Lesson 2) Ancient African Kingdoms II

Welcome back, it’s good to see I haven’t worn you out with the amount of information presented in our first lesson. You’d best get your quills ready, though, as this lesson may prove to be longer than the last. For those of you who still have your notes from last lesson, I would suggest continuing on the same pages to ensure everything is together. Why do I say that? I guess you’ll find out soon enough. Now, no more dilly dallying -- let’s get to work!

The Songhai Empire (1375 - 1591 CE)

Considered the largest empire to emerge in West Africa, the Songhai Empire expanded in all directions from its capital at Gao on the Niger River until it reached the Atlantic Ocean.  How exactly did this empire appear? If you remember from the last lesson, the Mali Empire came about through the Mandinka tribes conquering Ghana and rising to power. The Songhai Empire emerged in a similar way. The Songhai people founded Gao around 800 CE and established itself as the capital in the 11th century. The capital flourished and grew in importance to the industry of trade and thus the Mali Empire decided to allow the Songhai people to become a kingdom-state within their empire known as the Mali-Gao state. A kingdom-state was a reference to the particular area or people who had pledged to a particular empire (which can be seen in its name) which listed the ruling empire and then the state itself. 

The Songhai recognized the weakening of the Mali Empire and rebelled in 1375, overthrowing them and beginning its own expansion by conquering some of Mali’s most important cities. The first was Mema, one of the Mali Empire’s oldest cities, which was conquered in 1465 and then the seizure of Timbuktu, the largest and wealthiest Malian city three years later. Such feats cannot be performed alone, and just as the Mali Empire had Musa Keita, the Songhai Empire owed its victories to Sunni Ali Ber, the military commander and first ruler of the Songhai Empire.  From what we know due to historical records, Sunni Ali Ber originated from a magical background, but there is no mention or indication that he ever used magic. It is for this reason that magical historians today claim that he may have been a Squib.  Sunni Ali Ber was not content to just conquer the Mali Empire; he wished to prove the power of the Songhai people and continued to expand, conquering most of the cities along the Trans-Saharan trade routes and other small surrounding cities.

Sunni Ali Ber’s death in 1492 left the expanding empire without a ruler. Unfortunately, a great cloud of mystery surrounds his death. No one is entirely certain how he died, some claim in battle, but others claim that it was due to political rivalries. Many historians agree with the latter as his son, Sonni Baru became emperor, but only for a short while before losing the throne to Emperor Askia Muhammad Toure one year later.

This change of power completely altered the direction of the Songhai Empire. Emperor Muhammad Toure, depicted to your left, was a devoutly religious man, and focused his resources on creating a bureaucracy by appointing mayors, provincial governors, and creating schools and universities. Despite coming from a Muggle family, Emperor Muhammad Toure surrounded himself with a number of wizards on his religious council. The wizards saw this as a rare opportunity to educate themselves and other magical folk in a scholarly setting, reducing the number of magical accidents that occurred because of younger wizards. It wasn’t long after, in 1510, that the council presented their emperor with the Scholar Migration Proposal, a document recommending that the emperor open up their borders and allow people from anywhere in the world to come and study at their great and magnificent universities. He agreed and the Songhai empire became awash with witches, wizards, and Muggles alike, although many witches and wizards kept their studies theoretical in nature.

Even after Emperor Muhammad’s death in 1528, the Songhai Empire enjoyed peace and prosperity under the next rulers until 1591 when civil war with the area of the Empire that is now modern-day Morocco created instability within the empire. It wasn’t long until Songhai was completely conquered, but the Moroccans found ruling an empire much more difficult than conquering it and withdrew. Despite Songhai’s best efforts, their empire could not be reestablished.

