Ancient Ghana Emerges

Ghana, identified in Arabic historic accounts dating from the ninth to seventeenth centuries c.e. and in archaeological remains, became the first state established in West Africa.

Summary of Event

The ancient state of Ghana arose in the land-locked Sahel region of western Mali and southwestern Mauritania, West Africa (not in Ghana, the contemporary nation situated on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean farther south, which nonetheless took its name from the ancient empire). Ancient Ghana is important because it was the first West African state-level society, emerging possibly as early as the fourth century c.e. Contrary to earlier suppositions that white Islamic nomads founded the state, it is now generally accepted that Ghana was an indigenous cultural development based on West African antecedents. This fits with the established convention that the rulers of Ghana were a Soninke people. Contemporary speakers of Soninke languages are found in Mali, Mauritania, the Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, and Gambia.

Some scholars have suggested that Ghana’s location was a crucial factor in the development of its sophisticated state-level organization. The Sahel’s name comes from Arabic sāhil, “shore.” This is the transitional zone of dry scrubland located between the Sahara Desert and the southern tropical forests, and environmental determinism may help to explain the formation and development of the Ghana state in this region. Nehemia Levtzion analyzed the underlying metaphor of the desert as a sand sea and the camel that traverses it as a ship, leading to the towns of the region being seen as comparable to ports. The state arose as the leaders in the towns along trade routes attempted to extend their authority, and thus trade nurtured increasing political organization, and power followed the changing trade routes across the Sahara and throughout the continent.

In addition to extensive trade across the territory, it has also been suggested that microtrade across different ecozones in the Sahel also played a significant role in the development of the region’s political cohesion. There is archaeological evidence for local exchange networks operating prior to the far-reaching trans-Saharan ones.

Ancient Ghana was extensively documented in the writings of Arab historians and geographers but has received little archaeological field investigation. The Arabic accounts, dating between c. 800 and 1650 c.e., are of variable quality, since many of them are compilations of rumors and travelers’ tales by men who did not actually explore West Africa themselves. For example, Ibn al-Faqīh produced an encyclopedia in approximately 900 c.e. that contained many unacknowledged and unverified stories from earlier writers. His failure to evaluate carefully these implausible tales accounts for his acceptance of the claim that “in the country of Ghāna gold grows in the sand as carrots do, and is plucked at sunrise.”

However, a few of these stories probably have some basis in fact. For example, it seems likely that Ghana did control access to gold, since other Arab scholars also mention its presence there, although in more credible contexts. For example, the earliest reference to Ghana presents it as “the land of gold,” from the works of al-Fazārī, an Arab geographer whose writings date to the early ninth century, although the original materials are now lost and his words only survive because al-Mas՚ūdī quoted him many years later. An additional difficulty with the Arabic sources is that documentary references to Ghana may postdate the actual events by many years, which means that the accounts may be blurred by temporal as well as geographical distance.

Because of these problems with the Arabic sources, they cannot be accepted as valid but must be evaluated in combination with other historic documents and with evidence from the physical remains of the ancient settlements. The lack of extensive archaeological research in West Africa makes this difficult, especially because only some of the results from these investigations have been published. For example, the spectacular desert ruins of Koumbi Saleh in southern Mauritania consist of a 109-acre (44-hectare) tell incorporating more than sixty mounds. It was discovered in 1914 and tentatively identified as the remains of the Muslim portion of the early capital of Ghana. Despite many years of archaeological fieldwork, the results have not been made readily available (a few brief reports were published in Senegal). This situation improved in 1997 with the publication of Sophie Berthier’s work. However, her analysis concentrates on a single building and its architectural development, rather than on the site as a whole. Radiocarbon dates suggest that Koumbi Saleh flourished between the sixth and eighteenth centuries c.e.

