Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

The Empires of the Western Sudan: Ghana Empire

Thematic Essays

By Category

By Geographical Region & Time Period
By Department

Ghana (Wagadu), the earliest known empire of the western Sudan, first entered the historical consciousness of North Africa near the end of the eighth century but probably originated long before. The empire's legacy is still celebrated in the name of the Republic of Ghana; apart from this, however, modern-day and ancient Ghana share no direct historical connections. Despite early texts that discuss ancient Ghana, such as The Book of Routes and Kingdoms by the eleventh-century Andalusian geographer Abu cUbayd al-Bakri, it remains very much an enigma. Famous to North Africans as the "Land of Gold," Ghana was said to possess sophisticated methods of administration and taxation, large armies, and a monopoly over notoriously well-concealed gold mines. The king of the Soninke people who founded Ghana never fully embraced Islam, but good relations with Muslim traders were fostered. Ghana's preeminence faded toward the end of the eleventh century, when its power was broken by a long struggle with the Almoravids led by Abdullah ibn Yasin. Ghana subsequently fell to the expanding Soso kingdom.



Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art


The shaded portion indicates the greatest extent of the Ghana empire ca. mid-eleventh century.