Koumbi Saleh, the ancient capital of the Ghana Empire, flourished from the 9th to the 11th century as a hub of trade and culture in West Africa, renowned for its wealth, grand mosques, and vibrant markets.
The Soninke People
Originating in the 4th century AD, Koumbi Saleh was the creation of the Soninke, renowned for their agricultural and trading prowess. They developed an extensive web of trade pathways, traversing the savannahs and forests of West Africa, and connecting them with the vibrant markets of North Africa and the Mediterranean realm. These routes enabled the Soninke to engage in the lucrative trade of gold, salt, ivory, and other precious commodities, rapidly accumulating wealth and influence.
As the Ghana Empire’s nucleus for trade and governance, Koumbi Saleh was a bustling centre attracting traders, intellectuals, and explorers from far and wide. The city was celebrated for its affluence and cultural refinement, featuring orderly streets, intricate architecture, and an advanced political system. Its varied populace comprised Soninke locals, Arab and Berber merchants, and others, fostering a rich confluence of cultures and ideologies.
The Soninke’s critical influence was instrumental in both the ascent and decline of the Ghana Empire. Their enduring impact is evident in contemporary West Africa, with countries like Mali and Senegal hosting substantial Soninke communities who preserve their ancestral customs and heritage.
Arabic Sources of Koumbi Saleh
The first known reference to Ghana comes from Persian astronomer Ibrahim al-Fazari, writing in the late 8th century, who described it as “the territory of Ghana, the land of gold”. Situated in the Sahel, north of the West African gold fields, the Ghana Empire prospered by controlling the trans-Saharan gold trade. While the empire’s early history remains largely enigmatic, there is evidence suggesting North Africa began importing gold from West Africa even before the Arab conquest in the mid-7th century.
Medieval Arabic texts often use “Ghana” to denote either a royal title, a capital city, or a kingdom. The first mention of Ghana as a city appears in the writings of al-Khuwarizmi, who passed away around 846 AD. Two centuries later, al-Bakri, in his Book of Routes and Realms, around 1068, offers a detailed description of the city. Al-Bakri, who gathered his information from earlier works and sources in his native Spain, describes Ghana as comprising two towns on a plain. One, inhabited by Muslims, features twelve mosques, including a grand one for Friday prayers. The region is noted for its wells of sweet water used for drinking and cultivation. The king’s town, Al-Ghāba, lies six miles away, marked by stone and acacia wood houses, a palatial complex, and a mosque near the royal court.
The early Arab accounts, while rich in detail, are insufficient to precisely locate the town. Inconsistencies in the sources, such as al-Idrisi’s descriptions, have led to speculation about the capital’s relocation to the Niger River. The 17th-century African chronicles, Tarikh al-fattash and Tarikh al-Sudan, mention predecessors to the Malian Empire, like the Kayamagna dynasty and the Qayamagha dynasty, with capitals named Koumbi and Ghana, respectively.
In the 1913 French translation of the Tarikh al-fattash by Octave Houdas and Maurice Delafosse, a footnote mentions local traditions suggesting Kayamagna’s first capital was Koumbi, located in Mali’s Ouagadou region.
The Soninke Wangara, meanwhile, traded salt for Bambuk gold, keeping the gold’s origin secret from Muslim traders. The king levied taxes on salt imports and exports, monopolizing the gold nuggets. Muslim secretaries recorded the taxable trade. However, by the 12th century, the development of the Bure goldfields diminished Ghana’s control over the gold trade. Scholars suggest that factors like Islamization, desertification, and civil strife, coupled with economic pursuits, led to the migration of Soninke farmers and traders southwards and westwards in the early 13th century, marking the empire’s decline.
Koumbi Saleh, the home of salt & gold
In the heart of the Ghana Empire, Koumbi Saleh thrived as a beacon of prosperity, largely thanks to its abundant gold resources. The empire, rich in gold deposits, oversaw the extraction and trade of this valued metal across West Africa.
Gold, sourced primarily from what is now Ghana, was brought to Koumbi Saleh, where it was traded with Arab and Berber merchants. Subsequently, it journeyed northwards, crossing the Sahara to reach North Africa and the Mediterranean, thereby cementing Koumbi Saleh’s reputation as a treasure centre.
Besides gold, salt was a key trade commodity in Koumbi Saleh. Situated near the vast Taghaza salt mines in today’s Mali, the city benefitted from being a primary trade hub for this essential mineral. The Tuareg people, who mined the salt, brought it to Koumbi Saleh, exchanging it for gold, textiles, and various goods.
Beyond mining and trading, Koumbi Saleh was a hub of agricultural activity. The city’s farmers cultivated millet, sorghum, and rice, leveraging the fertile soils and steady water supply on the Sahel’s fringe. These agricultural products were traded throughout West Africa, adding to the city’s dynamic economy and supporting its populace.
Koumbi Saleh stood as a symbol of affluence and vitality, its success underpinned by its pivotal role in the trans-Saharan trade network, its dominion over gold and salt trades, and a flourishing agricultural sector.
Islamic Influence in Koumbi Saleh
While Koumbi Saleh wasn’t strictly a Muslim state, it significantly integrated Islamic influences, leaving a lasting impact on the region’s historical tapestry.
Arab and Berber traders, journeying across the Sahara Desert, introduced Islam to Koumbi Saleh, facilitating its spread throughout the Ghana Empire. Many of the city’s leaders embraced Islam, and by the 11th century, it had emerged as the predominant religion in Koumbi Saleh and its surrounding areas.
