A bitter conflict between Ethiopia and near-by coastal states erupted in the horn of Africa as a long-standing trading rivalry intensified into a religious and political war. The Muslim Sultan of Adal (now between Somalia and Ethiopia), Ahmad Gran (1506-1543), invaded Ethiopia in the 1530s with the help of nomadic warriors from Somalia. As the leader of a nation that had embraced Christianity in the 4th century, the Ethiopian Emperor asked the Christian Portuguese for military aid. The arrival of Portuguese soldiers in 1541 reinforced the resolve of the Ethiopian people who were able to repel the invaders in 1543. Subsequently, as a result of the military help offered by the Portuguese, Ethiopia came under Catholic influence for the first time. The Jesuits who traveled with the Portuguese tried to convert the Ethiopians from their Coptic form of Christianity to that practiced in Rome. This effort proved to be unsuccessful, and all Catholic missionaries were expelled from the country in the 17th century.  In other significant developments in the 16th century, the Funj people established a powerful kingdom around the capital of Sennar on the Blue Nile. This kingdom was both an economic and military power in the region throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.

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Learn more about the history of Christianity in Ethiopia and view ancient religious art at the Khan Academy’s web-page.


Ethiopian religious art depicting Mary and Jesus flanked by Archangels, Apostles and a Saint from the late 15th century. (Source: Khan Academy)


In Egypt, the last Mamluk Sultan was Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghuri (1441-1516). Al-Ashraf was a scholarly man who became Sultan late in life. His chief endeavors were aimed at protecting his people from Ottoman attempts to seize control of the country. This attempt proved to be ultimately unsuccessful as the Ottoman Sultan, Selim I, defeated the Mamluk army in Syria (1516) and established Ottoman control over both Egypt and Hejaz (Saudi Arabia).

As the Portuguese expanded their military might and economic activities in the 16th century, they sought to control significant ports in northwest Africa (modern-day Morocco). The Moroccans opposed their efforts and, in the fierce Battle of Alcacer Quibir on August 4, 1578, defeated and repelled the Portuguese army. Significantly, the Moroccans preserved their independence for over 50 years. Morocco was the only north African states to remain independent from the control of Europeans and the Ottomans in the 16th century.

East of Morocco in what is now Tunisia and Algeria, a band of pirates thrived until they were captured by Spanish forces. The Spanish used advanced artillery to overwhelm them in 1509 and 1510. However, in 1516, a pirate by the name Khair ed-Kin Khizr (also called Barbarossa because of his red hair) led an insurgence against the Spanish and successfully freed both the pirates and the area from Spanish control. Fearing a reprisal attack by the Spanish, Barbarossa paid homage to the Ottoman Sultan, Selim I, in exchange for the support of his army. Together, the Ottomans and Barbarossa’s pirates waged war across all of North Africa and thus became the dominant political and military authority in the region.


Early in the 16th century, Askia Muhammad I, also known as Askia the Great (1493-1528), governed the Songhai Empire (also transliterated as Songhay), which had been built up by Sonni Ali in the 15th century. He both strengthened and enlarged the Empire so that it became the largest empire in Western African history. At its peak under his reign, the Songhai Empire encompassed the Hausa states as far as Kano (in present-day Nigeria) and much of the territory that had belonged to the Songhai empire in the west. There were a number of large commercial cities, such as the Mali capital of Timbuktu. Timbuktu was cultured and diverse, with people from various regions of Africa living in harmony with each other. Merchants from numerous cities throughout North Africa gathered to exchange gold, salt, cloth, and horses in its markets.


A map shows the geographic expanse of the Songhai Empire under Askia (Source: Wikimedia)

One of Askia’s primary objectives was to control access to the major trade routes across the Sahara. The primary sources of the Songhai Empire’s wealth continued to be agricultural production centered on the Niger floodplain and taxes on trade goods, especially gold and salt, both of which had also been key to the economy of the Mali Empire. Gold remained the primary good transported along the trans-Saharan trade routes, but enslaved captives and kola nuts were also exported. The empire imported a variety of goods, including Saharan salt, luxury goods, horses, and cloth. Askia did more to regulate trans-Saharan trade than any of his predecessors. He not only introduced the use of standardized weights and measures but also employed trade inspectors at each of the empire’s major trade centers.

The policies of Askia the Great encouraged trade with both Europe and Asia, the building of schools, and the establishment of Islam as central to the political and cultural administration of the Empire. Askia built religious schools, constructed mosques, and opened up his court to scholars and poets from throughout the Muslim world. Many Islamic scholars lived and worked in the city as it became an important center of learning. To the people of Timbuktu, literacy and books were symbols of wealth and power. The acquisition of manuscripts became a primary occupation for many scholars. Askia’s support led to the writing of thousands of manuscripts which were then collected and distributed from Timbuktu throughout North Africa. At the same time, Askia was tolerant of other religions and did not force Islam on his people as many who lived in the rural areas of his kingdom continued to practice the religious practices that had been handed down to them by their ancestors.

Askia the Great also transformed the nature of Songhai rulership by establishing an efficient bureaucracy that was responsible for the collection of taxes and the administration of civil justice. He oversaw the building of canals in order to enhance agriculture. Askia abandoned this model in favor of designating royal family members or trusted servants. As appointees of the king, these provincial governors were entirely dependent on the ruler and had to remain in his favor.  Under previous rulers, Songhai administration at the provincial level had been left in the hands of traditional rulers. Askia abandoned this model in favor of designating royal family members or trusted servants. As appointees of the king, these provincial governors were entirely dependent on the ruler and had to remain in his favor. Abandoning the use of traditional rulers had the effect of strengthening the centralizing tendency of the state under Sunni Ali. Whereas before such provincial officials might take advantage of dynastic struggles to assert their authority and form a breakaway region or state, the placement of royally appointed officials closely aligned with the king dramatically curtailed this risk.

