Mali's early history was dominated by three famed West African empires – Ghana, Mali (or Manden Kurufa) and Songhai. These empires controlled trans-Saharan trade in gold, salt and other precious commodities and were in touch with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern centres of civilisation. All of the empires arose in the area then known as the western Sudan, a vast region of savannah between the Sahara Desert to the north and the tropical rain forests along the Guinean coast to the south. All were characterised by strong leadership and kin-based societies. None had rigid geopolitical boundaries.
The Ghana Empire, dominated by the Soninke people and centred in the area along the border of the modern states of Mali and Mauritania. The Ghana Empire began possibly as early as the fifth century AD, and was a powerful trading state between circa 700 and 1075. From its capital in Kumbi Saleh on the edge of the desert, the empire expanded throughout southeastern Mauritania, southwestern Mali, and northern Senegal.
Although originally a diverse settlement of agro-pastoralists, the empire was soon dominated by the Soninké, a Mandé speaking people. The Soninké kings never fully adopted Islam, but the empire had good relations with Muslim traders. Nevertheless, the Ghana Empire fell in 1078 as a result of inter-dynastic turmoil and a sweeping change in political structure, likely attributable to Almoravid intervention. Ghana survived in a diminished form until Kumbi Saleh was destroyed in 1203 by a former vassal state, the anti-Muslim Sosso Kingdom, which ultimately controlled the southern portions of the former Ghana Empire.
The Mali Empire later formed on the upper Niger River, and reached the height of power in the 14th century. Under the Mali Empire, the ancient cities of Djenne and Timbuktu were centres of both trade and Islamic learning. The empire later declined as a result of internal intrigue, ultimately being supplanted by the Songhai Empire. The Songhai people originated in current northwestern Nigeria. The Songhai had long been a major power in West Africa subject to the Mali Empire's rule.
In the late 14th century, the Songhai gradually gained independence from the Mali Empire and expanded, ultimately subsuming the entire eastern portion of the Mali Empire. The Songhai Empire's eventual collapse was largely the result of a Moroccan invasion in 1591, under the command of Judar Pasha. The fall of the Songhai Empire marked the end of the region's role as a trading crossroads. Following the establishment of sea routes by the European powers, the trans-Saharan trade routes lost significance.
Late 16th to Late 19th Century
After the collapse of the Songhai Empire, no single state controlled the region. The Moroccan invaders only succeeded in occupying a few portions of the country, and even in those locations where they did attempt to rule, their hold was weak and challenged by rivals. Several small successor kingdoms arose; the most notable in what is now Mali were the Bambara Empire, Kaarta Kingdom, Kenedougou Kingdom, Maasina Empire, Toucouleur Empire and Wassoulou Empire.
The Bambara Empire existed as a centralised state from 1712 to 1861, was based at Ségou (also seen as Segu), and ruled parts of central and southern Mali. It existed until El Hadj Umar Tall, a Toucouleur conqueror swept across West Africa from Futa Tooro. Umar Tall's mujahideen readily defeated the Bambara, seizing Ségou itself on March 10, 1861 and declaring an end to the empire.
A split in the Coulibaly dynasty in Ségou led to the establishment of a second Bambara state, the Kingdom of Kaarta, in what is now western Mali, in 1753. It was defeated in 1854 by Umar Tall, leader of Toucouleur Empire, before his war with Ségou.
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