The city became a nexus for Muslim intellectuals, merchants, and religious figures, drawing individuals from across the Islamic world. Constructed in the 9th century, the Great Mosque stood as a focal point of religious activities. It also served as an educational hub, hosting esteemed Muslim scholars and educators. The mosque, a site for pilgrimage, drew Muslims from various parts of West Africa and beyond.
Beyond the Great Mosque, Koumbi Saleh boasted numerous Islamic institutions, including madrasas (educational institutions), libraries, and religious centres. These institutions not only underscored the city’s affluence and influence but also played a crucial role in disseminating Islamic knowledge and culture throughout the region, significantly shaping the evolution of Islam in West Africa.
Decline of Koumbi Saleh
The abandonment of Koumbi Saleh remains a subject of speculation among historians and archaeologists, who have suggested multiple theories to explain this enigma. One theory posits that the region may have suffered from a severe drought or an environmental catastrophe, rendering it uninhabitable for its residents. Another hypothesis is that the city fell to invading forces, such as the Muslim Almoravids, who exerted their influence and irrevocably altered the region’s dynamics.
The diminishing importance of the trans-Saharan trade routes is also believed to have contributed to the city’s decline. With the redirection of trade towards coastal areas and the shifting economic landscape of West Africa, Koumbi Saleh’s role as a commercial nexus likely diminished, leading to its gradual abandonment.
The Almoravids, originating from North Africa, are often cited as having a significant impact on the city’s fate. Their military campaigns overwhelmed Koumbi Saleh and other cities within the empire, hastening its decline. Their conquest of the city brought about changes in religious practices and regional control.
Ultimately, Koumbi Saleh’s fall can be attributed to a mix of internal and external factors, including political upheaval, environmental challenges, a downturn in the gold trade, and the Almoravid invasion. This marked a pivotal shift for the Ghana Empire, which gradually lost its influence over West Africa.
While the precise reasons for the city’s desertion continue to be debated among scholars, one aspect remains undisputed: Koumbi Saleh had ceased to be a viable habitat for its inhabitants.
Legacy of Koumbi Saleh
Despite the fall of Koumbi Saleh, its historical narrative is still unfolding. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, there are active initiatives in place aimed at conserving and safeguarding this significant location for posterity.
Archaeological excavations are ongoing, steadily revealing relics that shed light on the city’s commercial, governmental, and spiritual aspects. These discoveries help piece together the story of a once-magnificent empire that met its demise due to various unfortunate circumstances. Presently, the ruins of Koumbi Saleh stand as a testament to the empire’s illustrious heritage.
Albert Bonnel de Mézières was the first to report the extensive ruins of Koumbi Saleh in 1914. The site is located in southern Mauritania’s Sahel region, about 30 km north of Mali’s border, 57 km south-southeast of Timbédra, and 98 km northwest of Nara in Mali. Characterized by sparse grass, thorny bushes, and occasional acacia trees, the area transforms slightly in the wet season (July–September) when limited rainfall fills several depressions, but remains arid for the rest of the year with no surface water.
Since Bonnel de Mézières’ initial exploration in 1914, various French archaeological teams have excavated the site. Notable excavations were conducted by Paul Thomassey and Raymond Mauny between 1949 and 1951, by Serge Robert in 1975-76, and by Sophie Berthier in 1980–81.
The town’s main area was situated on a hill, now about 15 m above the plain, its height augmented by the accumulation of ruins. Buildings, made of local schist and banco instead of mortar, likely had multiple storeys, inferred from the debris volume. Narrow rooms were a necessity, given the lack of large trees for long ceiling supports. The town featured densely packed houses divided by narrow streets, and in contrast, it had a broad, east-west avenue, possibly up to 12 m wide, with a marketplace at its western end. Centrally located on this avenue was the main mosque, measuring roughly 46 m by 23 m, with an east-facing mihrab.
The town’s upper section covered 700 m by 700 m, and to the southwest, a lower area (500 m by 700 m) likely housed less permanent structures. Two large cemeteries outside the town indicate long-term occupation. Radiocarbon dating from a house near the mosque suggests dates ranging from the late 5th to the 14th centuries. Raymond Mauny estimated the population between 15,000 and 20,000, a remarkable figure considering the limited water supply.
Koumbi Saleh, the Ghana Empire’s capital, offers insights into early West African urbanization. The city, possibly founded or expanded in the 8th century AD, was a key centre in a vast Saharan trade network, dealing in gold, iron, salt, and other commodities. Recent estimates suggest a possible foundation period as early as the 2nd to 1st century BCE.
The city was divided into two main areas: a royal palace and a commercial district, with the palace on a raised platform surrounded by a moat, and a large central market in the commercial district. The urban layout, influenced by Islamic planning principles, featured mosques and streets oriented towards Mecca.
Excavations have revealed a mosque, palace complex, and numerous residential and commercial structures, underscoring Koumbi Saleh’s role in major trade networks. Findings include Islamic coins, ceramics, and glassware, indicating extensive trade with Islamic regions such as North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. These coins, minted as far as Baghdad, highlight the vast trade networks of West Africa.
The site, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, continues to provide insights into the Ghana Empire’s structures. Despite no unequivocal inscription linking the ruins to the Muslim capital described by al-Bakri and the absence of Al-Ghaba’s ruins, some historians still debate Koumbi Saleh’s identification as the Ghana Empire’s capital.
- “Koumbi Saleh: The Rise and Fall of the Ancient Ghana Empire” at Ancient Origins. Available at: Ancient Origins.
- Wikipedia’s detailed entry on “Koumbi Saleh,” discussing its role as the capital of the Ghana Empire and its importance in the trans-Saharan gold trade. The entry can be accessed at: Wikipedia.
- Encyclopaedia Britannica’s overview of “Kumbi,” providing concise historical context. This source is available at: Britannica.