It’s probably fair to summarize my interest in history with three words: inventors, explorers and empires.
In the savannas of western Africa, south of the Sahara and north of the coastal rain forest, a succession of empires existed from the 8th to the 16th century. The first of them was the Ghanan state, for which the modern state of Ghana is named (despite owning none of the land the old state once ruled). The Ghanan state grew into the Mali empire, which expanded west to the Atlantic and east to the bend in the Niger river, where it came to encompass the trade cities Jenne and Gao, as well as Timbuktu — a name that to me has never meant more than “far, far away” — which was a center for Islamic scholarship. At its height in 1300, it was the second-largest empire in the world, smaller only than the Mongol empire. When unrest at the court screwed up imperial succession, the people of Gao, the Songhai, in 1375 saw fit to rebel against their rulers. They quickly captured Timbuktu, and from there expanded to rule most of the former Mali empire, as well as further territories, eventually exceeding Mali in size.
Timbuktu, Jenne and Gao were all connected to the trans-Saharan trade routes. The empire’s army and bureaucracy fed off the salt and gold trade, although the majority of the population were rural farmers. By the time of the Songhai empire, Gao’s dominion included Taghaza, which up until the 17th century was the principal source of salt for western Africa. But like all empires, the glory days had to end some day: in 1591, in the midst of a civil war, the Sultan of Morocco conquered the empire. He had fewer men, but guns, which the Songhai didn’t. The sultan quickly found that ruling the Savanna from across the desert was an impossible prospect, and the old empire disintegrated.
The rise and fall of empire, especially those that turn up in unlikely places, is endlessly fascinating.