Songhai Empire

By Rachel Pleake


The Songhai Empire (aka Songhay Empire) was a pre-colonial West African trading state on the Niger River and present day central Mali. It was also considered the largest empire in the West Africa stretching all the way to Cameroon. It was also reaching 800 years of age until the Moroccans took over.

Rise of Songhai Empire

The rise of the Songhai Empire starts in Timbuktu in 1325. Mansa Musa ordered two soldiers to capture two princes from the city of Gao. Unlike most prisoners, they were treated with more respect and had more leave-way because of their royal background. Prince Ali Kolon took military assignments that were as close to home as they were allowed. The princes dreamed of coming home every day. When Mansa Musa died, they fled back to Gao. When they returned to the city, they found that their father had died and a new king had taken over. They overthrew the king and started to govern it again. Afterwards they declared the city independent. Together, the Songhai people and Gao dominated Ghana and Mali. Although they had a good start to running the country, they still needed help. Jenne served as a link between the traders that were in Timbuktu and the gold miners that were located in the south. Blocks of salt were transported to Jenne because salt was thought of valuable and worth gold pieces.
Later on, Gao was considered the center of Songhai and became the capital. It was also a busy trading center with political autonomy. Afterwards, Dia Kossoi converted the empire to Islam. Then, Gao started an expansionist mission to secure control of trans-Saharan trade routes. In the Sunni Dynasty, the second person to have the title Sunni, Suleiman-Mar, got Songhai independence from Mali. Later, in the Askia Dynasty, Muhammad Turay (Askia the Great) received power by deposing reign of Sunni in a fight. The rise to power was facilitated by religious strife.
Mansa Musa

Sunni Ali

Although the princes started the Songhai Empire, it still needed expanding. Sunni Ali was the one to do the job. He was a military leader and a king. He also led the expansion of the mighty empire. He also respected the beliefs of the Muslims with whom they traded. In addition to this, he developed new ways of farming. Although, he still did not forget the traditional ways. He knew that farmers and fishermen that belonged in the army would still try to maintain their traditional ways. He also found a more organized way to order the boatmen of the Niger River: professional navy style. When he died, Sunni Baru, Sunni Ali’s son, took over.

Askia Muhammed

Muhammed Turé led a military coup until; he took over the Songhai government from Sunni Baru. Afterwards, he became known as Askia Muhammed. He created a standing army so the kingdom didn’t have to rely on volunteers. Unlike in other civilization, Muhammed made sure that anyone, no matter where they were from, could be upgraded in government based on their own achievements. He also tried to make his cities his “base support” and made a pilgrimage to Mecca. He was remembered for his political genius, religious beliefs, and his well-known military leadership.
Askia Muhammed

Language, Location, and Trade

On the Niger River, the Songhai had gold fields. Usually they were independently operated and supplied a nice steady amount of gold. They used the gold to trade for salt. Salt was considered valuable all over West Africa, so it was not unusual for gold to be traded for salt. When they weren’t trading for salt, the empire was expanding. Songhai reached to the lower portions of the Niger River, modern day Nigeria, Northeastern parts of modern day Mali, northern Benin, and a fraction of the West Atlantic Coast. Although they don’t live in France, they still spoke French and some Songhai.
Map of Songhai


The Songhai also was Muslim and Islamic mixed in with some indigenous beliefs. According to Muslim religion, they are to pray five times a day and avoid alcohol and pork. Most would also try to make hajj. Along with praying daily, they also had certain holidays they celebrated. Some of these were the secular holidays of the countries they lived in, Muhammad’s birth, the one-month Ramadan fast, the end of the Ramadan fast, and Eid-al-Adha, also known as tabaski. There were also five paths in the Songhai religion; magic, possession, ancestor worship, witchcraft, and Islam. Islam was superficially important, had larger towns, and Friday Mosques. Possession, magic, ancestor worship, and witchcraft are all vital components to Songhai belief. For Muslims there are marabouts, Islamic clerics, who either heal the sick or lead the community through prayer. There were frequent rituals; daily prayers and weekly prayers.
The Songhai was also proud of their heroic past. Most of the people would celebrate it in song, dance, and poetry. The griots, or storytellers, would sing and dance as well, but instead of poetry they would do praise songs. Most of these were to celebrate births, marriages, and holidays.
Unlike most places, birth is seen as a time of danger for the mother and child due to the fact that they are at their most vulnerable. After birth, the mother and child are kept away from the father/spouse. When the naming ceremony (also called bon chebe which literally means “showing of the head”) occurs, the family and neighbors are allowed to be around the baby and his/her mother for the first time. Divorce is also common among the Songhai. Also their dead were buried quickly after they die. The standard mourning period for the Songhai is forty days.

