Glimpses of the Kingdom of Ghana in 1067 CE


"Ghana" is a deeply-resonant term in the African historical tradition. Today's west African nation-state of that name is located south of the wealthy and powerful kingdom of Ghana, which flourished between the 6th and 12th centuries over a vast Texas-sized area north of the Senegal and Niger rivers. Supporting a population estimated at 200,000, the kingdom rested on a diverse economic base of gold, farming and international trade. As wealth accumulated, the influence of Ghana expanded over the centuries. By the time described in this doc ment, the sway of the King of Ghana exerted itselffrom the so ther Sahara to the coast of the Atlantic Ocean.

You are about to read translated pieces from the writings of a Muslim Spaniard named Al-Bakir,who travelled through the kingdom in the llth century. These fragments provide a glimpse into this intriguing world. Note certain clues which suggest its grandeur, and its complexity. Prominent wealth abounds, the product of an elaborate bureaucracy which collected taxesfrom trans-Saharan camel caravans trading in gold, salt, silks and jewelry. Sense the dramatic presence of Islam, which prefig res the imminent demise of the Ghanian kingdom and the gradual rise of Muslim authority.


The city of Ghana consists of two towns lying on a plain, one of which is inhabited by Muslims and is large, possessing twelve mosques-one of which is a congregational mosque for Friday prayer; each has its imam, its muezzin and paid reciters of the Quran. The town possesses a large number of juriconsults and learned men.' . . . (1)

The town inhabited by the king is six miles from the Muslim one and is called Al Ghana.... The residence of the king consists of a palace and a number of dome-shaped dwellings, all of them surrounded by a strong enclosure, like a city wall. In the town

... is a mosque, where Musl-lms who come on diplomatic missions to hear the king pray. The town where the king lives is surrounded by domed huts, woods, and copses where priest-magicians live; in these woods also are the religious idols and tombs of the kings. Special guards protect this area and prevent anyone from entering it so that no foreigners know what is inside. Here also are the king's prisons, and if anyone is imprisoned there, nothing more is heard of him....(2)

Ghana is the title of the kings of this people, while the name of their country is Aoukar [Wagadu in surviving traditions, however]. The king who governs them at present ... is called Tenkaminen; he came to the throne in AD 455.... Tenkaminen is the master of a large empire and a formidable power.... The king of Ghana can put two hundred thousand warriors in the field, more than forty thousand being armed with bow and arrow....

When he gives audience to his people, to listen to their complaints and set them to rights, he sits in a pavilion around which stand ten pages holding shields and gold-

mounted swords: and on his right hand are the sons of the princes of his empire, splendidly clad and with gold plaited into their hair. The governor of the city is seated on the ground in front of the king, and all around him are his vizirs in the same position. The gate of. the chamber is guarded by dogs of an excellent breed, who never leave the king's seat: they wear collars of gold and silver, ornamented with the same metals. The beginning of a royal audience is announced by the beating of a kind of drum which they call deba, made of a long piece of hollowed wood. The people gather when they hear this sound....

The king [of Ghana] exacts the right of one dinar of gold on each donkey-load of salt that enters his country, and two dinars of gold on each load of salt that goes out. A load of copper carries a duty of five mitqals and a load of merchandise ten mitqals. The best gold in the country comes from Ghiaru, a town situated eighteen days' journey from the capital [Kumbi] in a country that is densely populated by Negroes and covered with villages. All pieces of native gold found in the mines of the empire belong to the sovereign, although he lets the public have the gold dust that everybody knows about; without this precaution, gold would become so abundant as practically to lose its value.... The Negroes ... known as Nougharmarta are traders, and carry gold dust from Iresni all over the place.....(3)


Sources: 1. Quoted in A.A Boahen, "Kingdoms of West Africa. C.A.D. 500-1600." in The Horizon History of Africa (NY: American Heritage, 1971): 183.

2. From Discription de l'Afrique Septentrionale, trans. De Shane (Paris: Adreien-Maisonneuve, 1964): 328-329.

3. From Basil Davidson, African Civilization Revisited (Trenton: Africa World Press, 1991): 86-87