Rise and Fall of Ghana Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Ghana was one of the earliest and most important empires of West Africa, controlling trans-Saharan trade from its capital, Kumbi, and lasting nearly five hundred years.

Summary of Event

Ghana was founded about 750 by the Soninke Soninkes people in a region of West Africa settled as early as five hundred years before. It was the first great trading empire of West Africa, lying between the Senegal and Niger Rivers. The empire earned its name from the Wagadu word ghana, which means “war chief” and was applied to the warrior kings who controlled the gold trade. Such chiefs were absolute monarchs, overseeing princes who ruled adjacent areas annexed by Ghana. The name Ghana was first applied to the state and its culture around 770, when it was recorded by an Arab geographer who also referred to Ghana as the “land of gold.” [kw]Rise and Fall of Ghana (c. 750-1240) [kw]Ghana, Rise and Fall of (c. 750-1240) Ghana (ancient) Africa;c. 750-1240: Rise and Fall of Ghana[0650] Government and politics;c. 750-1240: Rise and Fall of Ghana[0650] Sumanguru Sundiata Tilutane

Ancient Ghana derived power and wealth mostly from its control of the gold fields of Bambuk and Buré. The introduction of the camel allowed trans-Saharan trade to increase the quantity of goods that were transported in and out of the El-Ghaba forest region. The route taken by traders of the Maghreb to Ghana started in North Africa in Tahert. Trade came down through Sjilmasa in southern Morocco. From there, the trail went south and inland, running parallel with the coast, continuing southeast through Awdaghust, and terminating in Kumbi Kumbi , the royal capital of Ghana. Thus the coast, the Sahara, and the West African forest were all networked in an extensive trade system. Gold;trade in

Kumbi was first uncovered by archaeologists in 1914. It was a unique city, formed by two townships roughly 4 miles (about 6 kilometers) apart. One of these townships was inhabited by Muslims, and it boasted twelve mosques—an indication of how important the Islamic religion was in Ghana. The other township, called El-Ghaba(Arabic for “the woods”), was inhabited by the non-Muslims. This township also contained a palace, built of stone and wood, where the king resided. World traveler al-Bakri Bakri, al- documented during his stay in El-Ghaba in the early thirteenth century that Kumbi was one of the greatest and most populous cities of the world. According to al-Bakri, “Around the town are wells of sweet water from which they drank and near which they grew vegetables.” Travel by land;al-Bakri[Bakri, al]

Kumbi was at the crossroads of the trans-Saharan trade and therefore became the center for control of the gold and salt exports and imports. As a result, Ghana became wealthy and achieved widespread and effective power and greatness. As Ghana grew, it became an enormous empire, threatening the independence of its West African neighbors. Surrounding states were motivated to put a halt to Ghana’s reign of power not only to defend themselves but also to secure control of Ghana’s gold mines and the trans-Saharan trade.

In 990, Tilutane Tilutane , a leader of a local Berber Berbers tribe, united a number of Berber units into a confederacy aimed at challenging Ghanaian hegemony in West Africa. Although unsuccessful, Tilutane did briefly gain control of Awdaghust, although it was retaken in 992 by Ghana’s king, Tounka. Although a failed mission, the Berbers’s attempt and brief victory set the stage for the eventual downfall of the great civilization of Ghana.

As a result of the continual efforts of the Berbers to overthrow Ghana, many nations within Ghana became fearful that their demise was near. As a result, the nation was plunged into chaos as many vassal states such as Silla, Tekrur, and Anbara began to declare their independence. In an effort to achieve independence, they attacked Kumbi, forcing the Arab merchants within the city to flee to a new place called Walata in 1224 and establish a new commercial city.

The flight of the Arab merchants out of Kumbi slowed the volume of trans-Saharan trade flowing through Ghana. Deprived of gold wealth and trade, both the government and its citizens became impoverished. The destabilized army failed to restrain the increasing rebellions and continuous assaults from foreigners.

One foreigner who attempted to expand into Ghanian territory was Sumanguru Sumanguru , chief of the Susu Susu kingdom (or Soso), another West African people. During his campaigns in the late twelfth century, Sumanguru attacked the established trade routes and was able to weaken the remnants of the empire. Finally, in 1203, he attacked and successfully took control of Kumbi, thus asserting himself as the new king of Ghana. He molded the nine provinces of Ghana into a sizable but short-lived empire. During his reign of terror, his heavy-handed tactics, though initially successful, ultimately resulted in resentment against him and his Susu people.


Because Sumanguru was primarily a war leader and did not have the experience needed to be a king, his rule did little to restore prosperity and political stability to the empire, which had been disrupted by years of warfare among rival kingdoms. Hence, Sumanguru proved to be the last king of remnants of ancient Ghana.

According to legend, Sumanguru controlled all the Ghana lands except for Manding. There, he managed to kill all the sons of the king except one, Sundiata Sundiata , who was spared because he was frail and weak. Sumanguru would later live to regret leaving Sundiata alive. After hiding in exile for many years, Sundiata gained strength and, with some help from the king of Mema, received a force of troops to take back the Ghana Empire.

Oral tradition relates that Sundiata grew stronger and began to rule the Mali Mali kingdom while steadily gaining power and troop strength. In 1235, at the Battle of Kirina, Kirina, Battle of (1235) Sundiata and Sumanguru met and fought. African tradition maintains that both were sorcerers, and thus their magic would determine the outcome of the fight. Sundiata snarled at the troops of King Sumanguru, who became terrified and ran for cover. Sumanguru retaliated, however, and the heads of eight spirits magically appeared above his own. Unfortunately for Sumanguru, Sundiata had the stronger magic, and the spirits were defeated. Sundiata then aimed an arrow at Sumaguru, and although it only grazed Sumanguru’s shoulder, it drained him of all his magic, and Sumanguru was defeated.

Whether true or not, this legend confirms the fact that Ghana’s power declined in the mid-thirteenth century, and the power vacuum was filled by another empire, the great empire of Mali. The tradition of the legendary Sundiata demonstrates the importance of trade and commerce in the ancient empires of western Africa. Those who controlled luxury items and trade routes secured economic prosperity and political strength.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crowder, Michael. West Africa: An Introduction to Its History. 2d ed. Harlow, England: Longman, 1987. A well-known history that has seen two editions and several printings. Illustrations, maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davidson, Basil. A History of West Africa, 1000-1800. Rev. ed. London: Longman, 1977. Another standard history. Illustrations, maps, bibliography, indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fage, J. D. Ghana: A Historical Interpretation. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1959. Although dated, still useful as a concise overview in English. Bibliographic references, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Greene, Sandra. Sacred Sites and the Colonial Encounter: A History of Meaning and Memory in Ghana. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002. Examines myth, legend, and oral tradition; “shows how ideas from outside forced sacred and spiritual meanings associated with particular bodies of water, burial sites, sacred towns, and the human body itself.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Koslow, Philip. Centuries of Greatness, 750-1900: The West African Kingdoms. New York: Chelsea House, 1995. Designed for younger readers (grades 7-10), an overview of more than a millennium of African history from art to warfare. Includes maps, black-and-white photographs, bibliographies, chronologies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levtzion, Nehemia. Ancient Ghana and Mali. 1973. Reprint. New York: Africana, 1980. A classic and substantial study of nearly three hundred pages, with maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McKissack, Patricia, and Frederick McKissack. The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa. New York: H. Holt, 1994. Designed for young readers, an introduction to these three major empires by reference to folklore, contemporaneous accounts, and scholarly research, covering roughly the period 500-1700. Includes a timeline, notes, and a substantial bibliography.
  • 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