Most Influential African Empires in History
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Africa boasts of a rich culture and history that cuts across socio-political and economic dominance. The continent’s diverse historical ethnicity is proof that Africa was once home to some of the world’s most renowned empires to date. Exponential tourist visits to African countries are a testimony of how these empires have stood the test of time. Here is a list of the top five most influential kingdoms in African history:

1. The Mali Empire

The Mali Empire dominated West Africa between the 9th and 16th centuries. This paramount kingdom was a marvel during its epoch. Rising to prominence in the region during the twilight years of the Ghana Empire, at its peak, the Kingdom of Mali would stretch across a territory so large that its only contemporary superior in terms of landmass conquered, was the Mongolian Empire of East Asia. The Empire’s most important cities were Djenné and Timbuktu, both of which were renowned for their elaborate adobe mosques and Islamic schools.

What distinguishes this African empire from the others is its renowned wealth in the form of gold. One of the most prominent Emperors to reign in this kingdom was Mansa Musa, whose pilgrimage to Mecca remains a historical wonder. It is recorded that he led an empire endowed with inexhaustible gold reserves which he used to develop the kingdom. Mansa Musa developed cities like Timbuktu and Gao into important cultural centers.

He also brought architects from the Middle East and across Africa to design new buildings for his cities. Mansa Musa turned the kingdom of Mali into a sophisticated center of learning in the Islamic world. At the height of its dominance, the ancient kingdom of Mali spread across parts of modern-day Mali, Senegal, the Gambia, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso.

2. The Kingdom of Kush

This ancient Nubian empire ruled over a vast territory along the Nile River, in what is modern-day Sudan starting from around 785 BC. The Kingdom of Kush was so powerful that it even ruled its famous neighbor to the north, Egypt, as the 25th Dynasty, which meant the monarchs of Kush were also the pharaohs of Egypt. The Kingdom thrived for over a thousand years and was a center of trade for iron and gold. Kushites also mummified their dead and built their types of pyramids. The ancient Kushite capital of Meroe is home to ruins of over 200 pyramids, far more than Egypt.

With a rich cosmopolitan outlook, the Nubian cultures were sophisticated as the region served as a major trading center for goods from the African interior, Arabian Desert, and Mediterranean basin.  The legendary Kingdom of Kush helped define the cultural and political landscape of north-eastern Africa. Centered on three Kushite kingdoms; Kerma, Napata, and Meroe, the Kingdom of Kush exerted its influence for about 3000 years, establishing itself a place as one of the most revered kingdoms biblically. Moses’ wife Zipporah, is believed to have been of Kushite ancestry and was described in the Numbers as a Kushite woman.

3. The Great Zimbabwe Empire

Famously regarded as the origins of modern-day Zimbabwe, the Great Zimbabwe Kingdom comprised magnificent architecture. Featuring UNESCO’s World Heritage sites, the ancient kingdom was known for its vast natural resources comprising gold, copper, and iron. Arguably southern Africa's earliest and largest Iron Age city-state, the empire developed as a trade center with participants from as far as Asia, Arabia, and Portugal. The kingdom was once fancied by historians as the residence of the Biblical Queen of Sheba-Ophir.  Vasco da Gama's companion Tomé Lopes reasoned that Ophir would have been the ancient name for Great Zimbabwe in Zimbabwe, the main center of southern African trade in gold in the Renaissance period.

