What to Know About Gao Empire


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The Gao Empire, preceding the Songhai Empire in the Middle Niger region, derived its name from the town of Gao situated at the eastern bend of the Niger River.

It rose to prominence in the 9th century CE, earning a reputation as the most formidable kingdom in West Africa at the time.

Founded in the 7th century, Gao’s strategic location along the Niger River attracted fishermen, making it a prosperous settlement.

It quickly emerged as one of the oldest trading centers in the western African region. This favorable positioning led to Gao becoming the capital of the Songhai Empire in the early 11th century.

Gao thrived as the empire’s seat of power, particularly due to its pivotal role in the trans-Saharan trade of valuable commodities like gold, copper, slaves, and salt.

In 1325, Gao Empire was annexed by the rulers of the Mali kingdom. However, the Songhai Empire regained control of Gao after 40 years, solidifying its influence and authority over the region.

Regrettably, there is a lack of surviving indigenous written records predating the mid-17th century. Therefore, our understanding of Gao Empire early history heavily relies on the accounts of external Arabic geographers who resided in Morocco and Egypt but never personally visited the region.

These article serves as invaluable sources of information that offer insights into the historical significance of Gao Empire and its role in the rise and expansion of the Songhai Empire.

Rise of the Gao Empire

Gao Empire, established in the 7th century on the banks of the Niger River, swiftly transformed into a bustling center for fishing and trade.

Over the course of the eighth to tenth centuries, Gao experienced significant growth, though it remained a kingdom of lesser power compared to the mighty Wagadu Empire.

The city flourished because of its advantageous position on the Niger River, which made it a great place for profitable business.

Gao Empire became an important center for making things, particularly talented artisans who created valuable carnelian beads.

These beads were highly sought after in the Sudan and the West African rainforest, and some of them can be traced back as far as the third century.

We don’t have many written records about the history of Gao before the mid-17th century that were created by the people who lived there.

Instead, our knowledge of Gao’s early history comes from the descriptions provided by Arabic geographers, however, it’s important to note that these geographers didn’t personally visit the region themselves.

These geographers referred to the town by names such as Kawkaw or Kuku, shedding some light on its historical significance.

In the 17th century, there were two important chronicles called the Tarikh al-Sudan and the Tarikh al-Fattash, which provide valuable information about Gao’s position within the Songhai Empire.

However, these chronicles don’t provide clear details about Gao’s earlier history, and they don’t mention the sources they used.

As a result, the accounts of Gao’s earlier periods in these chronicles are probably based on oral traditions and may include contradictory information.

Although the historical sources we have about Gao pose some difficulties, our investigation into its fascinating history enables us to uncover fragments that reveal its prosperous trade, skilled craftsmanship, and its important role in West African history.

By carefully assembling these fragments of information, we can gain a better understanding of Gao’s importance as a bustling center for trade and craftsmanship in ancient times.

Pre-Islamic history

The origins of the Gao Empire can be traced back to a time before the spread of Islam, and the earliest mention of the city can be found in the writings of al-Khwārizmī in the 9th century.

At that point in history, Gao had already established itself as a significant power in the region. According to al-Yaqubi’s Tarikh written around 872, Gao was described as the most powerful kingdom in the Sudan, exerting influence over nearby realms and commanding their loyalty. The city itself was known as Al-Kawkaw and served as the capital of the kingdom.

During this period, Gao played a vital role in trade and connectivity. Ibn al-Faqih, in his writings around 903, mentioned a caravan route that passed through Kawkaw, connecting Egypt to the ancient kingdom of Ghana. This indicates the strategic position of the city along an important trade route.

Around 988, Ibn Hawqal mentioned in his writings that the traditional route from Egypt to Sudan had become unsafe due to bandits and encroaching desert sands. Instead, a safer alternative emerged, leading through Sijilmasa and crossing the Sahara.

By the 10th century, Gao had embraced Islam, and it was described as consisting of two separate towns. According to Al-Muhallabi, who passed away in 990, the king of Gao presented himself as a Muslim to his people, and many residents of the city also followed Islam.

