Skip to main content
Mansa Musa

The most influential African empires from history

Image: Mansa Musa depicted holding a gold coin in the 1375 Catalan Atlas | Public Domain

When it comes to African kingdoms, initial thoughts often go towards ancient Egypt. From the pyramids to the pharaohs, it’s easy to see why one of the most advanced civilisations in ancient history garners the majority of the attention. However, the list of mighty empires to have risen and spread across Africa is far longer than many imagine.

Here are some of the most powerful and influential empires from African history.

The Kingdom of Kush (1070 BC-AD 350)

The Kushite Empire was an ancient kingdom in Nubia (modern-day southern Egypt and northern Sudan) that centred along the Nile Valley. For many centuries, Egypt ruled over Nubia, however, that all changed around 1070 BC.

Whilst their neighbours to the north began to flounder, Kush started to flourish. By the 8th century BC, they had conquered Egypt and installed one of their own leaders as Pharaoh. The Kingdom of Kush had become the regional powerhouse, which lasted for over a millennia.

Given the achievements of the Egyptians and their cultural influence over the Kushites (who also built pyramids), the history books have often overlooked the latter. However, Kush was an advanced civilisation in its own right with a unique language and writing system. It was also a successful commercial hub for trade, protected by a military which was so well known for its skilled archers that the kingdom was often referred to as ‘Land of the Bow’.

The Kush empire remained until around 350 AD when an overuse of the land, coupled with an invasion from the Kingdom of Aksum, brought about its demise.

The Kingdom of Aksum (150 BC-AD 937)

Spanning modern-day Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Sudan and even Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom of Aksum was a mighty empire in the north of Africa that gained its wealth through trade.

Little is known about the origins of Aksum. However, by the third century AD, the kingdom became a major trading hub connecting Rome and Greece with the Far East, especially India. Trade brought the kingdom vast riches and power, and it was once considered one of the four great nations alongside China, Rome and Persia.

The Aksumites developed their own written script known as Ge’ez, which was one of the first to emerge in Africa. They also built giant stone obelisks and one such example still stands today in Ethiopia. The 79ft tall Obelisk of Axum dates back 1,700 years.

During the 4th century AD, Aksum became one of the first kingdoms in the world to adopt Christianity. The religious legacy of this decision remains today with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

The kingdom fell into a slow decline during the 7th century with the loss of its traditional trade routes. It finally collapsed in 960 AD.

The Mali Empire (AD 1230–1672)

Whilst Aksum made its wealth through trade, the Mali Empire made its money from mining, more specifically gold mining. With the decline of the nearby Empire of Ghana, Mali began its ascendancy during the 11th and 12th centuries AD. By the 13th century, the empire had a firm grip on vast swathes of West Africa, driven by the wealth of its gold mining operations.

It’s believed that by this time, the Mali Empire was the source of around 50% of the world’s gold supply, an astonishing amount to be controlled by just one kingdom. This, in turn, made the rulers of Mali very wealthy. In fact, one of their kings is said to have been the richest human being to have ever lived.

Mansa Musa reigned during the 14th century and his wealth was so vast that historians and economists struggle to put an official number on it. Fuelled by the abundant supply of natural resources and aided by the presence of several major trading centres within its boundaries, Mansa Musa made the most of what his lands offered and accumulated wealth unseen before or since in history.

By the end of Musa’s reign, the empire stretched from the Atlantic Ocean on the east to what is now Niger in the west. He also developed the city of Timbuktu as it became an important place culturally and economically with new schools, libraries, and mosques, including the still-standing Djinguereber Mosque.

After his death, Musa’s sons inherited the throne but couldn’t keep the empire together and it began a slow decline until its final collapse in the 17th century.

Kingdom of Zimbabwe (AD 1220 – 1450)

After the collapse of the medieval Kingdom of Mapungubwe in South Africa, the Kingdom of Zimbabwe rose from its ashes. The name Zimbabwe means ‘great house of stone’, which refers to the capital city of the kingdom known as Great Zimbabwe.

Built out of granite, Great Zimbabwe is a collection of stone towers, defensive walls and giant boulders. It is the most famous stone monument in all of southern Africa and it’s no wonder the engineering marvel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Remains of the city can still be seen today and are located 150 miles from Harare, the capital of modern-day Zimbabwe. At its height, nearly 20,000 people were said to live within its walls;

Like Mali, the Kingdom of Zimbabwe made its wealth from gold, monopolising the trade of it from the southeastern coast of Africa through to its interior. They were also great ivory traders, cattle producers and miners, excavating minerals such as copper and iron.

The decline of Great Zimbabwe is not fully understood although theories such as land degradation and loss of trade have been put forward. By the 1500s, the city was abandoned and the Kingdom of Zimbabwe was no more.