(AFRICAN EMPIRES to 1500 CE – continued)

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AFRICAN EMPIRES to 1500 CE (4 of 4)

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Peoples, Trade and Empire in East Africa

According to later Arab writers, Nubia (along the Upper Nile) going into the 600s was "thickly populated with small agricultural villages." There were date palms, vineyards on the northern flood plain, cereals were cultivated farther south and throughout the region cattle were grazed. The historian Kevin Shillington writes,

It is clear that along the upper Nile there flourished a distinct Nubian Christian civilization that long outlived the seventh-century Arab invasion of Egypt .note40

The Nubians lived for long periods in peace and cooperation with Egypt, including returning to Egypt runaway slaves. They traded with Egypt, and some genetic diffusion with the Egyptians occurred. Between the ninth and twelfth centuries, Nubia became more Arabic and more Muslim. And blacks from Nubia filled the ranks of Egypt's military.

East African young woman

an East African

Egypt was ruled by Shia caliphs, the Fatimids, followed by the turmoil of the Christian crusades and rule by the Sunni hero Saladin and his heirs. In 1172 Christian Nubia joined Europe's Crusaders against by the Muslims. Saladin's army successfully counterattacked. Wikipedia describes Saladin and his heirs (the Ayyubids) dealing very aggressively with the Bedouin tribes of the nearby deserts, forcing them south into conflict with the Nubians. It describes the Bedouins as a destructive force.

In 1250 the Mameluks replaced Saladin's dynasty in Egypt, and the more aggressive Mameluks sent their armies into Nubia, diminishing Nubian populations and taking slaves. Nubia had split into two kingdoms, Makuria and Alwa. The last Christian king in Nubia, in Makuria, was defeated between 1312 and 1317. The Mameluks forced conversions. The Dongola cathedral was converted to a mosque.

In the 1400s, Muslim pastoralists penetrated farther south and westward toward Darfur. They intermarried with local Nubians and became "Africanized." By 1500 little Christianity was left in what had been Nubia.

Christianity and Islam in Ethiopia

In the 700s and 800s, Arab traders looking for opportunity moved southward into coastal towns such as Mogadishu, Merca and Brava. They participated in trade that traversed the Indian Ocean. Intermarriages with local blacks occurred. Arab tradesmen made themselves dominant in the region, and a few Arabs migrated along the coast, to the island of Pemba, which became partly Muslim by the 900s.

Since the 900s, people in and around the Ethiopian highlands had been benefiting from trade with port cities such as Adulis on the Red Sea, Zeila and Berbera on the Gulf of Aden, and Mogadishu, Merca and Brava on the shore of the Indian Ocean. Inland were Muslim and Christian communities, often neighboring each other. The Muslims had a strong sense of community and generally participated more in trade than the Christians. Trade was largely in Muslim hands. The Christians were under various chiefdoms. Many were farmers, and a few were prosperous and had slaves.

In the area was also a Jewish community, the Falashas, who spoke Ge'ez and knew no Hebrew. They were unfamiliar with the Talmuds that had been produced in West Asia, but they claimed to be descended from the ten tribes banished from Israel.

Around the year 1270, at Amhara, in the northern highlands of Ethiopia, a new Christian dynasty, the Solomonids, was founded by Yikunno-Amlak, a conqueror described as a king of kings – in other words an emperor. His dynasty was believed to be a continuation of the Christian kingdom that had been in Aksum centuries before. Yikunno-Amlak was to be described as descended from Solomon's son, Manelik and the Queen of Sheba. His Christian subjects believed that they were God's chosen people, that they were maintaining purity in Christian belief, and that they were members of a second Israel.

The Solomonids addressed the problem of monarchical succession by putting Yikunno-Amlak's male descendants in a mountain retreat guarded by several hundred warriors. There Yikunno-Amlak's descendants remained in isolation, studied their faith, wrote poetry and composed sacred music as they awaited selection as heir to the throne.

