Medieval Songhai Culture
During the reigns of Sonni Ali Ber and his successor Askia Muhammad Toure (founder of the Askia dynasty) Songhai was at its greatest power. The emperor had total power but was supported by Muslim judges, governors and town chiefs.
The capital city of Gao was a great cosmopolitan market for dates, salt, gold, leather and slaves. Islam was introduced but many people still followed traditional animist beliefs.
The Songhai people developed one of the greatest medieval West African empires. Their multi-talented kings, called dia (kings), used their administrative skills to develop trading networks that enabled them to conquer the region around Gao and Timbuktu. They brought scholars from Morocco and Egypt to establish Islamic schools in cities like Timbuktu and Djenne, transforming the empire into a culture that embraced Islam but retained traditional African religious practices in rural areas.
Rivalries among Askia’s successors eroded the strength of the empire, and in 1591 the Moroccan Sultan Ahmad I al-Mansur Saadi routed a Songhai force at the Battle of Tondibi. The empire collapsed soon after, marking the end of a 1,000-year period in which powerful Songhai kingdoms controlled West Africa. The ruins of the capital city of Gao still stand today.
After the death of Sonni Ali, a devout Muslim called Askia Muhammad ruled Songhai. He established new schools and encouraged learning in Timbuktu, and he recruited skilled officials to run his empire’s various government functions. He also selected Muslim judges to run his legal system based on Islamic principles.
Throughout the Songhay empire, Islam blended with traditional West African beliefs. Daily life was governed by the traditions of local cults, but Islam dominated state and legal affairs.
Agriculturally, Songhai people cultivate wheat, barley, and millet. They also raise livestock, including cattle and goats, and hunt animals for meat and skin. They rely on servants – mainly Fulani and Tuareg herders – to assist them with labor, and they often allow their fields to be grazed by herds from other areas.
At its height, the Songhai Empire encompassed parts of present-day Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, and Algeria. Its economy was largely based on trade, especially the caravan routes to Timbuktu and Djenne.
The household is the fundamental unit of Songhai social organization. Beyond the house are village quarters that elect a chief. Villages are nucleated settlements of round mud or thatched dwellings with straw roofs. As with their Zarma cousins, the Songhai recognize noble lines of descent.
Askia Muhammad Toure, the founder of the Askia dynasty, encouraged learning in Timbuktu and instituted Muslim-based government structures. However, his son and successor waged endless dynastic wars for power, eventually causing the decline of the Songhai empire. Morocco’s Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur took advantage of the civil conflict to send an army that sacked Gao and Timbuktu in 1591.
The Songhai are agrarian but also engage in commerce and trade. A household is the basic social unit, with kinship based on patrilineage and lineage. In villages of importance, a paramount chief or adib has at least ceremonial authority over the village chiefs in his jurisdiction.
Askia Ali reformed the Songhai economy and culture. He instituted Muslim laws and judges, promoted education by bringing scholars from Morocco and Egypt to Timbuktu, and expanded Songhai trade by encouraging trade in gold and salt.
At its zenith, the Songhai Empire covered all of modern Mali and Niger and parts of Nigeria, Mauritania, Senegal, and most of Guinean Coast countries. Its control of the Sahara made it a major trading hub. The adibs were the main wealth-generating families, but there was a strong class of artisans who traded in metals and cloth as well.
Songhai societies are primarily agricultural, adapted to the arid environment that includes a three-month rainy season. Cultivation, largely of cereals, is supplemented by fishery activity along the Niger River and desert oases. The Songhai raise herds of sheep and goats and a small number of cattle.
Askia Muhammad encouraged trade and education, expanding schools such as the famed Sankore University in Timbuktu. He also fostered ties with other Muslim nations, encouraging emissaries from Morocco, Egypt and Muslim Spain.
Songhai society is hierarchical, with a king and nobility at the top of the social ladder, followed by free commoners, artisans, and griots (bards and chroniclers). The lower levels included many slaves. Marriage was often polygynous. Many Songhai were from mixed parentage, with cross-cousin marriages being particularly common.