Kingdom of Ghana

Primary Source Documents

Writings of Al Bakri (1057)

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. A Muslim geographer, he lived most of his life in Cordova and Almeria, and never left Islamic Spain. He wrote about the Sahara after gathering information from merchants and other visitors. In Roads and Kingdoms (1057), he wrote the following excerpts:

 

On Religion:

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?

Questions developed by Dorian Bowman, Winsor School

 

On Oases

Here is an excerpt about the Oasis town of Awdaghost Awdaghost is a former Berber town in current Mauritiania. It was an important oasis in the Southern end of a the caravan route.

In Awdaghust there is one cathedral mosque and many smaller ones all well attended. In all the mosques there are teachers of the Koran. Around the town are gardens with date palms. Wheat is grown there, by digging with hoes and it is watered with buckets. Only the kings and the rich eat wheat there. The rest of the people eat sorghum. Excellent cucumbers grow there, and there are a few small fig trees and some vines, as well as plantations of henna that produce a large crop. Awdaghust possesses wells with water. Cattle and sheep are so numerous that for a mithqal one may buy 10 rams or more. Honey too is very abundant, brought from the land of the Sudan. The people of Awdaghust enjoy extensive benefits and huge wealth. The market there is at all times full of people, so that owing to the great crowd and the noise of voices it is almost impossible for a man to hear the words of one sitting beside him. Their transactions are in gold, and hey have no silver. There are handsome buildings and fine houses.

 

On Salt and Gold

On every donkey-load of salt when it is brought into the country their king levies one golden dinar, [a coin probably worth about two-weeks’ work for a North African laborer in the eleventh century] and two dinars when it is sent out. From a load of copper the king’s due is five mithqals, [i.e., the weight of five dinars] and from a load of other goods ten mithqals. The best gold found in his land comes from the town of Ghiyaru, which is eighteen days’ traveling distant from the king’s town over a country inhabited by tribes of the Soudan whose
dwellings are continuous. The nuggets found in all the mines of his country are reserved for the king, only this gold dust being left for the people. But for this the people would accumulate gold until it lost its value. The nuggets may weigh from an ounce to a pound. It is related that the king owns a nugget as large as a big stone. The town of Ghiyaru is twelve miles from the [Niger River] and contains
many Muslims.

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.

A longer excerpt of Al-Bakri’s writings can be found here.

 

Writings of Ibn Hawqal (951)

On Salt and the Oasis of Awdaghost

Ibn Hawqal, writing in 951 on trade and the importance of salt. Awdaghost is a former Berber town in current Mauritiania. It was an important oasis in the Southern end of a the caravan route.

The King of Awdaghost maintains relations with the King of Ghana.[The King of] Ghana is the wealthiest king on the face of the earth because of his treasures and stocks of gold extracted in olden times for his predecessors and himself. […] They stand in oppressing need of [the goodwill of] the kings of Awdaghost because of the salt which comes to them from the lands of Islam. They cannot do without this salt, of which one land, in the interior and more remote parts of the land of Sudan, may fetch between 200 and 300 dinars.