The Ghana Empire began when the Soninke people joined forces to resist the raids of pastoral nomads.
Nomads herding animals in the fringes of the desert, the Sahel, posed a threat to the early Soninke who lived south of the Sahara as agriculturalists. During times of drought, the nomads would raid the villages to the south in search of water and pastures for their herds. To protect themselves from these raids, the communities of African farmers joined forces, possibly to form a loose federation of states that eventually became the kingdom of Ghana.
During the third century A.D., it is probable that a Soninke chief succeeded in uniting the Soninke people (the northernmost Mande peoples) and possibly founded the city of Kumbi Saleh (in present-day western Mali). Kumbi Saleh was an oasis along an important north-south trade route. This chief belonged to the royal clan of Ouagadou, and the Soninke first named their kingdom after this royal family. He was known as the Kaya maghan, "king of the gold," and as Ghana, or "war chief." Over time, the land of the Ouagadou (Wagadu) became known (by the Arabs) as Ghana; they also associated it with gold. Rulers of the state kept extending their borders in order to gain control of the trade routes by conquering neighboring territories. By the fifth century, the Soninke kingdom of Ghana had been established. This kingdom lasted about six centuries before being conquered by new forces from the east.
The Ghana Empire survived and prospered because it was located on major trade routes.
Ghana was well placed to take advantage of trade. It was located midway between the desert, the main source of salt, and the goldfields of the upper Senegal River in the savannah woodlands in the south. Camel caravans crossing the Sahara brought goods such as copper and dried fruit, as well as salt that was mined at Taghaza in present-day northern Mali. The caravans also brought clothing and other manufactured goods, which they exchanged for kola nuts, hides, leather goods, ivory, gold, and slaves. Taxes collected on every trade item entering the kingdom were used to pay for government, a huge army which protected the kingdom's borders and trade routes, and the upkeep of the capital city and major markets. However, it was control of the gold fields in the southwest that was essential to Ghana's political control and economic prosperity. The location of these goldfields was kept strictly secret by the Soninke. By the tenth century, Ghana was an immensely rich and prosperous empire, probably controlling an area the size of Texas or Nigeria in what is now eastern Senegal, southwest Mali, and southern Mauritania. The ruler was acclaimed as the "richest king in the world because of his gold" by Arab traveler Ibn Haukal, who visited the region in about 950 A.D. Demand for gold increased in the ninth and tenth centuries for minting into coins by the Islamic states of North Africa. As the trans-Saharan trade in gold expanded, so did the state of Ghana. The trans-Sahara trade also brought Islam to the empire, initially to the rulers and townspeople.
Locally obtained iron ore was used to make tools, which made agriculture easier and more efficient, and permitted the growth of larger settled communities. Iron-tipped spearheads, lances, knives, and swords gave ancient Soninke soldiers technological superiority over their neighbors who used bone and wood. The Soninke were thus able to capture more farming and grazing land from their weaker, less-organized neighbors. The Soninke were also able to obtain horses from the Saharan nomads with whom they were in contact, which enabled them to move farther and faster.
The Ghana Empire collapsed under the onslaught of invaders from the north and west and because of economic pulls to the east and south.
In the eleventh century, shortly after Ghana reached its zenith, the city of Kumbi Saleh fell to the Berber Almoravids (1076), who swept across the desert from present-day Mauritania in an effort to control the gold trade and to purify Islam, as it was practiced in Ghana. The invaders subsequently withdrew, but the kingdom of Ghana was weakened. Later invasions by the Takrur people from the west (the Senegal valley) and others, together with secessionist movements from many rebellious sub-kingdoms which had previously paid regular tribute to the Ghanaian king, gradually made the trade routes through Ghana too dangerous. As a result, the Muslim merchants moved eastward, and with the loss of trade, the kingdom of Ghana began to crumble. In addition, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Bure goldfields were opened up to the south, also drawing traders further east. A terrible drought further compounded the suffering and accelerated the deterioration of the environment--degradation that was probably accentuated also by overgrazing. By the mid-thirteenth century, the once great empire of Ghana had disintegrated.