The empire of Wagadu (ancient Ghana)

About 1700 years ago, the Soninke people founded between present Mauritania and Mali, a sophisticated state, which was going to inaugurate the glorious era of the Black empires.

Vestiges à Ouadane
Wadane’s remains

The controversy about the origin of Wagadu

The foundation of this empire is dated somewhere between 750 BC and 300 A.D. The Tarikh es-Sudan, a kind of general tale of the empires in the loop of Niger river written 1300 years after the facts by the black commentator Abderrahman Sa’adi, gives a white origin to Wagadu. A theory repeated by the historian Delafosse. The problem with this theory is that the identity of those white peoples is not only properly clarified, so that we can search for a possible itinerary of their arrival in Africa and confirm their presence. But also the foundations of the empire are strictly African.

Between the matrilineal transfer of power which has been instituted all around the Black world, and the funeral rites, between the existence of a necropolis where kings were buried which reminds a lot of Egypt and the African religion which was practiced up to the summit of the State and the Soninke language of the sovereigns which remained strictly African, nothing in the structure of that empire refers to any white influence in its foundations, even though there will be later Arab white subjects in numbers and nobles will become Muslims afterward. Should we see in Sa’adi’s writings the alienation which affects a lot of Black Muslims who invent for themselves a white origin in Arabia? Maybe.

Les Soninké
The Soninké people

Anyways, only black kings were noticed by foreigners in that country and actually the Soninke people who are part of the great Mandingo group are at the origin of the foundation of Wagadu, i.e., the nobles’ country. According to the academic research of Germaine Dieterlen and Diarra Sylla, the Soninke people come from Egypt, precisely from the city of Sonna (now Aswan) [1]. Soninke means those who are from Sonna. Their ancestor Dinga, had left Egypt to settle in West Africa. They are the ones who will conquer, thanks to their high skills in mastering iron weapons and diplomacy, territories which made them masters of a vast state of about 1,000,000 square kilometers. The African Imperial period started with that empire.

The name Wagadu will be gradually substituted by the foreigners, by Ghana, which means gold, a name given by the Berber people who at that period, were predominantly black. After he obtained the independence for his country through a fierce fight, President Kwame Nkrumah named his country Ghana, in tribute to that brilliant ancient state, even though the present and the ancient Ghana don’t share any common territory.

The organisation of Wagadu

One of the well-known royal dynasties was the ones of the Sarakollé-Cissé. In the strict African tradition, the transfer of power in Ghana was matrilineal, it was the son of the king’s sister son who used to take the throne over. Kanisa-ay, an emperor of the 7th century, chose his mother’s city as the capital city. Emperor Tenka Menin in the 11th century, succeeded to his maternal uncle Besi and his uterine nephew was his legal heir. The king was at the head of a real government with ministers. He had governors who were actually black and who were ruling big cities, even those with an important white Muslim population. There was an elaborated system of taxes, which were charging trade and people’s goods, mostly foreigners.


The main wealth of the kingdom was from gold exploitation which was of an inconceivable abundance, so much that the metal was not going to value anymore. Wagadu was later on assimilated to gold. The Arab traveller Ibn Hawkal, who had visited the Arab world, Asia and Europe, didn’t hesitate to say at the period of the emperor “He is the world’s richest because of gold” [2]. Was Wagadu the world’s richest State, just like Mali after it? The agricultural and breeding products were present in a huge quantity. The greenery, the wood, lakes, were everywhere. The bargaining counter in the swarming markets were gold powder. The country was defended by 200,000 soldiers including 40,000 bowmen. Its wealth and power were well-known even in Bagdad, which was the capital city of the Arab world and the most important city of the world.

The life of the Kaya Magan or Tunka Ra (emperor) was as regulated as that of the Pharaoh of Egypt: in the morning he was going round his capital city, on horseback, followed by a whole court, preceded by giraffes and elephants…any plaintiff could then address to submit him his case which he was settling immediately. In the afternoon, he was traveling the same route, alone, and nobody could address him.