Ethiopian Empire (1137 - 1974 CE)

Switching gears, the Ethiopian Empire was the longest lasting empire in Eastern Africa, beginning its reign in 1137 with the Zagwe Dynasty and ending in 1974 with the overthrowing of the Solomonic Dynasty. The Zagwe Dynasty came about from the Agaw region when they overthrew the weakened Aksumite Empire in approximately 1130 CE. and took over political power in northern Ethiopia. Dynasties don’t rise up out of nowhere, there must be an origin and there was. The Zagwe came from the Agaw ruling class of Bugna, which was part of the Aksumite Empire. If you remember from last lesson, the last ruler of the Aksumite Empire converted the Kingdom of Aksum to Christianity.  It was this shift that allowed the Zagwe people to begin to slowly take over the Kingdom and build their dynasty.

The Zagwe dynasty was based primarily upon agriculture. The common folk formed the majority of the population and paid a tax, often in the form of produce, to the court and emperor as a tribute and thanks for the protection they received in return. Within the empire, district governors were put in place to ensure peace by forming armies for each individual district. This not only provided safe travels for traders and the people of the empire, but is what led to the wealthy lifestyle of the Zagwe dynasty. Trade was conducted through two ports; the Dahlak Island on the red sea coast, which served as the outlet for the northern part of the empire, and the Zeila port, which was the main point of trade for the southern territories.

In terms of religion, the Zagwe dynasty did not alter the religious values from the late ruler of Aksum. Christianity continued to be the primary and official religion of the empire, but they did not keep the empire cut off from other religions. The Zagwe were known for their cordial relations with other rulers, one of the most prominent being Egypt. Unfortunately, these relations did not last long as an argument of legitimacy of the Zagwe rule was questioned, leading to civil riots within the empire.  

One riot, led by Yekuno Amlak, a nobleman from the Shewa province who is depicted to your right, began in 1270 and was widely supported by religious nobles and church leaders.  They claimed that Amlak was a descendant from the old Axumite royal lines that the Zagwe had taken the throne from.  The reign of the Amlak family continued with his daughters, Menelik II and Zewditu who would be the last monarchs of the Solomonic line to take the throne. The Ethiopian Empire was then ruled by Haile Selassie, an autocratic ruler who introduced constitutional and modernizing reforms for the Ethiopian Empire and was considered to be God incarnate due to his popular reforms. However, as his rule continued, he became neglectful of his people. One of Emperor Selassie’s gravest mistakes was ignoring the effects of a severe famine that hit the empire, deciding to spend his evenings celebrating his 80th birthday with extravagant feasts and festivities. Magical historians have confirmed that Emperor Selassie was only a Muggle man who had great ideas in the beginning, but no magical lineage.

It was his denial, or some claim misunderstanding, of the severity of the famine that led to his removal from power in 1974 when he was imprisoned during the Marxist Revolution. The people began to rise up with the belief that emperors and aristocrats had no place in their society. It was at this point the Ethiopian Empire began to decline until it fell into ruins under the new communist regime. 

Mossi Kingdoms (1000 - 1875 CE)

The Mossi Kingdoms, also known as the Mossi Empire, were a series of powerful states that were founded in what some would consider a very unique, and magical way. In the 11th century, Princess Yennega of the city of Gambaga escaped from her home, which was being raided at the time, and found herself at the home of an elephant hunter from the Boussansi tribe, named Ryalle. What is so interesting about this? Well, we know that Princess Yennega came from a magical lineage because when she arrived at Ryalle’s home she had transfigured herself into the form of a man. Ryalle believed Yennega was a man during the beginnings of their friendship, but she eventually revealed her true form and the two were married, producing a son, Wedraogo.  

