The African continent is famous for its ancient Empires. Some of these Empires include The Kingdom of Kush, the Land of Punt, Carthage, the Kingdom of Aksum, the Mali Kingdom, the Songhai Kingdom, and Great Zimbabwe.
The Kingdom of Kush
The Empire of Kush was a regional power in the African region for nearly a thousand years, despite its Egyptian neighbors to the north eclipsing it. This ancient Nubian Kingdom peaked in the second millennium B.C. when it reigned over a broad stretch of land in what is today Sudan along the Nile River. Almost everything we know about Kush comes from Egyptian records, which show that it was a prosperous trading home for ivory, incense, iron, and, most importantly, gold.
The Kingdom was a trading partner as well as a military opponent of Egypt, and it even controlled Egypt during the 25th Dynasty, adopting many of its neighbors’ practices. The Kushites idolized Egyptian gods, mummified their dead, and built their pyramids. There are over 200 pyramid ruins in the area surrounding the ancient Kushite city of Meroe than there are in all of Egypt.
The Land of Punt
Punt is one of Africa’s most fascinating civilizations. The Kingdom first appeared in Egyptian records circa 2500 B.C., when people described it as the “Land of the Gods” rich in ebony, gold, myrrh, and exotic creatures like apes and leopards. The Egyptians sent massive caravans and flotillas on trade trips to Punt, most notably during Queen Hatshepsut’s reign in the 15th century B.C., although they never pinpointed its location.
Scholars are currently debating the location of the ancient Kingdom. Although people have suggested the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant as possible options, most people believe it exists somewhere around East Africa’s Red Sea coast.
A team of experts attempted to pinpoint Punt in 2010 by examining a mummified baboon that its kings had once handed to the Egyptian pharaohs. While their findings showed that the remains most closely resembled animals found in modern-day Eritrea and Ethiopia. The exact location of the Land of Punt is still unknown.
Carthage was a North African economic metropolis that existed for more than 450 years, best known as ancient Rome’s opponent in the Punic Wars. The city-state originated as a Phoenician town in what is today Tunisia in the 8th or 9th century B.C., but it expanded into a large nautical empire that dominated trade in gold, textiles, silver, and copper.
Its capital city had a population of about 500,000 people and a secured harbor with docking bays for 220 ships at its peak. Carthage’s power slowly spread from N. Africa to Spain and other regions of the Mediterranean, but its desire to expand exacerbated tensions with the emerging Roman Republic.
The three deadly Punic Wars, which started in 264 B.C. and ended in 146 B.C. with the near-total devastation of Carthage, pitted the ancient superpowers against one another. Almost all that is left of the once-mighty Empire today is a series of ruins in Tunis.
The Empire of Aksum
The powerful Kingdom of Aksum ruled over sections of what is today Eritrea and northern Ethiopia during the same period when the Roman Empire rose and fell. Surprisingly, people know little about Aksum’s origins, but by the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D., it had grown into a trade behemoth, with gold and ivory serving as a critical connection between ancient Europe and the Far East.
The Kingdom had a distinct architectural style that included the construction of gigantic stone obelisks, some of which rose over 100 feet tall, and had a written script called Ge’ez, one of the first to arise in Africa.
Aksum became one of the globe’s first empires to embrace Christianity in the fourth century, resulting in a political and military partnership with the Byzantines. The Empire eventually fell out of favor in the 7th or 8th centuries, but its theological legacy lives on today in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
The Mali Empire
The Mali Kingdom was founded in the 1200s by a ruler named Sundiata Keita, sometimes called the “Lion King,” who led a revolution against a Sosso ruler and unified his subjects into a new empire. Under Keita and his successors, the Kingdom expanded its control over a vast section of West Africa and prospered through trade.
Its most notable cities were Djenné and Timbuktu, which were both famous for their ornate adobe mosques and Islamic schools. Sankore University in Timbuktu, for example, houses a library with an estimated 700,000 manuscripts.
The Mali Empire eventually fell apart in the 16th century, but at its pinnacle, it was one of the African continent’s jewels, famous across the world for its wealth and splendor. One fabled story concerning the Kingdom’s riches involves the monarch, Mansa Musa, who stopped in Egypt on his way to Mecca in the 14th century. According to contemporaneous records, Musa dispensed so much gold during his visit that its value in Egyptian markets fell for a long time.
Great Zimbabwe, an amazing collection of stacked boulders, stone towers, and defensive walls made from cut granite stones, is one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s most spectacular monuments.
The rock citadel has long been the subject of myths and legends. It was originally considered to be the home of the Biblical Queen of Sheba, but scholars now recognize it as the capital city of an indigenous Empire that flourished or prospered in the region between the 13th – 15th centuries.
This Kingdom ruled over much of what is today Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. It was notably wealthy in cattle and precious metals, and it was located on a trade route that connected the region’s gold mines to ports on the Indian Ocean coast. Though people know little about its past, artifacts such as Chinese ceramics, Arabian glass, and European linens suggest that it was once a well-connected trade city.
The stronghold city of Great Zimbabwe was inexplicably abandoned sometime in the 15th century after the Kingdom declined, yet it was home to about 20,000 people in its prime.
The Songhai Empire
Few states in African history can compete with the Songhai Kingdom in terms of sheer size. This West African Empire, formed in the 15th century from some of the former areas of the Mali Kingdom, was larger than Western Europe and included parts of a dozen today’s countries.
The Empire experienced a period of prosperity as a result of aggressive trade strategies and a sophisticated and experienced bureaucratic organization that divided its enormous possessions into provinces, each of which a governor oversaw.
It peaked in the early 16th century under the rule of the devoted King Muhammad I Askia, who conquered additional regions, formed an alliance with Egypt’s Muslim Caliph, and established hundreds of Islamic schools in Timbuktu. The Songhai Empire was once one of the world’s most powerful empires, but it crumbled in the late 1500s after a period of civil war and internal instability exposed it to an invasion by the Sultan of Morocco.