The single most important development in the history of northwestern Africa was the use of the camel as a transport vehicle. In ancient times, the Egyptians and Carthaginians engaged in just a trickle of commercial trade with west Africa, even though west Africa was rich in gold, precious metals, ivory, and other resources. The reason for this was the imposing barrier of the Sahara, which in Arabic simply means "The Desert." Around 750 AD, under the influence of Islamic peoples, northern and western Africans began to use the camel to transport goods across this forbidding terrain. Camels do several things exceptionally well: they can carry unbelievably heavy loads for impossibly long distances and they can keep their footing on sandy terrain. It was as if someone had invented sand ships and its effect on western African culture was just as profound as if they were sand ships. The most important developments occurred in the Sahel area just south of the Sahara; the Sahel provided southern terminal points for the goods being shipped across the Sahara. The Sahel is a dry, hot area with fertile areas and grasslands; all of the major north African kingdoms grew up in this area: Ghana, Mali, Songhay, and Kanem-Bornu: the Sahelian kingdoms.
Since the Third Punic War, the Romans controlled all the coastline of northern Africa. In the fourth century, however, the Romans gradually pulled out of their northern African provinces and territories. The power vacuum that they left was filled by desert Berbers, an indigenous African people (Saint Augustine, born in Carthage, may have been part Berber). The Berbers were primarily a nomadic people and would eventually play a crucial role in the spread of Islam across northern Africa. In the fifth century, however, they formed a new kingdom, called Ghana or Awkar in an area that is now southeastern Mauretania. This Berber kingdom would form the model from which all the Sahelian kingdoms would be built.
Although it originated in the late fourth century, Ghana only became a major regional power near the end of the millenium. Although the state was originally formed by Berbers, it was built on the southern edge of Berber populations. Eventually the state became dominated by the Soninke, a Mande speaking people living in the region bordering the Sahara. They built their capital city, Kumbi Saleh, right on the edge of the Sahara and the city quickly became the most dynamic and important southern terminus of the Saharan trade routes.
The state was ruled by a hereditary king called the Ghana (this is why we now call the kingdom, Ghana). The kingship was matrilineal (as was all Sahelian monarchies to follow); the king's sister provided the heir to the throne. In addition to military power, the king appears to have been the supreme judge of the kingdom.
Fueled by its economic vitality, the kingdom of Ghana rapidly expanded into an empire. It conquered local chieftaincies and required tribute from these subordinate states. This tribute, however, paled next to the wealth generated by the commerce of goods that passed from western Africa east to Egypt and the Middle East. This trade primarily involved gold, salt, copper, and even human beings.
The kingdom of Ghana never converted to Islam, even though northern Africa had been dominated by the faith since the eighth century. The Ghanaian court, however, allowed Muslims to settle in the cities and even encouraged Muslim specialists to help the royal court administer the government and advise on legal matters.
The Berbers who had originally formed the state ultimately proved to be its demise. Unlike the Ghanaians, the Berbers, calling themselves Almoravids, fervently converted to Islam and, in 1075, declared a holy war, or jihad, against the state of Ghana. We do not know exactly how this affected the kingdom. In one scenario, the Almoravids destroy the kingdom. In another, the Ghanaians also convert to Islam and join the Almoravids in their attempt to spread Islam across Africa. Nonetheless, Ghana ceases to be a commercial or military power after 1100; for a brief time (1180-1230), the Soso people, who were rabidly anti-Muslim, controlled a kingdom making up the southern portions of the Ghanaian empire, but the Almoravid revolution effectively halted the growth of kingdoms and empires in the Sahel for almost a century.
The Islamic invasions
Islam entered Africa shortly after its inception in the seventh century AD. After the death of Muhammad, the rasul, or "messenger," and prophet of Islam, in 632, the first caliph ("deputy of the prophet") of Islam, Abu Bakr, ambitiously undertook a series of military conquests to spread the new faith across the world. Although he died two years later, his nephew, Umar, continued the ambitious program. In 636, the Muslims occupied Jerusalem, Damascus, and Antioch; in 651, they had conquered all of Persia. But they also moved west into Africa, for Arabic culture saw itself as continuous not only with Middle Eastern culture, but with northern African culture as well. In 646, the Muslims conquered Egypt and quickly spread across northern Africa. From northern Africa, they invaded Spain in 711. Look at the dates: Islam is founded in 610 when Muhammed has the first of his revelations in the caves above the city of Qumran. In 711, one hundred years later, the Muslims conquered the Middle East, Persia, the Arabian Peninsula, northern Africa, and had just entered Europe. The initial spread of Islam is the single most dramatic cultural change in the history of the world, and it loomed large in the subsequent history of African civilizations.
The largest African cities and kingdoms were located in the Sahel, a desert and savannah region south of the Sahara. After 750 AD, these cities and kingdoms arose because they served as waystations and terminus points for the trade routes across northern Africa. The northern Africans, however, were Muslim; one particular people, the Berbers, were a north African people who were fervently Muslim. The Berbers and their wars of conversion figure very large in the history of the Sahelian kingdoms; by the 1300's, these large kingdoms became Islamic and, more importantly, centers of Islamic learning.
Beyond religion, there are several important cultural practices that the Arabic culture of Islam gave to Africa. The first is literacy. Egypt and the Nilotic kingdoms of the Kushites and the Nubians had long traditions of writing, and the Ethiopians had acquired it through their ties to the Semitic peoples of southern Arabia. But these writing systems did not spread throughout Africa. Islam, however, as a religion of the book, spread writing and literacy everywhere it went. Many Africans dealt with two languages: their native language and Arabic, which was the language of texts. However, this gradually changed as Africans began using the Arabic alphabet to write their own languages. To this date, Arabic script is one of the most common scripts for writing African languages.
With literacy, the Arabs brought formal educational systems. In north Africa and the Sahel, these systems and institutions would produce a great flowering of African thought and science. In fact, the city of Timbuctu had perhaps the greatest university in the world.
Islam also brought social fragmentation. As the faith spread throughout Africa, political authority of established African institutions and kingdoms began to collapse under the burden, particularly when groups of Muslims declared holy war, or jihad, against pagan social groups.
Ghana was the most powerful empire in Western Africa, but it was not an Islamic kingdom. By the 900's, Muslims controlled most of the desert oases along the commercial routes; because of this economic power, they were able to force the king of Ghana to divide his capital city into two distinct districts, one for Muslims and one for non-Muslims.
The Almoravid movement began among the nomadic Berbers, or Almoravids, living in the desert north of Ghana. They were fervent Muslims and they declared holy war, or jihad, against the kingdom of Ghana. The Almoravids pushed Ghana over the edge, for the kingdom had for a couple centuries been close to collapse because of the spread of the Sahara desert and the overuse of agricultural land. The Almoravids so weakened the Ghanaian empire, that it finally collapsed as individual tribal groups and chieftaincies seceded.
The story of the Sudanic empire, though, still had life in it. In 1224, one of the chief that had seceded from Ghana, attacked the capital city of Kumbi-Saleh and seized the royal family. He didn't last long, though. A mere ten years later, a legendary magician and a royal hostage named Sunjata overcame the usurper and began a new empire: Mali.