As Askia the Great aged, his power declined. In 1528, his sons revolted and declared their brother Musa to be king. Three years later, they rebelled against his leadership. Musa’s overthrow in 1531 led to the decline of the Songhai Empire. Askia’s sons and grandsons failed in their attempts to govern, and the political chaos and multiple civil wars within the empire encouraged Morocco to invade Songhai. The Moroccans seized control of the lucrative trans-Saharan trade in salt and gold. When the Empire finally fell to the Moroccans in 1591, the formerly unified empire was politically fragmented.

Not all of Africa’s trade traversed the Sahara. The east coast of Africa was home to wealthy city-states that engaged in oceanic trade with the Arabian Peninsula, India, and places farther east. Just as the cities of Songhai linked sub-Saharan Africa to North Africa and the Mediterranean by means of trade, the African ports on the Indian Ocean connected Africa to South and East Asia. These city-states were important hubs in the trade between East and West and made some of the world’s most desirable products available to people on three continents.

This map shows the coastal region immediately south of the Horn of Africa that was home to a number of city-states that prospered in the Indian Ocean trade. (Source: Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The people of the coast spoke Swahili, which combined the grammar of African Bantu languages with a Bantu and Arabic vocabulary. This common language enabled people from a wide variety of ethnic groups to trade with one another.   They also converted to Islam. Sharing a religion made it easier for them to interact with the Arab and Persian merchants and sailors who inhabited cities on the coast of East Africa, as well as with Muslim merchants in North Africa, on the Arabian Peninsula, and in India. The version of Islam practiced by the people of the Swahili coast, however, made concessions to the pre-Islamic practices of several of the area’s African societies. In this syncretic version of Islam, ancestor veneration continued, for example, as did the use of magical rituals to drive away spirits believed to cause illness. Women also retained a higher status than they did in other Muslim societies, such as Persia.

A large variety of products were traded in the cities of the Swahili coast: gold, iron, copper, salt, valuable hardwoods such as ebony and sandalwood, ivory, tortoise shells for making decorative objects like combs, and animal hides. These goods were brought overland across trade routes from the African interior and then were either purchased by the cities’ inhabitants for their own use or resold elsewhere in Africa or in Arabia, Persia, and India. From these places, the goods might travel even farther to Southeast Asia or China. Artisans in the cities crafted pottery and wove cloth that became part of the trade too and were sold in Africa or overseas. The goods of Asia also flowed into these cities, and the elites of the Swahili coast adorned themselves with glass beads from India, dressed in Chinese silks, and ate from Chinese porcelain.

In the early sixteenth century, Portugal attempted to seize the wealth of the Swahili coast.  The Swahili coast city-states had long been trade rivals, and their history of competition with one another prevented them from unifying in the face of the threat of Portuguese domination.  Portugal extended its control along the rest of the Swahili coast as well, establishing trading posts. Because the coastal city-states had never before experienced attacks from the sea, their ports were not fortified and could not easily defend against the Portuguese.  Both the Ottomans and Somalis from the region of Mogadishu feared and resented Portuguese intrusion in East Africa. Joint Somali-Ottoman attacks beginning in the second half of the 1500s wreaked havoc on Portuguese efforts to control the region.

Further south, the collapse of Great Zimbabwe in the 15th century led to the emergence of the Kingdom of Mutapa as a powerful political force. Archaeological evidence suggests that Great Zimbabwe had been a center for trading, with a trade network linked to eastern Africa and extending as far as China. Chinese pottery shards, coins from Arabia, glass beads, and other non-local items have been excavated. International trade was mainly in gold and ivory. Some estimates suggest that more than 20 million ounces of gold were extracted from Zimbabwean mines. Local agricultural trade was also important, focused primarily on cattle.


Great Zimbabwe is notable for its advanced masonry techniques. (Source: Wikimedia)

Scholars have debated the reasons for the Zimbabwe’s decline, but most agree that it was the result of economic misfortunes caused by the depletion of the formerly lucrative gold mines, political instability, famine, and drought. In the mid-1400s, Prince Nyatsimba Mutota traveled north from Great Zimbabwe in search of salt among the Shona-Tavara. He defeated the Tonga and Tavara and established what would become the Kingdom of Mutapa. By the beginning of the 16th century, Mutapa had eclipsed Great Zimbabwe as the economic and political power in the region. In the 16th century, the king of Mutapa expanded his power beyond the original Zimbabwe region to establish a new capital on the northern edge of the Rhodesian plateau.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to establish trading relationships with the peoples living in Sub-Saharan Africa. They established significant outposts in the trading centers of Sofala and Kilwa Kisiwani between 1505 and 1507 and began to travel up the Zambesi River in 1513. The focus of their efforts was the capturing and transporting of slaves.

The arrival of Europeans in Africa in the 16th century marks an important transition in African history. African communities, prior to the 16th century, had been vibrant centers of cultural development. These communities had established extensive trade networks, developed iron-smelting technology, and utilized both plow- agriculture and irrigation technology to build extensive farming systems that allowed larger populations to flourish. Direct contact with Europe brought great change as Africans became enmeshed in the Columbian Exchange. Scholars estimate that 13 million Africans were stolen from their homes and communities and violently transported to the Americas between the 15th and 19th centuries. The slave trade also shifted the locus of power in Africa from the center towards the coast. Africans also participated in the Columbian Exchange by adopting the new crops to which they were exposed. African farmers experimented with maize by developing varieties adapted to local environment.


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