7 Influential African Empires (2023)

From ancient Sudan to medieval Zimbabwe, get the facts on seven African kingdoms that made their mark on history.

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1. The Kingdom of Kush

Though often overshadowed by its Egyptian neighbors to the north, the Kingdom of Kush stood as a regional power in Africa for over a thousand years. This ancient Nubian empire reached its peak in the second millennium B.C., when it ruled over a vast swath of territory along the Nile River in what is now Sudan. Almost all that is known about Kush comes from Egyptian sources, which indicate that it was an economic center that operated a lucrative market in ivory, incense, iron and especially gold. The kingdom was both a trading partner and a military rival of Egypt—it even ruled Egypt as the 25th Dynasty—and it adopted many of its neighbor’s customs. The Kushites worshipped some of the Egyptian gods, mummified their dead and built their own types of pyramids. The area surrounding the ancient Kushite capital of Meroe is now home to the ruins of over 200 pyramids—more than in all of Egypt.

2. The Land of Punt

7 Influential African Empires (2)

Few African civilizations are as mysterious as Punt. Historical accounts of the kingdom date to around 2500 B.C., when it appears in Egyptian records as a “Land of the Gods” rich in ebony, gold, myrrh and exotic animals such as apes and leopards. The Egyptians are known to have sent huge caravans and flotillas on trade missions to Punt—most notably during the 15th century B.C. reign of Queen Hatshepsut—yet they never identified where it was located. The site of the fabled kingdom is now a hotly debated topic among scholars. The Arabian Peninsula and the Levant have both been proposed as potential candidates, but most believe it existed somewhere on the Red Sea coast of East Africa. In 2010, a team of researchers tried to zero in on Punt by analyzing a mummified baboon that its rulers once gifted to the Egyptian pharaohs. While their results showed that the remains most closely matched animals found in modern day Ethiopia and Eritrea, the precise location of the Land of Punt has still yet to be confirmed.

3. Carthage

7 Influential African Empires (3)

Best known as ancient Rome’s rival in the Punic Wars, Carthage was a North African commercial hub that flourished for over 500 years. The city-state began its life in the 8th or 9th century B.C. as a Phoenician settlement in what is now Tunisia, but it later grew into a sprawling seafaring empire that dominated trade in textiles, gold, silver and copper. At its peak, its capital city boasted nearly half a million inhabitants and included a protected harbor outfitted with docking bays for 220 ships. Carthage’s influence eventually extended from North Africa to Spain and parts of the Mediterranean, but its thirst for expansion led to increased friction with the burgeoning Roman Republic. Beginning in 264 B.C., the ancient superpowers clashed in the three bloody Punic Wars, the last of which ended in 146 B.C. with the near-total destruction of Carthage. Today, almost all that remains of the once-mighty empire is a series of ruins in the city of Tunis.

4. The Kingdom of Aksum

7 Influential African Empires (4)

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During the same period that the Roman Empire rose and fell, the influential Kingdom of Aksum held sway over parts of what are now Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. Surprisingly little is known about Aksum’s origins, but by the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. it was a trading juggernaut whose gold and ivory made it a vital link between ancient Europe and the Far East. The kingdom had a written script known as Ge’ez—one of the first to emerge in Africa—and it developed a distinctive architectural style that involved the building of massive stone obelisks, some of which stood over 100 feet tall. In the fourth century, Aksum became one of the first empires in the world to adopt Christianity, which led to a political and military alliance with the Byzantines. The empire later went into decline sometime around the 7th or 8th century, but its religious legacy still exists today in the form of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

5. The Mali Empire

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The founding of the Mali Empire dates to the 1200s, when a ruler named Sundiata Keita—sometimes called the “Lion King”—led a revolt against a Sosso king and united his subjects into a new state. Under Keita and his successors, the empire tightened its grip over a large portion of West Africa and grew rich on trade. Its most important cities were Djenné and Timbuktu, both of which were renowned for their elaborate adobe mosques and Islamic schools. One such institution, Timbuktu’s Sankore University, included a library with an estimated 700,000 manuscripts. The Mali Empire eventually disintegrated in the 16th century, but at its peak it was one of the jewels of the African continent and was known the world over for its wealth and luxury. One legendary tale about the kingdom’s riches concerns the ruler Mansa Musa, who made a stopover in Egypt during a 14th century pilgrimage to Mecca. According to contemporary sources, Musa dished out so much gold during the visit that he caused its value to plummet in Egyptian markets for several years.

6. The Songhai Empire

7 Influential African Empires (9)

For sheer size, few states in African history can compare to the Songhai Empire. Formed in the 15th century from some of the former regions of the Mali Empire, this West African kingdom was larger than Western Europe and comprised parts of a dozen modern day nations. The empire enjoyed a period of prosperity thanks to vigorous trade policies and a sophisticated bureaucratic system that separated its vast holdings into different provinces, each ruled by its own governor. It reached its zenith in the early 16th century under the rule of the devout King Muhammad I Askia, who conquered new lands, forged an alliance with Egypt’s Muslim Caliph and established hundreds of Islamic schools in Timbuktu. While the Songhai Empire was once among the most powerful states in the world, it later crumbled in the late 1500s after a period of civil war and internal strife left it open to an invasion by the Sultan of Morocco.