What places the Great Zimbabwe Kingdom among the most influential African kingdoms is an imposing collection of stacked boulders, stone towers, and defensive walls assembled from cut granite blocks. These formed the royal residence, storage of goods, and fortress during the war. Neither the first nor the last of some 300 similar complexes located on the Zimbabwean plateau, Great Zimbabwe is set apart by the terrific scale of its structure. Its most formidable edifice, commonly referred to as the Great Enclosure, has walls as high as 36 feet extending approximately 820 feet, making it the largest ancient structure south of the Sahara Desert

The level of civilization that was put into developing this magnificent structure has led some Eurocentric historians to suggest that it was the Greeks who built it. However, modern historical research through archaeology and oral tradition concluded that the majestic Great Zimbabwe was built by the Shona locals who resided in the area. This was because of the chevron patterns that form a design for all the stone walls around the area, a culture that was associated with the Shona people in their art including pottery and rock painting. At its decline, the empire gave birth to such prominent kingdoms as the Munhumutapa, Rozvi, and Torwa kingdoms.

4. The Kingdom of Aksum

The Aksumite kingdom covered an enormously huge land area consisting of modern-day Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Yemen. This ancient empire is one of the oldest of the African kingdoms. This kingdom spread across what is today Ethiopia and Eritrea in an area where evidence of farming dates back 10,000 years.

The Aksumites were key players in the commercial trading routes that existed between the Romans and Ancient India. They were considered one of the four great powers of their time alongside China, Rome, and Persia. The Aksumites erected several stelae (stone wooden slabs acting as monuments in pre-Christian times) during their reign but one of them is the most famous of all. Standing at 79 feet, the Obelisk of Axum is approximately 1700 years old and is found in present-day Axum, Ethiopia.

Later, when the Aksumites converted to Christianity, they unwittingly created the foundations for Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church. Today S.t Mary of Zion Cathedral in Axum is rumoured to be the resting place of the biblical Ark of the Covenant.

5. Carthage Empire

Carthage, a city-state, was founded in the 8th century in what is modern-day Tunisia. This powerful empire had a massive economy based on textile, gold, and silver trading. It is also revered for its competitive military establishments that enabled the state to wade off Rome’s threats in the Punic wars. This conquest empire is infamous for its participation in several wars with the Greeks in the Sicilian wars and the Romans in the Punic wars.

As a commercial hub, the city had close to half a million residents and docking bays for 220 ships. Due to the desire of Carthage to expand to Spain and other parts of the Mediterranean, conflict with the Roman Republic began. The ancient superpowers clashed in the three bloody Punic Wars, the last of which ended in 146 B.C. with the near-total destruction of Carthage.

6. The Kingdom of Ghana

Known more widely as Wagadu, this African nation served as a significant stop on the trans-Saharan trade route that linked the Sahelian communities of Africa to the marketplaces located along the Mediterranean Sea’s coasts and the trans-Saharan gold trade. One of these, Koumbi Saleh, was the largest city south of the Sahara Desert despite the country’s rumored multiple capital city changes.

It had a peak population of between 15,000 and 20,000, an astonishing number for a city with a meager water supply. They had a focus on trading kola nuts and gold (the kola nut became the secret ingredient in Coca-Cola centuries later). Around the year 1240 CE, when it joined the kingdom of Mali, the Kingdom of Ghana began to fall into disarray.

7. The Benin Empire

The Kingdom of Benin was regarded as the oldest and one of the most advanced states in West Africa. This empire was founded in the eleventh century. It was located in the southern region of what is now Nigeria. The people of the Benin Empire were well known for trading exquisite works of art made of bronze, ivory, and iron. They later established trade ties with the Portuguese, exchanging Manilla and weaponry for pepper, ivory, and palm oil (a means of trade by barter employed for exchange during this period). They soon started trading with Britain as well, which ultimately led to their conquest by the British Empire in 1897.

8. The Ethiopian Empire

A portion of what is now Ethiopia and Eritrea was once part of the Ethiopian Empire. The Solomonic dynasty, which existed from C.1270 to 1974, marked the start of it. According to history, the Ethiopian Empire endured numerous tragic occurrences. In addition to defeating Italy in the First Italo-Ethiopian War, it successfully resisted other invasion attempts by other strong countries, including Western colonialism. Nevertheless, it fell apart after losing the second battle in 1935, ushering in a military dictatorship by 1974.


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