Lesson 1) Introduction and Ancient African Kingdoms I

Welcome back to History of Magic! It is nice to see you as Fifth Years returning to the interesting and exciting world of this class. This year, we will be diving into the magical history of Africa, a topic near and dear to my heart, as I spent much of my time as a child there. I won’t bother going over any rules and boring you with administration when we have such exciting material to cover! Should you have any questions, don’t hesitate to send me an owl with your question. Please make note that rude or inappropriate owls will not be responded to.  Now, let’s get started. Your syllabus for the year is below. 

Lesson 1: Introduction and Ancient African Kingdoms I
Lesson 2: Ancient African Kingdoms II
Lesson 3: Religions and Magical Persecution
Lesson 4: Wizarding Communities in Africa
Lesson 5: Depths of Despair – African Slave Trade
Lesson 6: Africa – The Here and Now
Lesson 7: Burkinabe Ministry of Magic
Lesson 8: African Wizarding Schools
Lesson 9: A Look Into the Future

We will begin (both the year and the lesson) by looking at some of the defining African kingdoms throughout history. There were certainly more than the seven total we will discuss in detail, but these are a sampling of the largest, the most powerful, or the most noteworthy in some other way. As you can see, we will be splitting the conversation up into two parts and today we will speak of the first three of the seven ancient African kingdoms. 



Kingdom of Askum (100 - 940 CE)

Due to the large amount of time that has passed since this kingdom existed, as well as the developments (or lack thereof) of recording information in this time period, we know very little about the kingdom’s history, but I will do what I can to tell you about it. The Kingdom of Aksum, also known as the Axum Empire, is located in what is now known as northern Ethiopia and Eritrea and was deeply involved with Indian and Mediterranean trade! Aksum is thought to have been founded by Sabaens, a group of Arabian settlers from Yemen. However, there is other evidence that suggests the Agaw and other Ethiopian groups had also established civilizations in that territory before the arrival of the Sabaeans. One particular piece of evidence that supports this latter theory is the existence of the Da’amot or D’mt Kingdom (from the 10th to 5th century BCE -- which flourished prior to the Sabaean settlers’ arrival to the area in approximately the 4th century BCE. Unfortunately we do not have time to cover that earlier kingdom extensively, but I welcome you to research the topic on your own if it interests you. Regardless of who founded the Kingdom of Aksum -- the Sabeans, remnants of the D’mt, or the Agaw, it is the starting point on our timeline and an interesting place to build from. 

Kingdom of AksumTheir expansive trade network is what led to the Kingdom of Aksum’s peak, under the leadership of King Ezana who ruled from 325 to 360 CE. Much of Aksum’s initial trading was done over sea, but this changed in 100 CE when a land route from Egypt to India was established. Aksum was perfectly located to take advantage of the new routes and became the main port for trade. During the second and third centuries, Aksum expanded their control to the southern Red Sea basin and a caravan route to Egypt was established, allowing more inland trading than before. King Ezana then conquered the neighboring Kingdom of Kush, another trading center, allowing the Kingdom of Aksum to become the sole trade center. However, King Ezana made one fatal mistake that some claim led to the downfall of the Axum Empire, which was converting to Christianity, which some say may have been the downfall of the nation, as this religion was different from many of its neighbors.

Aksum began to decline in the seventh century and slowly lost control of some of its trade routes and profitable territories, which is believed to have created a bit of a domino effect. The empire was eventually defeated and conquered around 950 CE. While some historians claim that a Jewish queen defeated the empire and burned all evidence of the Christian faith, implying that there was a religious disagreement that caused wars, most historians believe that the reason for the decline of the Aksum empire was much less exciting and simply due to climate change and trade isolation. Overfarming the land led to a decline in crop yield, which led to less food and less trade. In addition to the floods from the Nile and significant drought, the non-magical people of Aksum were unable to keep up with the demands from their neighbors, and significant ecological issues caused them to fall into disrepair. Looking for greener pastures, many of the magic users left the kingdom, which may have further weakened the nation.


