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Askia Mohammed I of Songhai (ruled 1493-1529, died in 1538 AD)

Emperor of the Songhai Empire of West Africa

Sonni Baru Dao, ruler of the Songhai Empire, was also a follower of a traditional African religion and rejected all attempts to convert him to Islam by Muslims in his empire. After several weeks of negotiations and no conversion, the Muslims resorted to battle. Backed by a large section of the army, the Muslims triumphed in April 1493. This brought Mohammed Touré, a former general, to lead the empire. He took the title 'Askia' and all those who followed him took the same dynastic title. A devout Muslim, Askia Mohammed I made a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1496. One thousand infantry and a cavalry detachment of 500 horsemen accompanied him. He also took 300,000 gold pieces. In Mecca, Askia met the Caliph of Egypt, the Pope of the Islamic church. Askia requested that the Caliph appoint him as his religious representative in West Africa. The Caliph agreed. Askia Mohammed returned to Gao in 1497, with a new title. He was now the Caliph of the Western Sudan, spiritual ruler of all the West African Muslims.

The empire Askia inherited from the Sonni Dynasty was already massive, yet he expanded north, east and west by conquest. Ultimately it would cover an area about the same size as all of Europe. By 1514 his armies captured the Hausa Confederation of northern Nigeria. Next to capitulate was the city of Agades in Niger, and finally the regions to the far west of the empire around the Atlantic. As the kingdom grew into an empire, Askia Mohammed I came up with new methods of government, establishing a strongly centralised administration. Among the most important posts were the Minister of Treasury, the Minister of Tax Collection, the Minister of the Army and Navy, and the Minister of Trade and Industry. In some territories, the Askia allowed the regional kings to rule as they had before, just as long as they paid tribute. In other territories, the Askia created a parallel post to the local governor called the mondyo (i.e. inspector), who formed the official link to the imperial Songhai government. Askia Mohammed I died in 1538 and was buried in a Step Pyramid at Gao. He is fondly remembered as Askia the Great.

Mansa Musa I ascended the throne of Mali in 1312 AD. He was, perhaps, the most colourful personality in West African history. Of this monarch, Dr DeGraft-Johnson, a Ghanaian historian, wrote that: "It was in 1324 … that the world awoke to the splendour and grandeur of Mali. There across the African desert, and making its way to Mecca, was a caravan of a size which had never before been seen, a caravan consisting of 60,000 men. They were Mansa Musa's men, and Mansa Musa was with them. He was not going to war: he was merely going to worship at Mecca. The huge caravan included a personal retinue of 12,000 slaves, all dressed in brocade and Persian silk. Mansa Musa himself rode on horseback, and directly preceding him were 500 slaves, each carrying a staff of gold weighing about six pounds (500 mitkal). Then came Mansa Musa's baggage-train of eighty camels, each carrying 300 pounds (three kantar) weight of gold dust. This imposing caravan made its way from Niani on the Upper Niger to Walata, then to Tuat, and then on to Cairo. Mansa Musa's piety and open-handed generosity, the fine clothes and good behaviour of his followers, all quickly made a good impression. One might have thought that a pilgrimage to Mecca undertaken with such pomp and ceremony would have ulterior political motives, but no such motives have ever been adduced." In Egypt, Musa spent so much money in gold that he devastated that nation's economy. "

During his return journey from Mecca, Musa heard news that his army captured Gao in 1325. Sagmandia, one of his generals, led the victorious invasion. The captured city of Gao was a great prize. Al-Idrissi, the distinguished author mentioned earlier, described it as a "populous, unwalled, commercial and industrial town, in which were to be found the produce of all arts and trades necessary for its inhabitants". Tim Insoll from St. John's College, Cambridge University, carried out important excavations in Gao. Some of his finds were on display at the British Museum at the time of one of our visits. Particularly intriguing was an exhibit entitled: "Fragments of alabaster window surrounds and a piece of pink window glass, Gao 10th - 14th century." Musa made a detour and visited the captured metropolis. In this city, he received the two sons of the Gao king as hostages, Ali Kolon and Suleiman Nar. He returned to Niani with the two boys and later educated them at his court.

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Q: How did Mansa Musa Sonni Ali and Aski Muhammad change their kingdoms?
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