The architecture of the Wagadu empire

The Arab scholar of Spain Bekri left us a description of the cities of Ghana in the 11th century. According to the African American historian Chancellor Williams, he litterally refers to them as cities in stone. There were two big cities including one inhabited by legal advisers, scholars, and Arabic and Berber traders. It was at six thousand leagues of the Vitalist (animist) capital city, which was surrounded by sacred woods were kings were buried, and kept by vitalist priests. The emperor lived in a strengthened castle, adorned with sculptures, paints and possessing glass windows!! He was sitting on a red gold throne to look at 10,000 of his subjects invited to take the meal every day in the palace. We can imagine the size of a palace which can host 10,000 dinner guests !!


ghana-2The figure (10,000) may be hyperbolic but it suggests that the palace was enormous. Both cities were connected by a wide avenue lined with houses made of stone and wood. In 1914, the French researchers unearthed the remains of this civilization under the sands of Mauritania and it has been described, according to the Burkinabe historian Joseph Ki-Zerbo, walls built with blocks of schist and elevated with angles of great accuracy, reinforced by pillars, streets with net lines and secondary streets, the floor of all parts meticulously paved with large slabs of schist two meters in length. A staircase leading to the first or second floor.


The luxurious court life at Wagadu

Bekri also tells us about the monarchy in Wagadu. ”The emperor, the putative heir, the dignitaries, used to litterally cover themselves with gold. Pages, horses, dogs of Tunkara or Kaya Magan were also covered with it. Only him and the heir (his sister’s son) had the right to wear cutted and sewn clothes. Other people who were following the same religion as the Tunkara, i.e. the tradition – were wearing silk, cotton loincloths, or brocade according to their resources. Men were having their beard shaved and women their head shaved. The king’s hairstyle consisted of several golden hats surrounded with very fine cotton materials.


When he was granting hearing to people, to listen to their grievance and solve it, he was holding court inside a detached house in which ten horses covered by caparisons in golden materials were tied up. Ten pages wearing shields and carrying golden swords were standing behind him; the princes’ sons of his empire were standing on his right side, dressed in magnificent clothes and having their hair braided and mixed with some gold. The governor of the city was sitting on the ground in front of the king and, viziers were standing around, i.e. the Secretaries, in the same position.

The door of the detached house was kept by dogs of an excellent race which almost never left the king: they were wearing gold and silver necklaces, stocked with small bells of the same metals. The noise of a drum (deba) made of a dug piece of wood, announced the opening of the session. The people was rushing, clapping hands, putting dust on their head and exposing their needs.”[3]


The reasons of the decline of Wagadu

The decline of Wagadou started in the 11th century. The first reason of the decline is drought. The magnificent greenery which Bekri spoke about had been replaced by a desert. The second reason is the invasion of the country by the Almoravid movement of the islamized black Berbers, who committed plunder and barbaric actions over a period of about 10 years, seriously weakening the empire.


The third reason is the Islamization of the elites and consequently the break with the matrilineal transfer of power. The harmonious transition had been replaced by wars of succession. The same islamization created a gap between the elite and the people who remained vitalist. The mandatory islamization of the people was a failure and these ones began to flee the country. The weakened power lost the gold mine of Wangara, decreasing considerably its wealth. It is a dying empire, in the grip of the Arab slave traders, which would be conquered by Soundjata Keita in 1240, who founded the most powerful state and the richest state of the Imperial period: the Empire of Mali.


By: Lisapo ya Kama © (All rights reserved. Any copying or translation of the text of this article is strictly forbbiden without the written approval of Lisapo ya Kama)

Notes :

  • Histoire de l’Afrique noire (History of Black Africa), Joseph Ki-Zerbo
  • L’Afrique noire précoloniale (Pre colonial Black Africa), Cheikh Anta Diop
  • The destruction of black civilization, Chancellor Williams
  • [1] Soninkara
  • [2] Histoire de l’Afrique noire, Joseph Ki-Zerbo, 106
  • [3] L’Afrique noire précoloniale, Cheikh Anta Diop, 82 et 83
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