Kingdom of Ghana (300 - 1200 CE)

Moving west, the Kingdom of Ghana grew into a prominent power due to a wealth of gold and resources in the area. At this time, Ghana had the richest mines on Earth and thus, they built the capital city, Kumbi Saleh, near those gold mines. Additionally, the introduction of the camel overlapped with this kingdom, causing the rise of Trans-Saharan trade. And it isn't at all surprising that this kingdom became the focus of all trade with its immense wealth! The main desire of the Kingdom of Ghana was to control the trade of gold. Gold was most often secured at the southern limits of the kingdom and taken to the capital, where it was exchanged and used to pay for expensive items, most commonly salt.

As we have slightly more information on the kingdom of Ghana, we can more conclusively speak to some magical participation in the civilization. It is confirmed that many magical persons were involved in mining or refining the gold, and used various magical techniques (sadly nowhere described in depth) in order to do so efficiently even without the mining tools we have today. On a more political note, it appears that many of the kings’ administrative officials were often wizards or witches, as it noted by the practice of deciding innocence. For background, the (or ghana) of Ghana would hold court frequently, perhaps even daily, and hear his citizen’s complaints. In cases where guilt must be decided, the accused was given a concoction to drink. If they vomited it after fully drinking it, they were considered innocent, but being able to keep it down was a sign of guilt. Many believe this to have been a potion (or a string of related potions) or some sort meant to magically judge the wrongdoer, though we are unsure of its accuracy. After all, the high number of people who were unable to keep the liquid down may have had quite a bit more to do with how foul it tasted, rather than their innocence.

Regardless of potions, Ghana continued to grow richer and extended its reach across Africa by absorbing smaller states and incorporating the gold found there into its markets, which only increased the kingdom’s wealth.  However, gold wasn’t enough and Ghana began to decline in the 11th century when a holy war began between Muslim armies. The war disrupted the gold trade that Ghana depended on and forced the people to move into the desert. Another significant problem that led to the decline of Ghana was that new gold fields had been found in what we now know as Guinea, which led to new and less crowded trade routes to open further east. The decline of trade and power led to an inability to repress the conflicts from smaller states that were under the control of Ghana and it soon fell into ruin, only to be taken over by another empire.


 Mali Empire (1200 - 1500 CE)

Next, also in western Africa, we have the Mali Empire, also known as the Mandingo Empire or Manden Kurufa. It was the second of the three major empires to be formed in Western Africa between the deadly Sahara Desert and the coastal rain forests to the south. Why create an empire between two seemingly extreme geographic regions? Many historians believe that such a move is what led to the success of this empire due to placing themselves strategically between West African gold mines and the Niger River floodplain, a place where the soil was so rich that food would easily grow. Mali’s rise began when the political leaders of the Ghana Kingdom could not restore their empire’s glory and saw an opening. More on that in just a moment, though.

The Mali Empire was originally founded by a group of Mandinka tribes, known as the Manden Kurufa (which is yet another name for the Mali Empire, and one that was kept around to respect the empire’s origins). Due to oral traditions, historians believe that the Mandinka kingdoms had existed for several centuries before they were unified by a leader named Sundiata Keita. When Sundiata was a boy, the Mandinkas were conquered by Ghana and ruled by King Sumaoro at the time. As Sundiata grew, he began to claim that he was a sacred leader and had a direct link to the spirits of their lands, declaring himself the “Guardian of the Ancestors.”  Magical historians believe that Sundiata may have been one of the most notable and powerful wizards in the Mali Empire, and that he used his gift of divination to make strategic choices for his own benefit and rally the populace in ways that no man had been able to before in recorded history in the area. Others posit that because of his ability with divination and to predict things, it was believed he was divine, and thus people were more likely to listen to his decrees, which makes sense. After all, if a strange man predicted a great famine, which then occurred, you would be much more likely to listen to his warnings and directions.

