By: Christy Manos and Mary Fountain

The Songhai empire contained parts of the Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, and Mauritania.

People and Culture

       The Songhai Empire was expanded throughout present day Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Guinea, Nigeria, Niger, and Mauritania, and was one of the largest empires of its time. The empire had more than 3 million people throughout 1375-1591. Many Songhai people are related and come from similar backgrounds, which caused the process of marrying to be a bit abnormal: men would be allowed to have more than one wife and people would be preferred to marry their first cousins. The people of Songhai wrote songs reminiscing about their past and how they overthrew a previous kingdom. All people sang, danced, and wrote poetry. Griots were storytellers and historians who told oral stories and kept traditions going. The griots would also keep track of people’s ancestors and told stories through acting, dancing, and singing. Poetry performances were very important to Songhai culture.

       Social class impacted an average person’s life in Songhai society; it consisted of a king, average people, griots or storytellers, skilled workers, and slaves. Slaves were used to help farm and were traded in order to bring goods across the Sahara Desert to the Middle East. The main trade items from the Songhai empire was gold, cereal, slaves, and nuts. The empire consisted of two languages: Songhai, an oral language, and Arabic. Arabic was used for reading and writing, and especially in order to read the Quran.


      The Songhai Empire was located south of the Sahara desert, where the land was flat and dry. The Sahara is an impossible place for any crops to grow that humans can live off of and has a very harsh climate. Luckily, the Niger and the Senegal rivers kept the soil in the empire rich enough to farm. The rivers were used for trade, growing crops, and transportation. Crops such as wheat, rice, and cereal were grown along the Niger river, but these crops were not valuable enough to trade and successfully make money off of. Instead, emperors of the empire took control over the salt and gold mines that were a part of the Mali empire and traded these valuable items with other civilizations who were across the Sahara. The wildlife and grasslands of the Savanna were also a part of the empire. The Songhai Empire had an indefinite and unusual shape, but the large area did contain a variety of ecosystems.

       Many cities in Mali, a West African empire which is now a country, were conquered by the Songhai Empire. For example, Sonni Ali, the first emperor of the Songhai dynasty, conquered a city in Mali called Gao and made it the capital of the Songhai empire. Other owns in Mali such as Jenne and Timbuktu were soon recognized as important cities of the Songhai empire, all captured under the rule of Sonni Ali. Sonni Ali also took control over many important trade routes that were a part of the Sahara. The empire continued to expand in all directions. At the height of the empire, it extended for about 1 million square miles.

The Sahara Desert- the largest desert in the world
The Savanna Grassland
The Niger & Senegal River in comparison to the Sahara desert


       At first, the people of the Songhai Empire practiced traditional African religious beliefs under the rule of Sonni Ali. Sonni Ali conquered a city in Mali called Timbuktu, one of the wealthiest cities in West Africa and a main area for Islamic universities, which soon would lead to controversy since the Songhai empire was not yet practicing Islam worship and Sonni Ali was anti-Muslim. Traditional African practices continued until Sonni Ali died and Muslim Askia Muhammad took over, who then set up an dynasty. Muhammad attracted many Muslim scholars to Songhai and built mosques and created schools that studied the Quran (Islamic book of scriptures). Allah, the Islam god, is seen to be the creator of everything. Islamic people honor Allah by praying to him five times a day and sacrifice to him by strictly fasting.

In the eyes of Muslims, Allah is too holy to have a distinct face, so he is represented by Arabic letters.


        Art was very important to the Songhai people. They were creative and spent a lot of time of time on their art. The people would use items around them to make buildings and useful materials needed in life including bowls and other items to eat or drink with. After Sonni Ali died, and conquering land was not as important to the empire, people education became an important part of life. This lead to many temples of learning, some are so well constructed that they are still around today. Buildings of the Songhai were typically made using stones cemented together with mud. Islamic styles were used to build temples, but some African styles were used as well. The people would trade with the cities around them and one of their main trading items was a colorful mask called a kifwebe which was used by the people to get rid of any disasters. These masks were made of wood and scrap metal. The Songhai were very focused on religion at the end of their era, which meant that most of their artwork was created in honor of Allah and their temples were all dedicated to him.

Songhai temple
Kifwebe: mask the Songhai people made to rid of disasters


       The Songhai government was an absolute monarchy which meant that the government had full control of the people and all decisions made; some would also call this a royal court. The government was split into executive ministries with each different responsibilities. It was very organized and strict, especially when emperors would conquer surrounding lands. It was based on the way the Mali Empire’s government ran and the people of Ghana.

       Songhai was the largest empire in West Africa which meant that the government had to be very strong in order to keep power in places they conquered. The army under Sonni Ali was strong, well-trained, and determined to conquer as much land as possible. Sonni Ali was also the military commander for the army. Ali was mysteriously killed; some believe that he was killed during a battle or that he drowned. Today many people think of him as a great man: sometimes called a hero, but to others in the Islamic faith, a tyrant. Sonni Ali’s son took the throne for less than a year when Askia Muhammad took control. Askia Muhammad was a strong believer in Islam and made the government much stronger under his rule. He improved the government by enforcing governors of the individual cities inside of the empire, and also strictly only having Muslim governors. Muhammad also enforced Islamic law throughout the entire empire and built many Islamic schools throughout the empire.

Sonni Ali, the first leader of the Songhai Empire.

Fall of the Empire

       The Songhai empire ended in 1592 when the leader of Morocco came across the Sahara Desert with guns and the Songhai army only had spears and swords. This was the end to the largest empire in West Africa at it time.

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