Some of the world’s greatest military minds, reformers, and social systems came out of Africa. Despite colonization, many of them stood the test of time, prevailing for thousands of years. Africa is the cradle of human civilization. While many people know about the Romans and the Persians, not enough people (besides us history buffs) know about the great empires, kingdoms, and sultanates of Africa. Here are some of the great African empires you may never have heard of.
Axumite Empire The Axumite Empire existed for nearly 1,000 years from shortly after the birth of Christ to 940 A.D. At the crossroads of many transcontinental trade routes, Axum controlled what is now Eritrea and Northern Ethiopia on the Red Sea Coast. Eventually subjugating parts of Sudan and Arabia, the Axumites created their own alphabet, the ancient semitic language of Ge’ez, which is the syllabary of Ethiopia. They erected monolithic obelisks which still stand today, and had a feudal system with slaves.
Kingdom of Kush Coexisting in the later era of Ancient Egypt, the Kingdom of Kush was centered around the Upper Nile in modern-day Sudan, stretching a few hundred miles north and south of the confluence of the Blue and White Nile branches (present-day Khartoum). The Nile in Sudan has several ancient temples, pyramids, and tombs. Some scholars have argued that the Kushite culture was one and the same with Egypt, but they do have differences. The Nubian kings or pharaohs were black and even subjugated Egypt for a brief period.
Songhai Empire Once the largest empire in West Africa, Songhai peaked in the 1500s and 1600s. Centered around Gao and the Niger River in Mali, the empire grew and absorbed neighboring states, becoming one of the largest Islamic states in Africa. Timbuktu and its environs became the center of not only trade, but learning in the entire region. Culturally, the Songhai had an extensive clan and guild structure, but the empire fell into decline after wars of succession and a Moroccan invasion.
Abyssinian Empire The great Abyssinian or Ethiopian Empire stood proudly from 1137 until 1974, one of the only empires in Africa to last until the late 20th century, Many famous rulers included names like Yohannes, Tewodros, Menelik, and Haile Selassie. Most notably, the empire had a strong military that defeated multiple invaders over the centuries including the Italians, giving Ethiopia the distinction of remaining the only country in Africa to never fall under colonial influence.
Carthaginian Empire Lasting a millennium, the Carthaginian Empire controlled most of North Africa and parts of what is now Spain, Italy, and France at various times. Based around the Phoenician city-state of Carthage (present-day Tunis), Carthage was known for perpetually fighting in wars. Its most brilliant leader and military mind was Hannibal, known for leading his army — including war elephants — through Europe and across the Alps in a failed attempt to sack Rome by land.
Great Zimbabwe Great Zimbabwe was created out of the Kingdom of Mapungubwe in the 1200s. The new Kingdom of Zimbabwe built upon the masonic and artistic traditions of Mapungubwe. A three-tiered class system was established as well as taxation, trade, and more than 150 “minor Zimbabwes.” The kingdom fell into decline within a few hundred years. The ruins of Great Zimbabwe are some of the largest stone structures in Africa.
Sokoto Caliphate Founded during the Fulani War in 1809, the Sokoto Caliphate was the most powerful entity in West Africa in the 19th century. Administered as an Islamic Caliphate with smaller vassal emirates paying tribute to the sultan, it was eventually subjugated by the British a century later. However, the Sultan of Sokoto still exists as a position and is revered by millions of Muslims in Northern Nigeria.
Kingdom of Jolof (Wolof) From 1549 until 1875, the Kingdom of Jolof (Wolof) was a powerful kingdom in what is now Senegal and Gambia. The Islamic monarchy existed as a confederacy, with smaller states joining under the rule of Jolof and paying tribute. In 1875, the theocratic Imamate of Futa Jallon brought jihad upon its neighbor. The kingdom never recovered and the French took over soon after. C’est la vie. The next time you eat Jollof rice, you can thank this kingdom.
Sultante of Darfur What’s the old adage about not learning from history? Sudan has a myriad of problems we won’t get into here. A fairly large one though, is Darfur. That’s because like (the newly independent) South Sudan, Darfur (literally “realm of the fur”) was its own sultanate for centuries. Encompassing the Jebel Marrah Mountains straddling the border between Sudan and Chad, the sultanate was abolished by the British (no surprise) and brought into Anglo-Egyptian Sudan in 1916.
Kingdom of Dahomey The Kingdom of Dahomey was possibly the most important power on the Atlantic Coast of West Africa from 1600 to 1900. Dahomey, now known as Benin, was crucial in the slave trade, supplying upwards of 20 percent of Africans who would be shipped to the New World. The kingdom was highly organized, from trade with Europe to administration and taxes to an orderly military. Dahomey was known for its corps of female warriors called Amazons. The French finally defeated the last ruler, King Shark Behanzin, in 1894.