Mohammed I Askia

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Mohammed I Askia

Born c. 1442

Died 1538

Songhai emperor

"This king makes war only upon neighboring enemies and upon those who do not want to pay him tribute. When he has gained a victory, he has all of them—even the children—sold in the market at Timbuktu."

Leo Africanus, describing Mohammed I Askia

M ohammed I Askia ruled Songhai, perhaps the most powerful empire of premodern Africa, at its height. Under his reign, the Songhai controlled a vast area in the continent's western corner, ranging from the dry sands of the Sahara to the dense rain forests of modern-day Nigeria. A devout Muslim, he united much of his land under the faith, and ruled a well-administered empire. In spite of all his achievements, however, he was doomed to die in humiliation, and the empire did not long outlast him.

The Songhai

Though he ruled by the name Mohammed I Askia (ahs-KEE-uh), the latter being the title of the dynasty or royal house he established, he was born Muhammed Ture ibn Abi Bakr (TOOR-ay eeb'n ah-BEE BAHK'r) in about 1442. By that time, Europe was coming out of the Middle Ages, but the modern era would not come to Africa for a few more years—and when it did, it would come in the form of slave-traders dealing in human lives.

The West Africa of Mohammed's time already knew slavery, and in fact his conquests would bring many new slaves and forced laborers into his empire. This enslavement of Africans by other Africans, of course, lacked the racial over-tones that would taint slavery under the Europeans; but there was a distinctly tribal and national character to African-upon-African slavery. In West Africa, tribe and nation meant everything, a fact that made the achievements of the Songhai (SAWNG-hy) in building a broad multi-national empire all the more impressive.

The Songhai Empire was centered on the town of Gao (GOW), which lay along a bend in the Niger (NY-jur) River. Gao had existed since about 1000, and the Songhai nation that grew up around it eventually became a part of the empire of Mali. The latter declined, however, after the time of its greatest ruler, Mansa Musa (see entry). By the mid-1400s, Songhai had its turn at leadership, and its ruler—a ruthless emperor named Sonni Ali (SAW-nee; ruled c. 1464–92)—was determined to make it an even greater power than Mali had been.

Lieutenant to Sonni Ali

Mohammed belonged to the Soninke (saw-NINg-kay) people, a tribe within the larger empire of the Songhai. He came from a long line of military figures who had seen service in the cavalry of the Songhai armies, and his early education probably combined military and religious studies.

At that time, the influence of Islam had spread throughout the region, and Mohammed's family were Muslims. But not everyone accepted Islam: Sonni Ali, for one, scorned what he saw as a foreign religion. Therefore Mohammed must have kept his beliefs a secret to some degree, because he rose through the ranks to become a trusted lieutenant serving directly under the emperor himself.

The growing empire

Mohammed no doubt participated in Sonni Ali's project of empire-building, because throughout his career, Sonni Ali remained active in the expansion of his realms. To his west was the slowly crumbling empire of Mali, and Sonni Ali took advantage of its situation by sending in his troops and conquering its lands, including the famous city of Timbuktu, in 1468.

The conquest of Mali made the Songhai Empire—which, like other great kingdoms of medieval Africa, possessed enormous wealth in gold—even wealthier. Yet it faced grave dangers on all sides as well: to the north, nomads from the Sahara Desert threatened to invade, and to the south, chieftains of the Mossi people tried to resist Songhai rule.

Sonni Ali had a policy of severe cruelty in dealing with enemies, and this engendered resentment in surrounding lands. His hatred of Islam further made him enemies to the west, especially in regions where the people were more closely related ethnically to North Africans than to sub-Saharan groups such as the Songhai.

Taking power

In 1492, before he had reached all his goals of conquest, Sonni Ali died. Powerful men might have wanted to revolt against him, but no one had dared while the powerful ruler Ali was alive; now Mohammed, for one, saw his chance. In April 1493, he joined forces with dissatisfied Muslim leaders and seized the throne from Sonni Ali's son, who he sent into exile. He then established the Askia dynasty, and set about consolidating his rule.

To ensure that no one challenged his claim on power, Mohammed used exile and even execution to remove members of earlier Songhai ruling families. He used a "carrot-and-stick" approach, applying the "stick" (punishment) to potential rivals for power, and the "carrot" (reward) to Muslim leaders whose favor he wanted to ensure. In the case of the Muslims, who were mostly spiritual and intellectual rather than political leaders, he spent a great deal of money building mosques, or temples, and doing other deeds to win their support.

Strengthening Islamic ties

Mohammed's interest in Islam was not purely that of a believer: he also recognized that the faith, with its simple message and its tightly organized belief system, could be a strong unifying factor in West Africa's world of many gods and many religions. Furthermore, he appreciated the fact that by aligning himself with the Islamic world, he was tapping into a vast civilization stretching from Morocco to western India. What most impressed him was the commercial network of the Muslim world: his empire might possess gold, but without the horses and other goods it could purchase from the other side of the Sahara, his wealth was worthless.

Charles the Bold

Duke Charles the Bold (1433–1477) lived at roughly the same time as Mohammed I Askia, though for less than half as long. Both men ruled lands at the height of their power, and both had great ambitions. Both were destined to see those ambitions thwarted, and both died in disgrace.