7. The Great Zimbabwe

7 Influential African Empires (10)

One of the most impressive monuments in sub-Saharan Africa is the Great Zimbabwe, an imposing collection of stacked boulders, stone towers and defensive walls assembled from cut granite blocks. The rock citadel has long been the subject of myths and legends—it was once thought to be the residence of the Biblical Queen of Sheba—but historians now know it as the capital city of an indigenous empire that thrived in the region between the 13th and 15th centuries. This kingdom ruled over a large chunk of modern day Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. It was particularly rich in cattle and precious metals, and stood astride a trade route that connected the region’s gold fields with ports on the Indian Ocean coast. Though little is known about its history, the remains of artifacts such as Chinese pottery, Arabian glass and European textiles indicate that it was once a well-connected mercantile center. The fortress city at the Great Zimbabwe was mysteriously abandoned sometime in the 15th century after the kingdom went into decline, but in its heyday it was home to an estimated 20,000 people.

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FAQs

Which African empires were most influential? ›

Three of the World's Most Influential Empires: Ghana, Mali and Songhai.

What were the African empires? ›

In this collection, we examine the big three of the Ghana Empire, Mali Empire, and Songhai Empire as well as the lucrative trade connections they made with West and North Africa.

What was the first African empire? ›

The earliest kingdom in Africa was ancient Egypt. It was also one of the first civilizations in all of human history. The kingdom developed in about 3000 bce in the valley of the Nile River.

What were the 3 main African empires? ›

A succession of three great kingdoms came to power as their people, gained control of valuable trade routes in West Africa. Ghana​ was the first of these empires, followed by the kingdoms of ​Mali​ and ​Songhai​.

What African empire had influence on the Roman empire? ›

A major empire of the ancient world, the kingdom of Aksum arose in Ethiopia during the first century C.E. This wealthy African civilization thrived for centuries, controlling a large territorial state and access to vast trade routes linking the Roman Empire to the Middle East and India.

Who ruled Africa? ›

The principal powers involved in the modern colonisation of Africa are Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain and Italy. In nearly all African countries today, the language used in government and media is the one imposed by a recent colonial power, though most people speak their native African languages.

What is Africa's original name? ›

In Kemetic History of Afrika, Dr cheikh Anah Diop writes, “The ancient name of Africa was Alkebulan. Alkebu-lan “mother of mankind” or “garden of Eden”.” Alkebulan is the oldest and the only word of indigenous origin. It was used by the Moors, Nubians, Numidians, Khart-Haddans (Carthagenians), and Ethiopians.

What was Africa called before? ›

According to experts that research the history of the African continent, the original ancient name of Africa was Alkebulan. This name translates to “mother of mankind,” or “the garden of Eden.” Alkebulan is an extremely old word, and its origins are indigenous.

Who Found Africa? ›

Portuguese explorer Prince Henry, known as the Navigator, was the first European to methodically explore Africa and the oceanic route to the Indies.

How old is Africa? ›

Africa is sometimes nicknamed the "Mother Continent" due to its being the oldest inhabited continent on Earth. Humans and human ancestors have lived in Africa for more than 5 million years.

Who invaded Africa first? ›

The first Europeans to enter Southern Africa were the Portuguese, who from the 15th century edged their way around the African coast in the hope of outflanking Islam, finding a sea route to the riches of India, and discovering additional sources of food.

Where is Africa in the Bible? ›

Egypt and Egyptians as well as Cush and Cushites were always mentioned together in the Old Testament, because they both belong to the African nation. Egypt belonged to the northern part of Africa and to a region of the Ancient Near East.

How many countries are in Africa? ›

There are 54 countries in Africa today, according to the United Nations. The full list is shown in the table below, with current population and subregion (based on the United Nations official statistics).

How many African kingdoms are there? ›

However, only three are currently sovereign, while the remaining are sub-national monarchies.

How many empires were in West Africa? ›

empires in North Africa, three powerful empires flourished in West Africa. These ancient African empires arose in the Sahel, the savanna region just south of the Sahara. They grew strong by controlling trade. In this section you will learn about the West African empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai.

What are the major African civilizations? ›

The civilizations usually include Egypt, Carthage, Axum, Numidia, and Nubia, but may also be extended to the prehistoric Land of Punt and others: Kingdom of Dagbon, the Empire of Ashanti, Kingdom of Kongo, Empire of Mali, Kingdom of Zimbabwe, Songhai Empire, the Garamantes the Empire of Ghana, Bono state, Harla Kingdom ...