It was under Yikunno-Amlak's grandson Amda Seyon (1314-44) that the Solomonids gained military dominance in Ethiopia – Solomonid rule stretching from Adulis in the north to Bali in the south. The success of Christians  against Muslims in Ethiopia did not sit well with the Muslims of Egypt. In Ethiopia, Amda-Seyon became concerned about retributions against his fellow Christians in Egypt. He demanded freedom of worship and other civil rights for Christians in Egypt, and he was prepared to fight Egypt and to ally himself with Christian Europe to end Muslim supremacy in West Asia, but no such war took place. The Mameluks of Egypt remained interested primarily in events in the eastern Mediterranean. Christians in Egypt were becoming more outnumbered by Muslims, and this would continue into the 1400s, with the Muslim majority increasingly blaming Christians and other minorities for their troubles.

In the 1400s the power of the Solomonids in Ethiopia declined as various Muslim communities rebelled against it. Under the king Beide-Maryan (1468-78), the Solomonids suffered their first serious military defeat. And after 1478 the Solomonids were weakened by a conflict over succession – their attempt to solve the problem of succession having failed. War between two Solomonid princes continued for several years. The Solomonid Empire went the way of other empires. Muslims took advantage of Solomonid weakness, declared a holy war, and the Solomonid Empire disintegrated in military weakness. A Solomonid king remained, a local king rather than a king of kings, but emperor in name just the same. The Solomonids would rise again, the last of them to be Haile Selassie in the 20th century.

Southeastern Africa

Below Mogadishu, Merca and Brava, Africa remained predominately black. There were hunters, fishermen, growers of sorghum, millet, rice, cucumbers, coconuts, sugar and bananas, and some were raising cattle. Some hunter-gatherers integrated with the cattle herders or agriculturists, into societies ruled by kings who believed or claimed to be divine, but they feared assassination if they became too oppressive.

Inland, about 180 miles from the eastern coast, on a plateau sparse in trees, was Zimbabwe, where Bantu speakers had been living sometime between the 5th and 10th centuries – the Bantu speaking people having replaced the Sa (Bushmen) whom they had driven into the desert. The Bantu speakers had come in two waves, the last wave being a pastoral and agricultural people who built the stone structures that were to be known in the 20th century as the ruins of Zimbabwe, the oldest of which dated from the 700s.

Gold that was mined near Zimbabwe was taken to trading towns along the coast. So too were leopard skins, rhinoceros horn, ambergris, slaves and ivory – the ivory of the African elephant more in demand than the harder ivory of the Indian elephant. Joining this trade was iron taken from deposits around the towns of Mombasa and Malindi. Traders on the eastern coast of Africa, many of them blacks, profited from a rise in trade with Asia, and from India the Africans imported silks, cottons and glassware.

From the 1100s, Arabs began arriving in greater number in this coastal area. In the 1200s Mombasa became staunchly Muslim, and a Muslim dynasty was established at Kilwa. By the mid-1200s, Kilwa controlled the trade from Sofala to its south, Sofala being a point of departure for gold from inland.

Meanwhile, economic activity in Zimbabwe was predominantly cattle raising, while the wealth of its king grew from trade in gold. With his wealth the king was able to maintain a powerful army and to extend his authority across a number of principalities – a hundred miles to the west and to the Indian Ocean in the east. During the 1300s and into the 1400s Zimbabwe was the richest state on Africa's eastern coast, but it was also declining: Zimbabwe was losing its timber. Its lands were overgrazed and farmlands were eroding. Zimbabwe declined as a power, and it was abandoned around 1450. Successor states arose: Torwa to its west, Changamire just to its north, and Mutapa on the Zambezi River. Mutapa's economy was also based on cattle and wealth from the gold trade, and Mutapa expanded locally by military conquest.

Toward the end of the 1400s, Kilwa's preeminence on the east coast was fading in the usual manner: dynastic struggles sapped its strength. Kilwa was losing the trade in gold from Sofala to Mutapa.

Mutapa's gold trading attracted the Portuguese, who had begun sailing along Africa's eastern coast. Trade between Africans and Europeans was on the rise, in slaves as well as gold.


UNESCO, General History of Africa, Vol. V, (16th to 18th Century), edited by BA Ogot, 1992

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