The Songhai Empire: Africa's Forgotten Super State


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On the periphery of the Malian city of Gao, close to the banks of the River Niger, sits an extraordinary pyramid-like structure. Standing 17 meters tall, and reportedly constructed with mud and wood shipped in from Mecca, some 7,000 kilometers away, it is known as the Tomb of Askia. And is believed to be the last resting place of Askia Mohamed I a man who ruled one of Africa’s largest yet less remembered superstates: The Songhai Empire. In this episode, I detail the key events in the meteoric rise and the spectacular demise of this extraordinary empire. And I talk to an expert, professor Mauro Nobili of the Univ of Illinois. His areas of expertise include Mali, Islam, and Arabic manuscripts in West Africa. His published works include Sultan, Caliph, and renewer of the faith Ahmad Lobbo, the Tārīkh al-fattāsh, and the making of an Islamic state in West Africa.

Guest speaker: Prof. Mauro Nobili University of Illinois Urbana Champaign
Guest Bio: I am a historian of pre-colonial and early-colonial West Africa, with a specific interest in the area of the modern Republic of Mali and the town of Timbuktu. My special focus is on Muslim societies of the region and their Arabic manuscript heritage. I conduct research in several collections of Arabic manuscripts from West Africa, stored in public or private libraries in Africa (Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Niger, Ghana, and Ivory Coast), Europe (Denmark and France), and North America (USA). I have worked and published on topics linked to Arabic calligraphies and script styles, Islamic eschatology, genealogies, and the West African chronicle tradition.

My current project is an original study of the Timbuktu chronicle known as the Tārīkh al-fattāsh. The chronicle’s complex genesis and authorship is still shrouded in mystery. Notwithstanding the efforts of several scholars, the major obstacle has been the limited access to the actual manuscripts of the chronicle. My research thus comprises an effort to collect all the available manuscript copies of the Tārīkh al-fattāsh, on the basis of which I am producing an innovative analysis of the text. My study is revealing that the Tārīkh al-fattāsh is a novel chronicle written in the 19th century, and not the effort of three generations of scholars who worked on it starting from the early 16th century and eventually interpolated in the 19th century, as previously advanced by most scholars. This 19th-century Tārīkh al-fattāsh was composed by a substantial rework of a 17th-century anonymous work. The manuscripts available allow for a new, comparative edition of the two texts. My work is re-instating the two works to their historical periods and, by throwing light on the political and ideological motivations that lie under their production, as well as the usage of the chronicle themselves, is contributing to improving our knowledge of the intellectual history of West Africa, from the post-medieval period to the immediate pre-colonial time.

Mauro's selected works: Amazon books
The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Heroes Of A Thousand Battles by MusicLFiles
Free download:
License (CC BY 4.0):
Artist website:
Photo: The Tomb of Askia

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