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15.1 Culture and Society in Medieval Africa

Africa’s ancient migrations diffused technological and cultural innovations that helped establish settlements later enriched by the spread of new belief systems. Beginning with both Judaism and Christianity in the early centuries of the Common Era and continuing with the long tradition of Islam, monotheism had taken root throughout much of North Africa by the end of the eighth century and gradually penetrated the sub-Saharan region. By the medieval period, the nature of religious belief throughout much of the continent had been utterly transformed. Islam in particular made great advances in the Sudanic region of West Africa and along the Swahili coast. Nevertheless, ancient African belief systems continued to be practiced in many rural communities. In other areas, monotheistic beliefs were blended with prehistoric religious practices to create truly unique cultural expressions, such as the Africanized Islam practiced by the Muslims of the Swahili coast.

15.2 Medieval Sub-Saharan Africa

Medieval African kingdoms and polities controlled vast territories, used emerging technologies, and governed populations that were heterogeneous and cosmopolitan. In every kingdom, trade was vital not only to longevity and prosperity, but also to their dynamic cultures. Ghanaian control over trans-Saharan trade in West Africa led to a thriving relationship between Muslim traders and the empire’s rulers, who never converted. After Ghana’s fall, the larger kingdom of Mali emerged, whose mansas converted to Islam.

As an Islamic kingdom, Mali was far better integrated in the wider world of Muslim-dominated trade in Africa and the Near and Middle East than Ghana had been. Through trade, Ghana and Mali’s southern African contemporaries Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe likewise connected peoples, places, and cultures thousands of miles distant. As goods and people flowed to and from the central South African interior, the Shona civilization of the Zimbabwean plateau used the wealth it generated to expand its territory and to build medieval Africa’s largest stone structures, many of which stand to this day.

15.3 The People of the Sahel

During the Mali Empire’s period of decline, the Soninke-speaking people of the Niger established a new polity centered on the trade city of Gao, which soon became the capital of the Songhai kingdom. During the sixteenth century, Songhai grew into a larger and wealthier state than even the fabled Mali. Its prosperity depended on controlling the trans-Saharan trade routes of West Africa. This trade was made possible largely by nomadic and seminomadic peoples such as the Sanhaja and Tuareg who acted as caravan leaders, merchants, and traders. They had long maintained contact across the Sahara and were familiar with the oases and settlements along the way.

The conversion to Islam of North African peoples followed the Arab conquests of the seventh century, but over time, their loose interpretation of and adherence to Islamic law, custom, and practice made them a target for radical and militant religious movements, particularly in the Maghreb region of northwest Africa. These movements, the Almoravid and later the Almohad, sought to reform the prevailing Sunni Islam then propagated by the Umayyad Caliphate. The result was decades of conflict, amounting to civil war, centered on Morocco, during which the Almoravids wrested control of the region from the Umayyads. The Almoravid Empire was short-lived; its traditionalism alienated many, who rebelled and overthrew the Almoravids when they conquered their capital at Marrakesh. The Almohads had no greater luck than their predecessors, and their dynasty soon collapsed under the weight of internal conflict and rebellion.

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