Almoravids Sack Kumbi Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The incursion of Islamic Almoravid Berbers on the Ghanian city of Kumbi Saleh led to the decline of Ghana’s economic power and, by 1086, the effective control by the Almoravids.

Summary of Event

In the mid- to late first millennium, Kumbi Saleh served as an important political and commercial center in western Africa, located just south of Awdaghust and just north of the alluvial plain between the Niger and Senegal Rivers. Kumbi was ideally situated to exploit medieval trans-Saharan trade and in particular salt and gold trade. Kumbi also served as the political center of the Ghana Empire. Trade;Africa Africa;trade [kw]Almoravids Sack Kumbi (1076) [kw]Kumbi, Almoravids Sack (1076) Kumbi;sack of (1076) Almoravids Africa;1076: Almoravids Sack Kumbi[1670] Expansion and land acquisition;1076: Almoravids Sack Kumbi[1670] Government and politics;1076: Almoravids Sack Kumbi[1670] Trade and commerce;1076: Almoravids Sack Kumbi[1670] Abū Bakr ibn ՙUmar

Begun by settled Soninke populations, Ghana Ghana (ancient) was the earliest true empire of western Africa. The state’s power emanated from its base in Sudanic sacral chiefship, whereby the political elite were instilled with the right to rule granted by the will of a divine power. Evidence from archaeological excavation reveals that by the fifth century, the ancient empire had emerged as a consequence of environment, population density, and technological developments in the realm of metals, all occurring contemporaneously in the isthmus of land between the Niger and Senegal Rivers.

Prior to the arrival of Islam in the ninth century, the inland Niger Delta, just south of Kumbi, was an urban trading area. Archaeological evidence based on both the material culture and carbon-14 dating reveals that, by the tenth century, many Muslims resided in the town of Kumbi. The forests south of the delta were a source of gold, which was traded via the delta to Kumbi and by the tenth century to Gao, Awdaghust, and the other trans-Saharan markets. After the arrival of Islam, the Ghana state continued cooperative trade relations with Muslim merchants and chiefs in the surrounding territories.

The Ghana state was engaged in trade not only regionally but also as far north as Ifrikiya (Libya) by means of long-distance merchants. Ghana’s politico-economic system was well connected laterally to the west as well. Hence, Ghanaians were able to position themselves as brokers in the trade of gold, slaves, rice, dried fish from the river, and ivory from the savannah, which were exchanged for the northern products of copper, salt, and woven textiles. Situated on its interriver peninsula at the critical junction for transshipment between river and desert, the Ghana state could collect taxes or broker fees, which provided the state with surplus wealth to buttress its power. Ghana allowed for the trading of gold dust but not gold bullion (nuggets), thereby preventing the market from becoming flooded with gold.

In the eleventh century, Ghana’s economic power fueled the conflicts with the Almoravids, Berber Muslims of the Maliki school who sought to expand the practice of Islam and to enhance religious devotion. The Almoravids Almoravids sought political and economic control of the region in order to further the aims of religious “purification.” The Zanata Berbers at Awdaghust controlled Sijilmasa but lived under Ghanaian political rule. In 1054, the Almoravids, allied with the Sanhaja Berbers Berbers , seized control of Awdaghust Awdaghust from the previously dominant Zanatas.

By 1055, Abū Bakr ibn ՙUmar Abū Bakr ibn ՙUmar (Berber leader) , the leader of the Sanhaja army, had captured Awdaghust. The Almoravids then began the process of full Islamization in Ghana territory just south of Awdaghust. Thus, during the later eleventh century, Ghana underwent a period of defense against the infiltration of Almoravid religious and cultural ideas. The Almoravid infiltration led to the conversion of a large part of the Ghana population. Whether the Almoravids captured Kumbi outright, traditionally in 1076, is contested—but what is certain is that Almoravid presence in the Ghana territory and its control of Sijilmasa and Awdaghust in effect meant that it controlled Kumbi’s trade relations and policies.

Significance

The Almoravid control of the major trade centers (Sijilmasa, Awdaghust, and Kumbi) had several long-term effects. First, the charge of trans-Saharan trade originating from the inter-Niger-Senegal River region shifted away from the Ghana Empire. The economic impact of this shift was ruinous for the political power of the Ghana state, which collapsed completely by the thirteenth century. Second, the role of the Almoravids in this historic moment of change resulted in a new religious landscape as elements of Ghana’s population converted to Islam. In particular, many of the Soninke merchants and traders underwent religious conversion. Third, the Almoravid presence encouraged provinces of the Ghana Empire to assert their own independence, which further weakened the centralized power of Ghana. Fourth, the Almoravid control of trans-Saharan trade meant that Ghana’s profit from this trade declined immensely. With a new broker in the market, the benefits were divided and cut Ghana’s percentage of the market, which—even at a moment when the volume of trade was increasing—significantly reduced Ghana’s share of revenues compared with previous times.

Additionally, trade shifted farther north and westward to Walata, Timbuktu, and Gao, which were just at the fringe of Ghana’s power. As a result, Ghana no longer served as the southernmost terminus of trans-Saharan trade, nor did it hold a monopoly as the dominant mediator of trade. The Almoravid presence ultimately shifted trade westward onto the Niger River and north into the Sahara. The new political power also had the major religious consequence of spreading Islam farther south.

Almoravid control of Kumbi did not last more than two decades. By the early twelfth century, the Ghana state had reasserted its independence politically, but it never recovered its prior political grandeur or economic wealth. The Almoravid successes had weakened Ghana to the point that several of its vassal states were able in the thirteenth century to defeat the once powerful Ghana military. Without economic wealth, Ghana was prevented from fully upgrading and training its military forces, so that first the Susu and later the Mali states were able to turn Ghana into a province of their own expanding empires.

Further Reading
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    xlink:type="simple">Berthier, Sophie. Recherches archéologiques sur la capitale de l’empire de Ghana: Étude d’un secteur d’habitat à Koumbi Saleh, Mauritanie. Oxford, England: Archaeopress, 1997. Examines the antiquities of the Ghana Empire and Kumbi. In French.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Conrad, David C., and Humphrey J. Fischer. “The Conquest That Never Was: Ghana and the Almoravids, 1076. II, The Local Oral Sources.” History in Africa 17, no. 3 (1983): 53-78. An account of Ghana and the Almoravids.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hrbek, I., and J. Devisse. “The Almoravids.” In Africa from the Seventh to the Eleventh Century, edited by M. Elfasi and I. Hrbek. Vol. 4. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. Chapter 13 elucidates the history of the Almoravid conquest and rule in northwestern and western Africa. Approximately twelve pages are devoted to a discussion of the history of the importance of Kumbi and the Ghana Empire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McIntosh, Susan Keech, and Roderick J. McIntosh. “The Inland Niger Delta Before the Empire of Mali: Evidence from Jenno-Jeno.” Journal of African History 22 (1981): 1-22. An examination of trade activity and relations just west of the Ghana Empire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Masonen, Pekka, and Humphrey J. Fisher. “Not Quite Venus from the Waves: The Almoravid Conquest of Ghana in the Modern Historiography of Western Africa.” History in Africa 23 (1996): 197-232. Addresses the 1076 conquest of Ghana as “one of the myths which still populate African historiography.”

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