Songhai Empire was one of the dominant states in the western Sahel region during the medieval period. It grew to become the largest state in West Africa during the 15th and 16th centuries. The Songhai Empire was initially located on the east side of the Niger River. The biggest ethnic group in the empire was the Songhai. The capital was Gao, but the cities Timbuktu and Djenné also played crucial roles in the empire. These cities were centres critical to the Trans-Saharan trade. As a result of controlling these two trade centres, Songhai Empire was able to prosper economically. The ruling dynasties during the prosperous years of the empire were the Sonni dynasty and the Askia Dynasty. Notable rulers from the two dynasties were King Sunni Ali and King Askia Muhammad.
Rise of the Empire
Songhai Empire became a state to reckon with during King Sunni Ali’s reign. King Sunni Ali took over the mantle of leadership in the year 1464. Before ascending to power, Songhai Empire was a small state situated in the upper Niger valley. In 1468, King Sunni Ali annexed Timbuktu by overthrowing Tuaregs after Muslim leaders requested his assistance. King Sunni Ali would then set his eyes on Djenné, a wealthy trading town, to control the Trans-Saharan trade routes. The siege would take seven years ending in 1473. Songhai Empire grew rapidly due to its involvement in the Trans-Saharan trade. Before King Sunni Ali’s death in 1492, Songhai Empire had grown in wealth and size, surpassing its greatest rival, the Mali Empire.
Change in Ruling Dynasties
Sonni Baru, Sunni Ali’s son, took over the throne from his father in 1493. However, his reign did not last long as he was overthrown by Askia Muhammad. Songhai Empire continued to grow to the south and east during Askia Muhammad’s reign. Askia was a devout Muslim. However, he did not force people to convert to Islam. Askia the Great was later overthrown by his eldest son Askia Musa in 1528.
The peace and prosperity of the Songhai Empire started to decline due to succession disputes. Askia Musa’s reign only lasted a couple of years before being overthrown. The empire continued to witness political chaos and civil wars during the reigns of the succeeding rulers.
Fall of the Empire
Succession squabbles and civil wars weakened the empire, making it susceptible to invasions. In 1591, the empire was unsuspectedly invaded by Moroccan forces. The Moroccan army took control of Timbuktu and Gao cities, seizing the salt and gold trade, leading to the empire’s collapse.
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