Ghana Takes Control of Awdaghust Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Under the leadership of King Tounka, the Wagadu Empire, called Ghana by the Arabs, was able to expand its borders and add tax revenue to its base by controlling Awdaghust, the northernmost point of the empire and the southernmost terminus of trans-Saharan trade. The capture of Awdaghust was an important feat for the expansionist state of Wagadu, especially given the city’s location near the Senegal and Niger Rivers.

Summary of Event

Ghana, as the Arab chroniclers referred to the state known to its Soninke population as Wagadu (king), gained its wealth and power by taxing gold and other goods that passed through its kingdom from gold mines to the west and south (Akan, Bure, and Bambuk). As the state’s power increased, Wagadu began to conquer surrounding areas and kingdoms. Eventually the Wagadu kingdom was able to control the gold mines to the south and levy tribute taxes on all gold production. Taxation;Ghana [kw]Ghana Takes Control of Awdaghust (992-1054) [kw]Awdaghust, Ghana Takes Control of (992-1054) Awdaghust Ghana (ancient) Africa;992-1054: Ghana Takes Control of Awdaghust[1350] Expansion and land acquisition;992-1054: Ghana Takes Control of Awdaghust[1350] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;992-1054: Ghana Takes Control of Awdaghust[1350] Tounka Abū Bakr ibn ՙUmar

Wagadu faced competition from Berbers Berbers , who sought to dominate trade in the Western Sahara. The city of Awdaghust, controlled alternately by Sanhaja and Zanata Berbers, was a significant and valuable post located northwest of the Wagadu capital at Kumbi. (It took approximately ten days by camel to travel from Kumbi to Awdaghust.) Awdaghust was the farthest southern point of trans-Saharan trade. It was linked to Niger River trade in the East, Mediterranean-Maghreb trade in the north, and Egyptian-Sudanic trade to the northeast. Trade;Africa Africa;trade

Awdaghust’s role as a trade hub and its central position made control of the town critical to the economic hegemony of any politically centralizing state in the region. Each political entity was vying for economic control of Awdaghust’s traffic in salt and gold transregionally, as well as the opportunity to tax the urban trades. Awdaghust was a wealthy city with supplies of water in close proximity and sufficient resources to maintain cattle herds. The city of Awdaghust had much agricultural surplus from its surrounding rural and periurban neighbors as well. The nearby regions could supply the city with millet, grapes, dates, wheat, and figs. Because of its location and resources, Awdaghust was coveted by various political entities.

In 992, the Soninke Soninkes king of Wagadu, Tounka Tounka , was able to capture the control of trade at Awdaghust, to the detriment of the Berbers. Because Awdaghust served as the gateway to Saharan trade, this was an important, though brief, moment for the Wagadu economy. With greater control over Awdaghust, the ghana (kings) of Wagadu were able to exploit the wealth of the city’s trade in order to expand the Wagadu Empire. With the surplus wealth, the state experienced its greatest florescence. Between 992 and 1054, Wagadu maintained control of Awdaghust and ruled it as a province. The primary population of Awdaghust was made up of Zanata Berbers, with the Sanhaja inhabiting the outskirts. While Wagadu levied taxes on Awdaghust, the Zanata maintained independent control over trade from another urban center farther north, at Sijilmasa.

As Ghana flourished, Muslim traders continued to travel south in caravans from North Africa and moved through Awdaghust eastward to Hausaland and the Lake Chad region. Travel by land;Muslim traders They carried supplies of salt, dates, and figs as well as luxury items such as cloth, copper, steel, cowrie shells, and glass beads. The Wagadu Empire maintained trade relations with the Berber traders as well as Arab merchants. Ghana maintained control of the region and ruled over the Zanata Berbers until the mid-eleventh century. In 1054, the Sanhaja Berbers allied with the Almoravids Almoravids , or al-Murabutin, who were influenced by a zealous religious devotion. The Muslim Almoravids sought to initiate a renewed orthodoxy among the Sahelian Berbers and their southern neighbors, whom the Almoravids perceived as practicing “unpure” forms of Islam.

Abū Bakr ibn ՙUmar Abū Bakr ibn ՙUmar (Berber leader) , the leader of the Sanhaja army, had captured Awdaghust by 1055. In 1076, after two decades of military campaigns, the Sanhaja for a short time occupied the city of Kumbi. Although the Almoravid-Sanhaja occupation of Kumbi Kumbi;sack of (1076) was short-lived, lasting only a few years, the Almoravids did maintain control of the forest-to-Sahel trade that previously had been economically dominated by Wagadu. The power of Wagadu’s kings declined without the ability to manage, direct, and tax all the gold trade moving through the Sahelian centers on its northern frontier.

The written record of Muslim chroniclers (both Arab and African) reveals that the Almoravids were insulted by the Soninke people’s “superficial” practice of Islam. Furthermore, notions of Sudanic sacral royalty, associating the ruler of Wagadu and political power with the will of divinity, conflicted with Almoravid interpretations of Islamic doctrine. Although the ruler’s power is associated with divinity, the ruler is not a god but an intermediary between mortal and divine realms and a servant to both. For this reason, the Soninke saw the king as the defender of life and death, sickness and health.

For the Muslims of the Almoravid movement, this concept of sacral leadership was foreign and sacrilege, which motivated Islamized Berbers and Almoravids to unite against the Wagadu control of Awdaghust. A jihad (holy war) arose and swept across the Sahara and Sahel, as the various Berber factions, previously disunited, joined against a common rival, the Wagadu Empire. The Wagadu population converted increasingly to Islam in the later eleventh and through the twelfth centuries. The sixty years in which Wagadu had built up its economic strength came to an end as control of desert trade shifted to the Almoravids. While the Wagadu state and the Soninke population remained intact, the empire began to decline.

Vassal states and provinces began to assert their own independence as well. By 1203, the Susu province had taken control of the former patron state’s capital, Kumbi.


The control of Awdaghust was critical for the economic and political strength of the political entities at the crossroads of trans-Saharan and savannah forest trade in the inter-Senegal-Niger peninsula. Because there were few southern centers of trade and because competition was fierce, each state sought to monopolize the important towns. The capture of Awdaghust by the Wagadu state demonstrates the tensions that existed in a system that was highly competitive.

Soninke trade relations with Muslims were not always contentious; however, there were critical moments when competition superseded healthy trade relations. Trade did not necessarily require the absolute control of urban centers, but for centralized states, the stakes became higher and the need to establish hegemonic power increased as the state expanded and become responsible for larger populations. The state had to maximize its control of resources in order to satisfy the growing empire. The case of Awdaghust demonstrates that as states became centralized they increasingly sought to monopolize resources in order to edge out competitor states and political ideologies.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levtzion, Nehemia. “Ancient Ghana: A Reassessment of Some Arabic Sources.” Le Sol, la parole et l’écrit: 2000 ans d’histoire africaine mélanges en hommage de Raymond Mauny. Vol. 1. Paris: Société Française d’Histoire d’Outre-mer, 1981. A history of sources on ancient Ghana and the Ghana Empire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McKissack, Patricia, and Fredrick McKissack. The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa. New York: H. Holt, 1994. Provides a history of the Ghana Empire with a focus on the Middle Ages. Written for a younger readership.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Munson, Patrick J. “Archaeology and the Pre-historic Origins of the Ghana Empire.” Journal of African History 21 (1980): 457-466. Examines the history of western Africa with specific attention to the origins of the Ghana Empire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Prussin, Labelle. The Medieval Age: West African Empires. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. Covers art, architecture, and religion in three west African empires. Contains a chapter on the Ghana Empire.

Categories: History