Ancient Empires of Sub-Saharan Africa

Ruins of the Aksumite Empire in Eritrea.
Ruins of the Aksumite Empire in Eritrea.

Throughout history, the world has been home to a vast number of cultures and civilizations, ranging from the ancient era to modern times. Some of these societies fill the pages of school history books, while others were relatively small or lacked a formal writing system and therefore have been lost to all but the most diligent archaeologists and historians. Additionally, others were vast empires that ruled over entire continental regions the world over. Sub-Saharan Africa is one of these regions, and is the birthplace of numberous lesser-known, ancient empires.

4. Kingdom of Kerma

The Kingdom of Kerma is one of the longest reigning empires of ancient Sub-Saharan Africa. Researchers believe it was established in approximately 2500 BC and lasted until 1500 BC. The Kingdom of Kerma was centered around the present-day Sudanese city of Kerma, although recent archaeological evidence suggests the empire extended over a much larger area than previously thought. Egyptian records indicate that the Kingdom of Kerma was once in control of both Upper and Lower Nubia. The two empires were considered rivals and the ancient Egyptian Kingdom even built structures throughout the Nile Valley to prevent attacks.

Many residents of the Kingdom of Kerma were dedicated to agricultural production, which was traded by people of higher social class over an extensive network throughout Africa. Archaeologists have discovered a complex administrative system that governed imports from long distances. Additionally, it is believed that the Kingdom of Kerma acted as an intermediary between Central Africa and Egypt, specifically in the trade of luxury goods like gold, ivory, and ebony. Sometime between 1575 BC and 1550 BC, troops from the Kerma Empire invaded the Egyptian Empire, stealing numerous relics. By 1504 BC, Egypt had taken control of a large portion of the Kingdom of Kerma, and eventually the entire empire was considered a province of the Egyptian Empire.

3. Kingdom of Kush

The Kingdom of Kush was established in approximately 785 BC, when the New Kingdom of Egypt fell, leaving the Kush province as an independent nation. Its reign lasted until approximately 350 AD. Many academics believe the empire was a descendant of the Kerma Empire and that its rulers emerged from the Kerma rebels, who persisted against the Egyptian Empire for 200 years after the Kerma Kingdom had become an Egyptian province. Evidence of this relationship includes the burial and religious practices of the Kush royalty, who continued to focus these activities in and around the city of Kerma, which is also the site of numerous memorials to Kush royalty. In other areas of the Kush Empire, people tended to replicate the burial practices of their Kerma predecessors.

The capital of the Kingdom of Kush was first established in Napata, located along the western edge of the Nile River. Today, this city is known as Karima, Sudan. Over the years, the capital was moved to other cities, including Meroe, near the present-day city of Shendi, Sudan. Compared to Napata, Meroe offered the geographic advantage of valuable timber in its surrounding area. Additionally, at that point in its development, the Kingdom of Kush had expanded its trading route beyond the Nile River and its tributaries, and had grown so extensively that merchants were dispatched to the shores of the Red Sea, where they traded goods with Greeks. It was at this point, that the ruling class burial grounds were also moved from Kerma to Meroe.

The Kingdom of Kush had many enemies during its reign, including the Egyptians and Romans. Eventually the empire fell victim to outdated industries and the introduction of Christianity to the area. The empire suffered internal conflict and in its weakened state was conquered by the Aksum, ruler of the Aksumite Empire.

2. Macrobia

The Macrobia Empire is believed to have operated at its peak during the 1st millenium BC. The kingdom was located south of present-day Libya, along the Atlantic coastline, which is an area currently known as Somalia. Most of the information about the people of this kingdom comes from Greek accounts, which refer to the Macrobians as people that lived at the edge of the explored world. These written histories also make reference to the extreme height of Macrobians, as well as their ability to live to an extremely old age (with a recorded average life expectancy of around 120 years).

Greek records also indicate that the Macrobian Empire had a complex system of trade that involved merchants from as far away as modern-day Tunisia. The Macrobians were also known for a steady supply of gold, which eventually caught the attention of the King of Persia. According to the Greek archives, Cambyses (the King of Persia) attempted to reach Macrobia in order to invade, but was hindered by the difficult task of crossing the Sahara Desert. Neither Cambyses nor his troops made it to the empire.

Despite a lack of other written records about the Macrobians, researchers have been able to discover details about their burial and funerary practices. The kingdom practiced mummification, similar to the Egyptians, with an advanced system of embalming. Once the bodies of the deceased were wrapped in a special plaster, the individuals performing the preservation would paint or otherwise decorate the plaster so that it took on the appearance of the deceased individual. Families would then keep the preserved corpse in a hollowed out container in their home for an extended period of time.

1. Aksumite Empire

The Aksumite Empire was founded in approximately 100 AD and grew to become a major trading center for present-day Eritrea and Ethiopia. Additionally, the empire benefited from facilitating trade between India and Rome. During its height, the Aksumite Empire took control of the previously mentioned Kingdom of Kush. As the Islamic Empire took control of a large area surrounding its kingdom, the Aksumite rulers slowly began to lose their power. The Aksumite Empire ended in 940 AD.

The Aksumite culture was relatively advanced and even created its own writing system. It is recognized for great architectural monuments, including large, round discs over royal gravesites. Additionally, the Aksumite Empire was a Christian society, adopting the religion when the king converted in 325 AD.


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