Life in Songhai

The daily lives of the people were pretty simple. If you were to greet someone in the morning you would most likely focus on work and health in your compound. Then you would go to the fields and work for the day. If you were to greet someone in the midday, you were to talk about their afternoon. In the late afternoon greetings are about health in the compound. Then you would go home. Dusk greetings were usually exchanging wishes for peace and health.
If you were a young women, you were to act shy around the young men and the men were to be respectful.
People would generally live in two types of compounds; fenced in or walled in. In the compound, the man would live in the main house. The mothers and children would live in separate houses all over the compound. New houses, though, were generally made out of cement and tin roofs.
The family life was very different compared to the families in present day United States. Think for a moment; is your family large, normal, or small? If you think your families large, try living in Songhai for a while! The families were huge. The brothers lived with their father, mother, wives, and children in large communal compounds. Sometimes more than one hundred lived in one rural compound. In the urban areas the families are more scattered. Although men and women’s lives often entwined, for the most part they lived completely separate lives. If a woman earned money, she would not share it with her husband but rather with the people that share the same blood as her, sometimes not even them. Also if the husband is abusive, usually the brother of the wife will step in and protect her.
Men often wore a combo of trousers and a loose-fitting shirt. Some would prefer to wear the traditional wear; drawstring trousers, a long sleeved loose fitting shirt with an open neck and a boubou, a long full length robe. Women would wear long wrap-around skirts with matching tops.


There were two different types of education; formal and informal. Mothers and fathers would teach children how to farm, fish, hunt, build habitats, cook, weave, and sew. Illiteracy was common among them because the parents found formal training to be a loss. Thankfully, this was good preparation for their lives, because as employment they farm rice and millet. When they are not farming, due to it being a seasonal thing and at other times was due to drought, they have a secondary occupation; trading, transport, and tailoring are all examples of this.


The Songhai also had a lot of sports they played. Some of the major ones were soccer, race horsing, and wrestling. Girls were not encouraged to participate in such sports. Instead they would weave baskets and mats at home while their brothers, uncles, and fathers were out doing the games.

Man playing soccer


The government was considered to have a “caste system”. At the top were the emperor and his family. Underneath that was the imperial authority which had the political, social, and religious leaders. Next was the social elite, you would find families and individuals that had some type of connection to the ruling family. After that was the intellectual elite, in this were the ministers, advisors, governors, and other regional leaders. Below them, were the intellectual elite which consisted of artisans, educators, and religious leaders. Last was below elite, these were commoners who employed privately or worked for an industry.
The government was divided into urban districts containing at least thirty five cities. The cities blended into suburban districts and peripheral territories. Because of military extent, new territories were added frequently. The emperor appointed the permanent leadership to somebody. Timbuktu and Djenné were economic and cultural centers that were led by semi-autonomous governments. Central council members of ministers assisted the emperor by leading the nation’s executive offices. Each region had a court system of judges called cadi.
In order to elect officials this is how they did it: The village quarter elected the quarter chief. The neighborhood chiefs become the village council. The village council would elect the village chief. The village consisted nobles, other free Songhay people, and captives. The offspring of the captives were considered free members of the community.

Decline of the Songhai Empire

The decline of the Songhai Empire was over a slow period of time. It started with a civil war. The Moroccans had already had an interest in Songhai so when they saw the opportunity to take over, they did, but only because they had more troops and a weapon called a harquebus. After a while they found it too difficult to manage the large area and lost control of the region. The region then divided up into smaller kingdoms. Another thing that may have made the decline more real was the natural disasters, raids, and European slave trade. This is the Songhai Empire