What was Africa called in Rome? ›

Old Africa (Africa Vetus), which generally includes the areas mentioned, was also known by the Romans (Pliny) as Africa propria, of which Carthage was its capital. The region remained a part of the Roman Empire until the Germanic migrations of the 5th century.

Why did the African empires fall? ›

With the gradual abolition of slavery in the European colonial empires during the 19th century, slave trade again became less lucrative and the West African empires entered a period of decline, and mostly collapsed by the end of the 19th century.

Who named Africa? ›

All historians agree that it was the Roman use of the term 'Africa' for parts of Tunisia and Northern Algeria which ultimately, almost 2000 years later, gave the continent its name. There is, however, no consensus amongst scholars as to why the Romans decided to call these provinces 'Africa'.

Who was Africa named after? ›

For the 1st-century ACE, Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote the continent was named for Afer, the grandson of Abraham and a companion of Hercules, whose descendants invaded Libya. The Hebrew name for the continent, Auphirah is said to be written as Ophir in many Jewish records.

Who was the first African king? ›

Sundiata Keita was the first ruler of the Mali Empire from 1235 C.E. to 1255 C.E. Sundiata Keita, whose name means Lion Prince, was born early in the 13th century to a noble family within the Malinke people. The Malinke kingdom, Kangaba, was part of the Ghana empire of West Africa.

Who is the greatest empire? ›

1) The British Empire was the largest empire the world has ever seen. The British Empire covered 13.01 million square miles of land - more than 22% of the earth's landmass. The empire had 458 million people in 1938 — more than 20% of the world's population.

Was Egypt a major African empire? ›

Ancient Egypt is arguably the most well-known of Africa's ancient civilizations. It began around 3400 BCE. Originally, there were two Egyptian kingdoms. One was Upper Egypt, which was based in what is now central and southern Egypt, along the Nile River.

What is the Great Zimbabwe known for? ›

Great Zimbabwe was a medieval African city known for its large circular wall and tower. It was part of a wealthy African trading empire that controlled much of the East African coast from the 11th to the 15th centuries C.E.

Who is the highest king in Africa? ›

1. King Mohammed VI, Morocco. The wealthiest monarch in Africa is His Majesty King Mohammed VI of Morocco.

Who ruled the world first? ›

Meet the world's first emperor. King Sargon of Akkad—who legend says was destined to rule—established the world's first empire more than 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia.

What was the first empire? ›

Akkadia was the world's first empire. It was established in Mesopotamia around 4,300 years ago after its ruler, Sargon of Akkad, united a series of independent city states. Akkadian influence spanned along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers from what is now southern Iraq, through to Syria and Turkey.

How many empires are in the world? ›

Much of what we call history consists of the deeds of the 50 to 70 empires that once ruled multiple peoples across large chunks of the globe.

How old is Africa? ›

Africa is sometimes nicknamed the "Mother Continent" due to its being the oldest inhabited continent on Earth. Humans and human ancestors have lived in Africa for more than 5 million years.

Who was the first king in Africa? ›

Sundiata Keita was the first ruler of the Mali Empire in the 13th century C.E. He laid the foundation for a powerful and wealthy African empire and proclaimed the first charter of human rights, the Manden Charter.

Who conquered Africa? ›

By 1900 a significant part of Africa had been colonized by mainly seven European powers—Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, and Italy. After the conquest of African decentralized and centralized states, the European powers set about establishing colonial state systems.

How old is Zimbabwe? ›

The country gained official independence as Zimbabwe on 18 April 1980. The government held independence celebrations in Rufaro stadium in Salisbury, the capital.

Why Zimbabwe became poor? ›

Zimbabwe was once a rising economy in Africa, with its mining and agricultural industries propelling the country forward. However, Zimbabweans now struggle with war, internal corruption, hyperinflation and industrial mismanagement. A closer look at the country provides insight into the context of poverty in Zimbabwe.

Who was the first king of Great Zimbabwe? ›

Around 1430 CE, Prince Nyatsimba Mutota of Great Zimbabwe founded the new Kingdom of Mutapa and established his own royal dynasty. Mutapa grew to eclipse its neighbour, partly due to the internal political instability, famine and the exhaustion of gold mines within Zimbabwe's territories.

Who are the 10 richest African kings? ›

Top 10 Richest Kings In Africa (2022)
RankNameNet Worth
1King Mohammed VI$2.1 billion
2Oba Fedrick Obateru Akinrutan$300 million
3Sultan Sa'adu abubakar III$100 million
4King Mswati III$100 million
6 more rows
8 Jun 2022

Who is the king of Africa now? ›

After a year-long family feud, Misuzulu ka Zwelithini has been crowned Zulu king in a traditional ceremony in South Africa. The 48-year-old is the son of the previous king, but some royals had argued he was not the rightful heir and that the late king's will was in fact forged.

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