This post contains affiliate links. See our Disclosure Policy here.
Good morning! We’re wrapping up our first week of African history with a look at the Ancient Ghana and Mali empires.
Where were Ancient Ghana and Mali?
Despite their names, we learned that the Ghana Kingdom was not located in the same place where present-day Ghana is located. Rather, it was one of the first West African kingdoms. When we studied Egypt and Nubia, we learned that early kingdoms in Africa were generally located near large sources of water. The Ghana Empire was also located near a reliable water source, the Niger River. Mali, which later engulfed the Ghana Kingdom, covered a larger area that now includes Cote D’Ivoire, the Gambia, Niger, Senegal and Mali. At its height, the Mali Empire encompassed 500,000 square miles.
The Rulers of Ghana and Mali
One of the first rulers of the Ghana Empire was Dinga Cisse. What was fascinating about Ghana’s rulers is that, unlike some of the other empires in Africa such as Egypt and Kush, their kings had a semi-divine status. That means the people viewed them as kind of half-gods. Dinga Cisse set up his capital at Koumbi Saleh and turned it into a major stop along one of the trans-Sahara trade routes. The empire made most of its revenue by trading in gold.
Sundiata Keita was the first ruler of the Mali Empire. His story is recounted in the Epic of Sundiata, an oral legend passed down through generations. While he was the father of the Mali Kingdom, the empire’s greatest ruler was Mansa Musa, whose title means “King of Kings”. Mansa Musa was like the King Solomon of the Mali Empire. During his reign, the kingdom grew to its wealthiest status. When Mansa Musa made his hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca in 1324, he took along a caravan of over 70,000, along with 80 camels carrying more than 50 pounds of gold each. On the way, he handed out so much gold along to the citizens that the value of gold nationwide plummeted for the next 10 years!
Mansa Musa also commissioned some of the Mali Empire’s most memorable architectural works. After Islamic architects learned how to combine timber and mud brick, they were able to build taller buildings. The Djinguereber Mosque, which was built in 1327 in Timbuktu, still stands today:upyernoz
In this image, you can get a closer look at the ends of the wooden timber sticking out of the sides of the mosque:Image c/o: KaTeznik
Life in Ancient Ghana and Mali
One of the games that originated in West Africa during this period was mancala. The game is considered to be the oldest board game on Earth. It’s still played today with the same exact rules:
We used the activity in the book The History and Activities of the West African Kingdoms to create our own mancala game using an egg carton, some hair beads, and a couple of small containers.
A typical mancala board only has 12 holes, so you’re supposed to use a dozen-size egg carton. We only had the 18-egg size carton, so we just skipped the second row.
Mancala looks like a really simple game, but it actually requires quite a bit of logic and skill. The instructions require you to capture as many beads (or beans, or marbles, or any small item) from your partner into your mancala as possible. But it takes some serious planning and foresight to understand how to do it. In that way, mancala is very similar to chess.
It took some time for the kids to learn the rules, but once they got the hang of it, they loved it! It’s a testament to African ingenuity that a game played with such simple items can be so complex.
Books and Resources about the Ghana and Mali Empires
AncientWeb.org: Ancient Nigeria – An overview of the history of kingdoms that were located in present-day Nigeria: Mali, Ghana, and Songhay.
ThinkQuest.org: Africa: The Cradle of Civilization – Quick summary of both the Ghana and Mali Empires, including their rise and eventual fall.
BBC: The Story of Africa – Origin of the Ghana Kingdom and a look at its people, their religious beliefs, and the empire’s decline.
Wikipedia: Ghana Empire – Well-sourced article detailing the development of the Ghana Empire, the nation’s trade system, and its leaders.
Wikipedia: Mali Empire – An excellent in-depth article covering Mali’s kings, most significant cities, and the history of how the kingdom was formed.
Wikipedia: Sundiata Keita – Extensive article discussing the birth, growth, and rulership of Mali’s first king.
Wikipedia: Mansa Musa – Thorough history of Mali’s greatest king, including his ascent to power and his historic hajj to the city of Mecca.
PBS: Wonders of the African World – A look of the glory of Timbuktu, one of Africa’s most prestigious centers of learning in the Middle Ages.
University of Maine: Mancala Rules – A nice summary of basic mancala game rules, with variations for other styles of play and suggestions for making a mancala game board.
We hope you’ll come back next week to learn more about African history with us! We’ll be discussing more ancient kingdoms, the colonization of Africa, and apartheid.