When Wedraogo turned 15, Princess Yennega returned to her homeland and took her son to visit his sick grandfather, who bestowed upon him four horses, 50 cows, hundreds of Dagomba horseman, and one wish, which was to conquer the known lands. With his grandfather’s words in mind and understanding of his magical heritage, Wedraogo went on to defeat the Boussani tribes to test the waters and then a number of other cities before marrying Pouririketa, who bore him three sons. The oldest son, Diaba Lompo was an acoomplished wizard who founded the city of Fada N’gourma. It is said that the city rose overnight, a claim that magical historians were able to verify when visiting the ruins, after discovering a number of potent magical spells on the rock work. It was this city that made Diaba famous.  The second son, Rawa, became the ruler of the Zondoma Province, and the third son, Zoungrana, the ruler of Tenkodogo after his father died.  It is from Zoungrana that we see the magical lineage of Wedraogo continue with his son, Oubri, who continued to expand the Mossi Kingdom by conquering neighboring tribes and creating the spectacular capital of Ouagadougou, ruling there until approximately 1100.

The continuous growth of the Mossi Kingdoms began to result in conflicts with other regional powers, namely the Songhai Empire, when they decided to attack in 1328 and enjoyed their success with the takeover of Timbuktu in 1477. However, the Mossi Kingdoms stretched themselves too thinly and were eventually defeated in 1497 when they were attacked by the Songhai Empire. Their defeat did not last long and, in 1591, the Mossi states began to reestablish their independence with the weakening of the Songhai from the Moroccan attacks. In the 1700’s the Mossi Kingdoms had achieved their splendor once again by increasing trade relations and growing their military and economy. Unfortunately, their marvelous comeback did not last long. In 1872 the French had begun conquering the northern parts of the Mossi Kingdoms and made their way down to Ouagadougou, finally conquering the empire in 1875.

Benin Empire (1000 - 1700 CE)

Founded by the Edo-speaking people, Benin is located in what is now Nigeria and began as simple villages ruled by an Ogiso, or King of the Sky, in addition to the uzama, or powerful nobles. It was the first Kings of this practically non-existent empire that gave it its roots when they established Ubini, the to-be capital city of the empire in 1180. However, in the 12th century, the people of Benin rebelled and started a civil war against the Ogiso, wishing for a new ruler, Oranmiyan, a wealthy noble at the time who focused much of his efforts on supporting the people. Once the Ogiso had been overthrown, Oranmiyan graciously became the first Oba, or King, of Benin and ruled for the next six centuries.  If you are paying attention, the fact mentioned previously might strike you as odd. Some claim that Oranmiyan was an expert potioneer and had created something similar to the Elixir of Life, but without the Philosopher’s Stone was unable to achieve complete immortality. His son, Eweka, was discontent with the way his father ran the empire and took power from the uzama after his father’s passing and gave it to his supporters, nobles who now answered only to him.

Despite the seemingly selfish moves of Eweka, Benin flourished economically and politically in the 15th and 16th centuries, moving their trade to include not only the Trans-Saharan route, but also European’s and Portuguese’s, which had reached Ubini in 1485. Despite this expansion, the Europeans required access to the ocean, which posed a problem since Ubini was 50 miles inland. This problem did not deter the Benin Empire, and magical historians believe that it was at this time a wizard by the name of Habath Yugoz created a system of transportation, similar to a railway that was used to transport material to a port on the coast. There are records explaining the unusual circumstance of food arriving at the port untarnished and fresh despite having endured a journey of 50 miles. Magical historians believe that Yugoz charmed the transportation vesicles to ensure that nothing would spoil during its journey, though we have no proof that this is true, it would explain the odd occurrences recorded in Muggle history.

Despite this Empire’s success with trade, Benin began to decline in the 1700’s due to internal disputes of royal succession, which led to a number of civil wars within the empire. It was this internal weakening that eventually allowed the British to conquer Benin in 1897, destroying the empire’s cities and trade and bringing its success to a final rest.

Whew, alright, that’s all I have for today. I’m sorry about the length, but there is so much to cover with Africa and I wanted to provide you with as much detail as possible. You have an assignment due this week, but I hope you will find it interesting and enjoyable! Until then!


Original lesson written by Professor Samuel Becker
Image credits 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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