Burgundy comprised what is now the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and parts of northern France and Belgium. Though it took its name from the Burgundians, a tribe that had conquered the area nearly a thousand years before, its identity as a region went back to the Treaty of Verdun in 843. The latter had divided lands belonging to Charlemagne among three grandsons. One received what became known as the East Frankish Empire, roughly the same as Germany; another took the West Frankish Empire, including most of France; and the third, Lothar, got a strip of land running from the modern-day Netherlands to northern Italy. Though the two Frankish empires survived for some time, the "middle kingdom" of Lotharingia quickly dissolved. It was Charles's dream to rebuild Lotharingia (loh-thar-IN-jee-uh), with Burgundy as its leading power.

Charles's father, Philip the Good, had been an exceedingly popular leader. Charles, however, was moody and egotistical, with a fatal habit of refusing to listen to good advice. On the other hand, he gathered around himself a court noted throughout Europe for its artistic refinement, and he is famous for the financial support he gave to a number of the greatest painters, historians, and musicians of the day.

But politics and war remained the central preoccupations of Charles's short career. During the 1460s, he struggled with Louis XI, king of France, waging an on-again, off-again war. Late in the decade, he tried to forge an alliance with Holy

Roman emperor Frederick III, but the emperor politely shunned his advances.

Determined to build his greater Burgundian state between France and Germany, Charles moved his forces into Alsace (al-SAS) and Lorraine, regions on the border between France and Germany. This frightened the Swiss, whose lands adjoined the area. Louis took advantage of these fears to form an alliance with Switzerland, Austria, and several other local powers against Burgundy.

The two sides met in a series of battles, culminating at Nancy (nahn-SEE) on January 5, 1477. In the Battle of Nancy, Charles was thrown from his horse, and it was several days before gravediggers found his body. Because he had been stripped of his jewels, weapons, and even his clothes, it took some time to identify the corpse as that of Charles the Bold.

After Charles's death, Burgundy was incorporated into France, which by then had become the dominant power on the European continent. One outgrowth of Charles's wars was growing dissatisfaction in the Netherlands, which would declare its independence during the 1600s.

Just as Mansa Musa had done about 175 years before, Mohammed in late 1496 went on a hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, as is required of all Muslims who can afford to do so. Highly conscious of the strong impression the Malian emperor had made before him, in particular by spending lavish amounts of gold in Egypt, he made an effort to surpass what Mansa had done. Giving alms to the poor was, like the pilgrimage to Mecca, a duty of all Muslims, and Mohammed was exceedingly generous in his gifts to the poor of Cairo, Egypt's capital city. He also paid to establish and maintain a hostel, a place where pilgrims from West Africa could stay on future pilgrimages.

Again like Mansa Musa, Mohammed attracted considerable attention in the east, where the caliph or ruler of Egypt gave him the title "Caliph of the Blacks." On his return trip, he brought with him a great number of scholars and other esteemed figures from the Arab world, drawn by curiosity and the commanding presence of the African king. These learned men strengthened the already healthy intellectual community of Timbuktu. Around the same time, Djenné (jen-AY), a town on the Niger floodplain to the west, also emerged as a major cultural center.

Widening his kingdoms

The fact that Mohammed stayed away on his hajj for almost two years indicates that he held a firm grip on power. Upon his return, he further strengthened that power with wars of conquest—conflicts which, in the atmosphere of spiritual fervor generated by his trip to Mecca, took on the aspect of jihad or holy war for Islam.

Mohammed's armies marched against Mossi tribes to the south, in what is now Burkina Faso. They also moved northward, capturing most of the important Saharan oases and salt mines—the equivalent of islands in a sea of sand—up to the edges of what is now Algeria and Libya. To the east, they conquered powerful Hausa (HOW-suh) city-states in the region of modern-day Nigeria.

Not surprisingly, given his background—not to mention the geographical demands of his large realm, which required mobility—Mohammed's army relied heavily on its cavalry. But his military, perhaps the first standing, or fulltime, force in African history, also possessed something unknown in Africa before: a navy, made up of boats that patrolled the Niger.

Glory and exile

Mohammed's Songhai Empire was probably the largest political unit in premodern African history. It possessed a vast military and civilian labor force made up partly of captured peoples, and in later years this force included brigades of slaves detailed to specific jobs such as producing weapons or armor, or fishing to feed the court.

Despite the strength of his empire, Mohammed himself lost his grip on power in 1528. By then he was an old man, more than eighty years of age—exceptionally old for that era—and blind. His son Musa overthrew him, and exiled him to an island in the Niger. Nine years later, another son brought him back from exile to Gao, where he died at about the age of ninety-six.

The Askia dynasty continued to flourish for about a quarter-century after Mohammed's death, and carried on a trading relationship with the distant Ottoman Empire. But changes were coming, particularly with the expansion of European slave-trading activity on the coasts to the south and west. None of Mohammed's successors proved as successful a ruler as he, and religious conflict between Muslim and traditionalist groups further weakened Askia power. In 1561, invaders from Morocco destroyed the Songhai Empire.

For More Information


Adeleke, Tunde. Songhay. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 1996.

Chu, Daniel. The Glorious Age in Africa: The Story of Three Great African Empires. Illustrated by Moneta Barnett. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1992.

Conrad, David C. The Songhay Empire. New York: Franklin Watts, 1998.

Koslow, Philip. Songhay: The Empire Builders. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1995.

Web Sites

"African American Journey: The Songhai Empire." Worldbook Encyclopedia. [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"African Empires Timeline." [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).

Medieval Africa. [Online] Available (last accessed July 26,2000).