Empire of Ghana

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Empire of Ghana

Type of Government

The Empire of Ghana was the earliest of three major West African Sudanese empires active in sub-Saharan Africa in medieval times. The Empire of Ghana organized scattered people and territories into a confederation of kingdoms that was led by a warrior tribe and a dominant royal clan. At the height of its power in the eleventh century, the Empire of Ghana controlled lands from west of the Sénégal River to the Atlantic Ocean, south and east to the Niger River, and north to the empire’s natural boundary with the Sahara. These territories correspond to portions of the modern-day countries of Senegal, Mali, and Mauritania.


What is known of Ghana’s early history is gleaned from archaeological finds, a tradition of oral history that stressed ancestor biographies, and the writings of early Arab historiographers. Historians cannot be certain when the empire was founded, but some sources estimate that it began its rise to prominence in the fourth century as a city-state in the grasslands lying between the Sénégal and Niger rivers.

In the earliest centuries of its existence, Ghana’s geographical conditions, its relatively low level of economic and technological development, and a sense of community among its citizens reduced differentiation among social classes and left power decentralized and moderate. This began to change with development of the empire’s natural resources and its proximity to the developing trans-Saharan trade routes. The source of Ghana’s fame and wealth was the land itself, which offered up agricultural bounty, as well as considerable reserves of gold and iron ore. The development of iron resources, and the ironworking skills of the people, helped produce weapons, such as iron-pointed spears, which led to easy expansion of Ghana’s territories and its conquest of neighboring tribes. The development of iron resources also led to improved farm implements, which eventually brought about a greater division of labor and a more stratified and hierarchical society. The earliest kings of Ghana were known as kaya maghan (lord of the gold). The source of Ghana’s gold in the forests to the south was a closely guarded imperial secret. In the eighth century, increased trade and rumors of the empire’s wealth and resources attracted greater numbers of outsiders who reported on their travels.

The Empire of Ghana’s principal territories lay squarely in the middle of trade routes used by gold and ivory producers of the south and Arab and Berber tradesmen of the north. The introduction of camels into the Sahara in the third century increased the mobility and capacity of producers and merchants, greatly boosting commerce and trade in the region. The emperor of Ghana maintained a standing army of approximately two hundred thousand mostly Soninke warriors who provided caravans with safe passage and security on the empire’s trade routes.

The Empire of Ghana’s frequent wars of conquest into neighboring territories guaranteed a constant supply of slaves from among the populations of conquered peoples. Slaves were used for labor in Ghana’s mines and agricultural lands and exported abroad.

Government Structure

Before inclusion in the Sudanese empires, the peoples of West Africa lived under a communal system that recognized the authority of clan or village elders to govern the community through consensus. As increased trade and military activity expanded the Empire of Ghana’s territories and increased its authority, the empire developed new methods of governing and raising revenue. Scattered communities and kingdoms with some local authority were gathered under the rule of one hierarchical system of government that was led by an emperor whose rule was absolute. The emperor was assisted by a royal council that guided and judged his actions, and ultimately supervised government affairs. The monarchy was matrilineal in succession, meaning that each king was succeeded by his sister’s son. As the empire’s governmental structure grew more sophisticated over time, the emperors of Ghana entrusted responsibility for governmental affairs to their viziers (prime ministers). These viziers were in turn assisted by many dignitaries in charge of foreign affairs, the army, finance, the palace, and so on. The introduction of Islam and its culture to the region resulted in more elaborate administrative practices that drew on the experience of Islamic empires in the Middle East.

The Empire of Ghana contained conquered provinces that were ruled by governors appointed by the king, as well as tributary kingdoms, which were allowed to retain their autonomy and hereditary rulers, but paid tribute to the empire and provided it with a quota of soldiers. Higher and lower courts of law were active, and after the arrival of Arab traders in the region in the eighth century, large Islamic trading cities had prestigious and powerful qadi (judges) in place to dispense justice.

The Empire of Ghana benefited from two main sources of revenue, both closely tied to international trade. The first was a tax levied per donkey- and camel-load of precious metals and merchandise that entered or exited the country. The second was a production tax applied to gold, the country’s most precious resource.

Political Parties and Factions

The most powerful and influential warrior tribe of the Empire of Ghana was the Soninkes. They first wrested power from Berber tribesmen in 700, ending between four hundred and five hundred years of Berber rule in Ghana and beginning the empire’s golden age.

Major Events

In the eighth century, Arab invaders on their way to conquer Spain passed close to the Sahara and were told of a kingdom of gold that lay beyond the desert. A contingent of Muslim soldiers approached Ghana, but it was no match for the iron weapons the empire possessed. Seeing an opportunity for lucrative trade, however, the Arabs decided to remain in the area. This began the historic relationship between the Islamic and African worlds, the importance of which continues today. Ghana exported gold and slaves in exchange for highly prized salt, horses, cloth, swords, and books. The Empire of Ghana continued to practice a measure of its native Soninke religion, particularly in rural areas, and never completely converted to Islam. Nonetheless, it welcomed the presence of Arab and Berber traders who had converted. Most ministers and many scribes and interpreters within the empire’s bureaucracy also practiced Islam. As a result, Arabic language and scientific learning, as well as the teachings of Islam, were absorbed into Ghana’s culture.

The lucrative export of gold from Ghana most likely began early in the empire’s history with imports into Roman North Africa. The empire’s rise to prominence coincided with the depletion of gold mines in Europe and western Asia that had previously supplied gold for coins and jewelry in Europe and North Africa.


Even though the exact cause of the Empire of Ghana’s decline is not known, trading rivalries, internal conflict, and some small amount of religious conflict are thought to have played roles. The great wealth of the empire is also likely to have attracted competitors. The empire began to decline in 1076, when a sect of Berbers, the Almoravids, defeated Ghana’s Soninke army. This defeat accelerated the spread of Islam throughout the western Sudan by dispersing the defeated Soninke warriors across a wide geographic area. After the departure of the Almoravids in 1087, the Empire of Ghana regained some of its former glory. Smaller feudal states also arose in the area, including the small kingdom of Kangaba, which later grew into the famed Empire of Mali. A smaller Susu kingdom developed in Ghana’s northern territories. In 1203 an attack by the Susu kingdom ended Ghana’s military and economic authority in the region. The empire’s last remnants were eventually incorporated into the new Empire of Mali.

Awe, Bolanle. “Empires of the Western Sudan: Ghana, Mali, Songhai.” In A Thousand Years of West African History, edited by J. F. Ade Ajayi and Ian Espie. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1965.

Davidson, Basil. A History of West Africa to the Nineteenth Century. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1966.

Levtzion, Nehemia. “The Early States of the Western Sudan to 1500.” In History of West Africa, edited by J. F. Ade Ajayi and Michael Crowder. 3rd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.