Africa is the cradle of human civilization. While many people know about Alexander the Great, Ghengis Khan, the Romans, and the Persians, not enough people (besides us history buffs) know about the great empires, kingdoms, and sultanates of Africa. Some of the most brilliant military leaders, reformers, and advanced social systems have come out of Africa over the centuries. And other monarchies and lineages stood unbroken for 1,000 years or were never able to be colonized (Ethiopia). Here are 15 of the greatest African empires.
1) Zulu Kingdom
One of the greater kingdoms of southern Africa, the Zulu Kingdom encompassed much of what is now KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Some may have heard of Shaka Zulu, the prominent leader of the Zulus born in 1787. A brilliant tactician, he instituted many military, social, cultural, and political reforms before eventually losing his grip on his people and mind. He was assassinated in 1828. By the 1870s, British forces fought a war with the Zulus and won, despite early losses.
2) Kingdom of Kongo
Existing as an independent and powerful kingdom for almost 500 years, the Kingdom of Kongo stretched from northern Angola to Gabon, encompassing much of the Atlantic coast in west-central Africa and influenced nearby inland groups. The Kongo had a highly structured army that, at times, was up to 70,000 strong. Their political and economic structures were complex and their currency was made from shells known as nzimbu.
3) Axumite Empire
The Axumite Empire existed for nearly 1,000 years (from shortly after the birth of Christ to 940 AD). At the crossroads of many transcontinental trade routes, Axum controlled what is now Eritrea and northern Ethiopia on the Red Sea Coast. Eventually subjugating parts of Sudan and Arabia, the Axumites created their own alphabet, Ge’ez which is the syllabary of Ethiopia, erected monolithic obelisks which still stand today, and even had a feudal system with slaves.
4) Kingdom of Kush
Coexisting in the later era of Ancient Egypt, the Kingdom of Kush was centered around the Upper Nile, in modern day Sudan, stretching a few hundred miles north and south of the confluence of the Blue and White branches (present-day Khartoum). The Nile in Sudan is littered with ancient temples, pyramids, and tombs. Some scholars have argued that the Kushite culture was one and the same with Egypt, but they do have differences. The Nubian kings/pharaohs were black and even subjugated Egypt for a brief period of time.
5) Songhai Empire
Once the largest empire in West Africa, Songhai peaked in the 1500s and 1600s. Centered around Gao and the Niger River in Mali, the empire grew and absorbed neighboring states, becoming one of the largest Islamic states in Africa. Timbuktu and its environs became the center of not only trade, but learning in the entire region. Culturally, the Songhai had an extensive clan and guild structure, but the empire fell into decline after wars of succession and a Moroccan invasion.
6) Abyssinian Empire
The great Abyssinian or Ethiopian Empire proudly stood from 1137 until 1974, one of the only empires in Africa to last until the late 20th century — many famous rulers included names like Yohannes, Tewodros, Menelik, and Halie Selassie. Most notably, the empire had a strong military that defeated multiple invaders over the centuries including the Italians, leaving Ethiopia with the distinction of the only country in Africa to never fall under colonial influence.
7) Carthaginian Empire
Lasting a millennium, the Carthaginian Empire controlled most of North Africa, and parts of what is now Spain, Italy, and France at various times. Based around the Phoenician city-state of Carthage (present-day Tunis), Carthage was known for perpetually fighting wars. Its most brilliant leader and military mind being Hannibal, known for leading his army including war elephants through Europe and across the Alps in a failed attempt to sack Rome by land.
8) Great Zimbabwe
Great Zimbabwe was created out of the Kingdom of Mapungubwe in the 1200s. The new Kingdom of Zimbabwe built upon the masonic and artistic traditions of Mapungubwe. A three-tiered class system was established as well as taxation, trade, and over 150 “minor zimbabwes.” Eventually falling into decline within a few hundred years, the ruins of Great Zimbabwe were some of the largest stone structures in Africa.
9) Dynastic Egypt
Beginning in 3150 BC with political unification under the first pharaoh, Egypt had the longest and most well known empire in history. Its technological, cultural, linguistic, economic, social, and artistic innovations are without parallel in the course of human history. Volumes have been written about its accomplishments and that of its leaders, we won’t bore you, so look up the rest yourself.
10) Sokoto Caliphate
Founded during the Fulani War in 1809, the Sokoto Caliphate was the most powerful entity in West Africa in the 19th century. Administered as an Islamic Caliphate with smaller vassal emirates paying tribute to the sultan, it was eventually subjugated by the British a century later, however, the Sultan of Sokoto still exists as a position and is revered by millions of Muslims in northern Nigeria.
11) Kingdom of Jolof
From 1549 until 1875, the Kingdom of Jolof (Wolof) was a powerful kingdom in what is now Senegal and Gambia. The Islamic monarchy existed as a confederacy, with smaller states joining under the rule of Jolof and paying tribute. In 1875, the theocratic Imamate of Futa Jallon brought jihad upon its neighbor; the kingdom never recovered and the French took over soon thereafter. C’est la vie. The next time you eat Jollof rice, you can thank this kingdom.
12) Sultante of Darfur
What’s the old adage about not learning from history? Sudan has a myriad of problems we won’t get into here. A fairly large one though, is Darfur. That’s because like (the newly independent) South Sudan, Darfur (literally “realm of the Fur”) was its own sultanate for centuries. Encompassing the Jebel Marrah Mountains straddling the border between Sudan and Chad, the sultanate was abolished by the British (no surprise) and brought into Anglo-Egyptian Sudan in 1916.
13) Kingdom of Dahomey
The Kingdom of Dahomey was possibly the most important power on the Atlantic Coast of West Africa from 1600 – 1900. Dahomey (now known as Benin) was crucial in the slave trade, supplying upwards of 20% of the unfortunate Africans who would be shipped to the New World. The kingdom was highly organized, from trade with Europe to administration and taxes to an orderly military. Known for their corps of female warriors called Amazons, the French finally defeated the last ruler “King Shark Behanzin” in 1894.
14) Ashanti Union
From 1670 until 1902, the Ashanti Union was one of the most modern states in Africa and stretched from its borders with Dahomey (Benin) to what is now the Ivory Coast. One of the most studied empires in Africa, their highly organized military was effective because of excellent strategy and early adoption of European firearms into their ranks. Trade, art, culture, and more all flourished during the Union which became Ghana.
15) Buganda Kingdom
The Buganda Kingdom which was established in the 1300s is one of the rare kingdoms that still exists in Africa (although as a subnational entity). However, the Baganda make up the largest ethnic group of Uganda at 17%. The family unit and male lineage is what dictates social customs. Disestablished by Milton Obote in the 1960s, the re-establishment of the king was implemented in 1993, although sadly, the royal Kasubi Tombs which housed the last four kings were destroyed by arson in 2010.
This article was originally published on November 21, 2014.