Kingdom of Ghana

Primary Source Documents

The following description of the Kingdom of Ghana was written by Al-Bakri, a member of a prominent Spanish Arab family who lived during the 11th century.

The city of Ghana consists of two towns situated on a plain. One of these towns, which is inhabited by Muslims, is large and possesses twelve mosques, in which they assemble for the Friday prayer. There are salaried imams and muezzins, as well as jurists and scholars. In the environs are wells with sweet water, from which they drink and with which they grow vegetables. The king’s town is six miles distant from this one…

Between these two towns are continuous habitations. …In the king’s town, and not far from his court of justice, is a mosque where the Muslims who arrive at his court pray. Around the king’s town are domed buildings and groves and thickets where the sorcerers of these people, men in charge of the religious cult, live. In them too are their idols and the tombs of their kings. These woods are guarded and none may enter them and know what is there…. The king’s interpreters, the official in charge of his treasury and the majority of his ministers are Muslims. Among the people who follow the king’s religion only he and his heir apparent (who is the son of his sister) may wear sewn clothes. All other people wear robes of cotton, silk, or brocade, according o their means. All of them shave their beards, and women shave their heads. The king adorns himself like a woman (wearing necklaces) round his neck and (bracelets) on his forearms, and he puts on a high cap decorated with gold and wrapped in a turban of fine cotton. He sits in audience or to hear grievances against officials in a domed pavilion around which stand ten horses covered with gold-embroidered materials. Behind the king stand ten pages holding shields and swords decorated with gold, and on his right are the sons of the (vassel) kings of his country wearing splendid garments and their hair plaited with gold. The governor of the city sits on the ground before the king and around him are ministers seated likewise. At the door of the pavilion are dogs of excellent pedigree who hardly ever leave the place where the king is, guarding him. Round their necks they wear collars of gold and silver studded with a number of balls of the same metals. The audience is announced by the beating of a drum which they call duba made from a long hollow log. When the people who profess the same
religion as the king approach him they fall on their knees and sprinkle dust on their head, for this is their way of greeting him. As for the Muslims, they greet him only by clapping their hands….

Their religion is paganism and the worship of idols….

On every donkey-load of salt when it is brought into the country their king levies one golden dinar and two dinars when it is sent out. … The best gold is found in his land comes from the town of Ghiyaru, which is eighteen days’ traveling distance from the king’s town over a country inhabited by tribes of the Sudan whose dwellings are continuous…

The king of Ghana when he calls up his army, can put 200,000 men into the field, more than 40,000 of them archers.

Questions:

  1. What can you tell about religion in Ghana?
  2. What was the basis of Ghana’s wealth?
  3. Is there any example of ethnocentrism in this account?

Selected by Dorian Bowman, Winsor School

Al-Bakri, The Book of Routes and Realms, cited in Levitzion and

Hopkins, Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History, (Cambridge University Press, 1981) pp. 79-81.

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