but when Europeans escaped, they also blended in easily among the European populations. So the Europeans turned to Africa to the south, and by the seventeenth century, the traffic in human slaves from Africa became a flood.

Several African states took an active part in the European slave trade when it began in the early sixteenth century. West Africa, in particular, was one of the principal routes for this commerce in human lives. Several forest kingdoms, such as the Oyo empire (Yoruba) and the kingdom of Dahomey, derived immense wealth from the slave trade. Oyo itself only became an empire through the expansion of the slave trade in the eighteenth century. This slave trade, however, had a double edge. It meant that the kingdoms and city-states which derived commercial gain also had to fight more wars in order to obtain captives for the slave trade. The result was a high degree of political instability for these forest kingdoms; not only did the slave trade produce the largest single displacement of human peoples in human history, it also fragmented the African civilizations that participated in this commerce.

Benin, which was one of the most powerful and extensive of the forest kingdoms, opted out of the slave trade completely. It did, however, suffer in the wars of predation that the slave trade precipitated. Nonetheless, Benin was one of the longest lasting civilizations in western Africa. It was still a powerful and imposing state when European powers began zealously seizing colonial territory in Africa in the nineteenth century. Of all the peoples the Europeans tried to subdue, the Benin were the most difficult, but the British finally invaded and dismantled the Benin state in 1897.


The Swahili Kingdoms

The eastern coast of Africa changed profoundly around the close of the first millennium AD. First, Bantu-speaking from the interior migrated and settled along the coast from Kenya to South Africa. Second, merchants and traders from the Muslim world and India realized the strategic importance of the east coast of Africa for commercial traffic and began to settle there. From 900 AD onwards, the east coast of Africa saw an influx of Shirazi Arabs from the Persian Gulf and even small settlements of Indians. The Arabs called this region al-Zanj, "The Blacks," and the coastal areas slowly came under the control of Muslim merchants from Arabia and Persia. By the 1300's, the major east African ports from Mombaza in the north to Sofala in the south had become thoroughly Islamic cities and cultural centers.

The language that grew out of the mix of Arabs and Bantu is one of the most common and widespread of the lingua franca (a lingua franca is a secondary language that is a combination of two or more languages): Swahili or Kiswahili (from the Arabic word sawahil which means "coast"). Swahili is primarily a Bantu language with some Arabic elements; it is written in the Arabic alphabet. Like the language, the Swahili culture was a mixture of the two cultures, Bantu and Arabic, and we call the civilizations of the African east coast "Swahili" to reflect the hybrid nature of those civilizations.

The Swahili civilizations slowly expanded southwards until they reached Kilwa in Zanzibar (from the Arabic word al-Zanj ). Later, Swahili civilization carved out a small territory even further south around Sofala in Zimbabwe. While the northern cities remained localized and had little influence on African culture inland from the coast, the Sofalans actively went inland and spread Islam and Islamic culture deep in African territory.

The major Swahili city-states were Mogadishu, Barawa, Mombasa (Kenya), Gedi, Pate, Malindi, Zanzibar, Kilwa, and Sofala in the far south. These city-states were Muslim and cosmopolitan and they were all politically independent of one another; nothing like a Swahili empire or hegemony was formed around any of these city-states. In fact, they were more like competitive companies or corporations each vying for the lion's share of African trade. The chief export was ivory, sandalwood, ebony, and gold. These cities were also culturally cosmopolitan: they were formed from a cultural mix of Bantu, Islamic, and Indian influences, but commerce brought Chinese artifacts and culture as well as Indian culture.

While the Arabs and Persians were significant players in the growth of Swahili civilization, the cities were run by a nobility that was African in origin (with possible admixture of Persian or Arab blood). Below the nobility were the commoners and the resident foreigners who made up a large part of the citizenry. Like other Islamic African states, slavery was actively practiced.

These city-states began to decline in the sixteenth century; the advent of Portuguese trade disrupted the old trade routes and made the Swahili commercial centers obsolete. The Portuguese wanted native Africans to have no share in African trade and busily set about conquering the Islamic city-states along the eastern coast. In the late seventeenth century, Oman (in the south of Arabia) then conquered all the Portugese cities along the coast and the eastern African coast was controlled by the Omani sultanate for another two hundred years.


The Mwenemutapa

The Mwenemutapa or Zimbabweans were a Bantu-speaking people in south-eastern Africa. As with all the Bantu who migrated from central Africa to the south and to the east, the ancestors of the Mwenemutapa brought iron-smelting and agriculture with them to the region south of the Zambezi River. The region was dominated by the Swahili city-state of Sofala; Zimbabwe, however, was rich in gold. Because of the wealth of Zimbabwe and the importance of Sofala as a trading city, the Zimbabweans from 1000 AD onwards were exposed to Chinese, Persian, and Indian crafts and culture. The growing trade encouraged the Zimbabweans to centralize their government. Originally ruled by ruler-priests, the Mwenemutapa developed a military and economic kingship of astonishing power and efficiency.

The first of these centralized states was Great Zimbabwe (zimbabwe means "stone enclosure") around 1300. Great Zimbabwe was a fortification surrounded by huge, elliptical stone walls made without any mortar. By 1500, Great Zimbabwe dominated the Zambezi Valley both militarily and commercially (the Mwenemutapa empire); because of this, the new ideas about divine kingship spread throughout the valley and changed the social structures of most of the Bantu people living there.

Great Zimbabwe was so far inland that it never felt the political or cultural effects of Islam during its existence. It is perhaps one of the few African urban culture south of the Sahara to be a fully African civilization, built off of no cultural ideas imported from outside Africa.