As an example, in 1235, Sundiata claimed to have a revelation from the ancestors, instructing the Mandinka tribes to take back what was theirs. United under one cause, the Mandinka tribes rallied under Sundiata, overthrew the Ghana Empire, and began gathering power in the region. The Mandinka tribes hailed him as a sacred leader and guardian of their land and Sundiata was declared the first King of the Mali Empire. After this declaration, Sundiata was given the title Mansa, which is simply the Malian name for a ruler. Many claim that the defeat of the Ghana Empire was the base for the founding of the Mali Empire. Under Sundiata’s successors, Mali began to expand, and its control reached as far west as the Atlantic, to the rain forest region in the south, and beyond the bend of the Niger River to the west. Mansa Keita established the Mali Empire capital at his home village, Niani, which was located near the border between Mali and Guinea. As Mansa, Sundiata ran the Mali Empire much differently than previous empires before it had functioned. It was run as a federation, allowing each tribe, city, and village to have a representative in his courts.

However, nothing lasts forever, and in 1255, Mansa Keita drowned while crossing the Sankarini River at the age of 38 and his sons took the throne. To wake you all up, I do have an interesting tidbit about Mansa Keita’s death! For the longest time, magical historians have been surprised that a wizard of his talent would simply die from drowning, but many believe that due to the significant nature of his divinatory talents, Mansa Keita never furthered his magical training and thus did not know how to perform even the simplest of spells in order to save himself. A shocking revelation, to be sure -- and a good warning not to rely on magic (or any one thing) too much!

Eventually, the throne was abdicated to Mansa Musa in 1324. He was the grandson of one of the original Mansa Keita’s sisters, and also a Squib. Apart from his lack of magic, Mansa Musa is known for his pilgrimage to Mecca, a trip that not only told of the wealth of the Mali Empire, but is also what put the empire on the map! According to magical historians, Mansa Musa brought 100 camels loaded with gold -- each weighing three hundred pounds -- with him on his journey. Their arrival in Mecca left a lasting impression on the people there from all around the middle east, and many from Cairo, Egypt  wrote many stories of the glories of Timbuktu (a city located within the Mali Empire).

Despite his achievements, it is often thought that Mansa Musa was jealous of his family, who had been blessed with magical powers by the gods and strove to prove that he could do great things without magical gifts. He was right!  Due to this pilgrimage, Timbuktu became the center of learning and trade in the Mali Empire. Universities and markets attracted people from all over the world, which led to the peak of the Mali Empire in the 14th century. At this point, only one other empire in the world could claim to be larger: the Mongol Empire in China. This accomplishment was an extraordinary feat, given the size and influence of the Mali Empire.

Alas, no empire is meant to last forever and, after Mansa Musa’s death in 1337, followed by his brother Mansa Sulayman’s death in 1360, Timbuktu was raided and burned, its former glory reduced to ashes. The loss of the greatest city in the empire caused several smaller states to revolt and declare their independence. By the 1500s, the Mali Empire had been reduced to its original size again, consisting solely of the Madinka tribes homeland.


Whew, are you tired of me talking yet? I think we’ll stop here for today, I don’t want to overwhelm you with information! Keep in mind I’ve only covered what I thought was important from these ancient civilizations, so feel free to do some more research about them if you would like. You do have a quiz and essay assignment to complete and then you are free. Enjoy the rest of your week, everyone!


Original lesson written by Professor Samuel Becker
Image credits here, here, here, here, and here

Join us as we continue our journey, exploring the various magical histories and cultures across the world! In Year Five of History of Magic, we will dive into the rich magical culture of Africa, most of which has been kept secret for many years. We will be exploring the Ancient Kingdoms, Wizarding Communities, learn about the horrors of the African slave trade in addition to the schools and government of Africa. I look forward to traveling alongside you this term!
Course Prerequisites:
  • HOM-401

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