On the eastern bank of the Niger River, there was a town called Sarnāh, known for its vibrant markets and trading houses that attracted visitors from various regions.

The king lived in another town west of the Niger River, along with trusted individuals. While he had his own personal mosque for prayers, the communal prayer ground was situated between the two towns.

These glimpses into Gao’s pre-Islamic and early Islamic history provide valuable insights into its rise as a regional power, its involvement in trans-Saharan trade routes, and the influence of Islam on its culture and society.

By further exploring Gao’s historical narrative, we can uncover more details about its growth, interactions with neighboring realms, and lasting impact on the history of West Africa.

The Gao Empire and the Almoravids

Gao reached its pinnacle of success during the Songhai Empire, as demonstrated by the construction of a magnificent tomb for Emperor Askia Mohamed in 1495.

This remarkable architectural masterpiece showcased Gao’s opulence and its distinctive mud-building style.

Under Emperor Askia Mohamed’s leadership, the Songhai Empire brought unprecedented growth and expansion to Gao. The city became a thriving center of trade and commerce, attracting merchants from near and far.

Gao’s strategic location along the Niger River played a crucial role in its prosperity. The river served as a vital transportation route, facilitating the exchange of goods, ideas, and culture.

As a bustling hub for regional and trans-Saharan trade routes, Gao connected West Africa with the Mediterranean and beyond. Gold, copper, slaves, and salt were among the precious commodities that flowed through the city, fueling its economic growth.

Gao was not only known for its economic prowess but also for its craftsmanship and cultural exchange. Skilled artisans excelled in various trades, including the production of highly prized carnelian beads dating back to the third century. These beads were sought after in the Sudan and West African rainforest regions.

While historical records about Gao are limited, Arabic geographers provided insights into its prominence and power, relying on accounts from travelers and merchants. References to Gao as “Kawkaw” or “Kuku” depict a kingdom that commanded respect and had influence over neighboring realms.

Towards the end of the 13th century, Gao’s independence started to decline as the Mali Empire gradually absorbed it. The fate of the ruling Zuwa dynasty remains a mystery, with little recorded information about their subsequent existence.

However, even under Mali’s rule, Gao retained its significance. The visit of renowned explorer Ibn Battuta in 1353 revealed a vibrant city engaged in flourishing trade and vibrant cultural exchanges.

Also read: The Ancient City Of Kahun

Gao’s enduring legacy can be traced through the struggles and transformations that led to the rise of the Sunni dynasty and the establishment of the formidable Songhai Empire.

Even as Gao’s power diminished, its historical importance remained significant. Today, the archaeological remains of Gao Ancien and Gao-Saney serve as reminders of its illustrious past.

These ancient sites offer valuable insights into the vibrant civilizations that once thrived along the Niger River, shaping the history of West Africa.


In summary, Gao’s remarkable journey from a humble fishing settlement to a powerful kingdom and later a flourishing center of the Songhai Empire highlights its strategic location, economic importance, and cultural vitality.

The story of Gao reveals the interconnected nature of civilizations, the rise and fall of power, and the lasting impact of a city that left an unforgettable imprint on the history of West Africa.

The empire’s prominence and influence were further enhanced by its participation in the trans-Saharan trade, facilitating the exchange of valuable commodities such as gold, copper, slaves, and salt. Gao’s strategic position allowed it to thrive economically and establish itself as a formidable kingdom in the region.

Although the lack of indigenous written records from the early period of the Gao Empire poses challenges to our understanding of its history, the accounts of external Arabic geographers provide valuable insights.

These sources shed light on the historical significance of Gao and its crucial role in the rise and expansion of the Songhai Empire.

By examining these historical records, we gain a deeper appreciation for the complexities and interconnections of ancient African civilizations.

Through further research and exploration, we can continue to uncover more about the Gao Empire, its contributions to the region, and its interactions with other civilizations.

By delving into the past, we not only gain knowledge but also foster a greater understanding and appreciation of the diverse tapestry of human history.





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