Growth of Ghana
Ghana lay between the vast Sahara Desert and deep forests. In this location, they were in a good position to trade in the region’s most valuable resources—gold and salt. Gold came from the south, from mines near the Gulf of Guinea and along the Niger. Salt came from the Sahara in the north.
People wanted gold for its beauty. But they needed salt in their diets to survive. Salt, which could be used to preserve food, also made bland food tasty. These qualities made salt very valuable. In fact, Africans sometimes cut up slabs of salt and used the pieces as money.
As the trade in gold and salt increased, Ghana’s rulers gained power. Over time, their military strength grew as well. With their armies they began to take control of this trade from the merchants who had once controlled it. Merchants from the north and south met to exchange goods in Ghana. As a result of their control of trade routes, the rulers of Ghana became wealthy.
With so many traders passing through their lands, Ghana’s rulers looked for ways to make money from them. One way they raised money was by forcing traders to pay taxes. Every trader who entered Ghana had to pay a special tax on the goods he carried. Then he had to pay another tax on any goods he took with him when he left.
Traders were not the only people who had to pay taxes. The people of Ghana also had to pay taxes. In addition, Ghana conquered many small neighboring tribes, then forced them to pay tribute. Rulers used the money from taxes and tribute to support Ghana’s growing army.
Reason #1: Invasion
The first factor that helped bring about Ghana’s end was invasion. A Muslim group called the Almoravids (al-moh-RAH-vidz) attacked Ghana in the 1060s in an effort to force its leaders to convert to Islam. These outside attacks weakened the country because the government was too focused on these attacks to continue maintaining the well-being of the country.
Reason #2: Overgrazing
A second factor in Ghana’s decline was a result of the Almoravid conquest. When the Almoravids moved into Ghana, they brought herds of animals with them. These animals ate all the grass in many pastures, leaving the soil exposed to hot desert winds. These winds blew away the soil, leaving the land worthless for farming or herding. Unable to grow crops, many farmers had to leave in search of new homes.
Reason #3: Internal Rebellion
A third factor also helped bring about the decline of Ghana’s empire. In about 1200 the people of a country that Ghana had conquered rose up in rebellion. Within a few years the rebels had taken over the entire empire of Ghana.
Growth of the Mali Empire
After Sundiata had conquered Ghana, he took over the salt and gold trades and continued taxing merchants, thus gaining wealth for the Mali Empire.
He also worked to improve agriculture in Mali. Sundiata had new farmlands cleared for beans, onions, rice, and other crops. He even introduced a new crop to Mali— cotton. People used cotton to make clothing that was comfortable in the warm climate. Realizing its value, they also sold cotton to other people.
Mansa Musa ruled Mali for about 25 years. During that time, his army captured many important trade cities, including Timbuktu (tim-buhk-TOO), Gao (GOW), and Djenné (je-NAY). These cities became part of Mali’s empire.
Religion was very important to Mansa Musa. In 1324, he left Mali on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Making such a journey, or hajj, is a spiritual duty of all Muslims. Through his journey, Mansa Musa introduced the empire of Mali to the world. Before he came to power, only a few people outside of West Africa had ever heard of Mali, even though it was one of the world’s largest empires. Mansa Musa made such a great impression on people, though, that Mali became famous throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe.
Decline of the Mali Empire
When Mansa Musa died, his son Maghan (MAH-gan) took the throne. Unlike his father, however, Maghan was a weak ruler. When raiders poured into Mali, he couldn’t stop them. The raiders set fire to Timbuktu’s great schools and mosques. Mali never fully recovered from this terrible blow. Weakened, the empire gradually declined.
One reason the empire declined was its size. The empire had become so large that the government could no longer control it. Parts of the empire began to break away. For example, the city of Gao declared its independence in the 1400s.
Invaders also helped weaken the empire. In 1431 the Tuareg (TWAH-reg), nomads from the Sahara, attacked and seized Timbuktu. Soon afterward, the kingdom of Takrur (TAHK-roohr) in northern Mali declared its independence. Gradually, the people living at the edges of Mali’s empire broke away. By 1500, nearly all of the lands the empire had once ruled were lost. Only a small area of Mali remained.