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Collapse: Why do civilizations fall?
Collapse: Why do civilizations fall?Mali and Songhai

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Mali and Songhai
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Sometimes history seems to repeat itself. The rise and fall of two medieval kingdoms of West Africa is an example of this. Mali and Songhai, as well as the smaller kingdom of Ghana before them, were once great trading kingdoms famous for their gold. Yet despite their greatness, they each declined for similar reasons.

The rise and fall of Mali and Songhai

The empire of Mali, which dated from the early thirteenth century to the late fifteenth century, rose out of what was once the empire of Ghana. Mali had been a state inside of the Ghanaian empire. After Ghana fell because of invading forces and internal disputes, Mali rose to greatness under the leadership of a legendary king named Sundiata, the "Lion King." Later, another great leader named Mansa Musa extended the empire. After his death, however, his sons could not hold the empire together. The smaller states it had conquered broke off, and the empire crumbled.

As Mali's power waned, Songhai asserted its independence and rose to power in the area. Songhai had been an important trade center within Mali's empire, just as Mali had once been ruled by Ghana. Great Songhai kings such as Sunni Ali Ber and Askia Mohammed Toure extended the Songhai kingdom farther than Ghana or Mali had before it and brought an organized system of government to the area. It was the largest and most powerful kingdom in medieval West Africa. The riches of the gold and salt mines drew invaders, though, and in the late sixteenth century a Moroccan army attacked the capital. The Songhai empire, already weakened by internal political struggles, went into decline.

Timbuktu: A pattern of conquest

Looking at the city of Timbuktu, now part of the modern African state of Mali, brings this pattern of turmoil and conquest to light. In medieval times, Timbuktu was a central spot on the trade routes. During the height of ancient Mali, Timbuktu was one of its most important cities. When Mali declined, Timbuktu was taken over by the Songhai. After the decline of the Songhai empire, Timbuktu was briefly occupied by Moroccan forces, then taken over by the Fulani people and later by the French. Timbuktu's history mirrors the rise and decline of civilizations in the area.

How do we know what happened?

How do we know what happened in Mali and Songhai? Like most of what we know about history, the evidence has come from a variety of sources. Arab traders and scholars of the time wrote accounts of these great empires and their important cities, such as Timbuktu. African griots (storytellers) pass on legends of great kings and their battles. Archaeologists are finding evidence at sites such as Timbuktu and Jenne-Jono, another ancient city, that helps to explain how people lived and provide information about dates. All of these methods are helping scholars to understand how these once great African kingdoms rose to power — and why they collapsed.

Is archaeology only about the past, or can it help shed light on the present? Find out more in "History Repeats Itself."

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