If the identification of Koumbi Saleh with the Ghanaian capital is correct, then some material from the historic annals may prove useful in comprehending the archaeological remains. Nehemia Levtzion and J. F. P. Hopkins, in their 1981 collection Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History, offer a description by al-Bakrī, an eleventh century Arab writer:

The city of Ghāna consists of two towns situated on a plain. One of these towns, which is inhabited by Muslims, is large and possesses twelve mosques. . . . The king’s town is 6 miles [10 kilometers] distant. . . . Between these two towns there are continuous habitations. The houses of the inhabitants are of stone and . . . wood. The king has a palace and a number of domed dwellings all surrounded with an enclosure like a city wall.

Al-Bakrī also provided much information concerning local geography and customs. He recounted that the king wore golden jewelry and elaborate clothing and that he was not Muslim but followed a religion characterized by idol worship and the presence of sorcerers. According to his account, the economy of the state included a vast trade in salt, copper, and gold, all of it taxed by the king. Al-Bakrī documented the political power of the empire, controlled by the king’s vast army of 200,000 men.

Al-Bakrī also wrote about the burial practices in Ghana, specifically those relating to the kings. This information correlates well with the remains of burial mounds found in Mali, some of which have been excavated. Continuing his description, Al-Bakrī stated that

when their king dies they construct . . . an enormous dome of . . . wood. Then they bring him on a bed. . . . At his side they place his ornaments, his weapons, and the vessels from which he used to eat and drink. . . . They place there too the men who used to serve his meals. They close the door . . . and cover it with mats and furnishings. Then the people . . . heap earth upon it until it becomes like a big hillock.

Unfortunately, there is inadequate information about how the kings and commoners of Ghana lived and died, and similarly, a lack of data and scholarly consensus concerning the underlying factors for the success and later decline of the Ghana state. Ibn Khaldūn (1332-1406 c.e.), the renowned Arab historian, provides some relevant information, although it is difficult to date the events he reported. He suggests that a group of radical Muslims called the Almoravid emerged as an active military force in the mid-eleventh century and that they played a major role in the collapse of Ghana. He notes that

the authority of the people of Ghāna waned and their prestige declined as that of the veiled people . . . grew. These extended their domination . . . and pillaged, imposed tribute . . . and converted many of them to Islam. Then the authority of the rulers of Ghāna dwindled away and . . . a neighbouring people . . . subjugated and absorbed them.


Ghana was regionally important not only at the time during which it was active but also for many centuries after it collapsed. Many of the political and cultural institutions established by Ghana were adopted and further developed by later West African states, such as Mali and Songhai. Ghana continues to be important as a symbol of indigenous cultural achievement, which is why the name of this ancient kingdom was adopted by the current nation of Ghana.

Further Reading

  • Berthier, Sophie. Recherches archéologiques sur la capitale de l’empire de Ghana: Étude d’un secteur d’habitat à Koumbi Saleh, Mauritanie. Campagnes II-III-IV-V (1975-1976)-(1980-1981). Cambridge Monographs in African Archaeology 41. Oxford, England: Archaeopress, 1997. Although written in French, this is a rich source of maps, drawings, and photographs.
  • Connah, Graham. African Civilizations: Precolonial Cities and States in Tropical Africa—An Archaeological Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Covers state formation in general. Bibliography and index.
  • Davidson, Basil. West Africa Before the Colonial Era: A History to 1850. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1998. A chapter covers Ghana. Bibliography and index.
  • Fisher, Humphrey J. “Early Arabic Sources and the Almoravid Conquest of Ghana.” Journal of African History 23 (1982): 549-560. Extensive review of Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History (see below).
  • Levtzion, Nehemia. Ancient Ghana and Mali. Studies in African History 7. London: Methuen, 1973. History of Ghana based primarily on the Arabic sources. Bibliography and index.
  • Levtzion, Nehemia, and J. F. P. Hopkins, eds. Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981. Hopkins’s translations of the original Arabic historic accounts with annotations by both editors.
  • Shinnie, Margaret. Ancient African Kingdoms. London: Edward Arnold, 1965. Early account of Ghana.