10 famous and powerful African kingdoms, empires, and civilizations

10 famous and powerful African kingdoms, empires, and civilizations

Africa has a rich, complex, and exciting history. The continent is said to be the root of human civilizations. It had many kingdoms and empires spread across various countries. Most, if not all, have declined. Today, the continent is divided into 54 countries.

african empires
African empires. Photo: pexels.com, @Porapak Apichodilok
Source: UGC

Various African kingdoms and political dynasties are known. Before civilization, people lived in a state of nature with no rules or development. The three top African civilizations were Egypt, The Kingdom of Kush, and The Kingdom of Axum.

Famous and powerful African kingdoms, empires, and civilizations

Below are key facts about famous African empires or kingdoms and civilizations that you should know in 2023.

1. The Aksumite Empire

The Aksumite Empire is also known as the Kingdom of Aksum or Axum. It was one of the East African kingdoms, and its existence dates back to 100 CE to 960 CE.

The empire is spread across modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Aksumites played a vital role in establishing commercial trading routes between ancient India and the Romans.

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Besides, its climate, rainfall patterns, and fertile soil made the area ideal for crop and animal agriculture. Gold and ivory were the most valuable export commodities.

The empire was considered one of the four great powers during its time, alongside Persia, Rome, and China. It controlled Northern Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Southern Egypt, Southern Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Djibouti.

During the pre-Christian time, people put up several stelae to act as monuments. The Obelisk of Axum monument in Ethiopia is approximately 1700 years old.

Over time, many Aksumites converted to Christianity and eventually formed Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church. Today, the empire is believed to be the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. Did you know that Aksum was the first African kingdom to mint its coins in gold, silver, and bronze?

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Aksumite civilization ruins, Ancient monolith stone obelisks behind the Church of Our Lady of Zion, the symbol of the Aksum, Ethiopia. Photo: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

2. Ghana Empire

Ghana Empire was spread out across parts of modern Senegal, Mauritania, and Mali. The empire existed between 700 CE – 1240 CE.

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It was commonly known as Wagadou or Awkar and was a crucial stop along the trans-Saharan trade route. The empire was home to between 15,000 and 20,000 people.

One of its biggest challenges in this empire was water shortage. Despite this, it was known as the Land of Gold. Trade in the kingdom was facilitated by the abundance of iron, copper, gold, and ivory.

People from this empire specialized in trading gold and kola nuts. Easy access to the Niger and Senegal Rivers and their tributaries promoted trade.

The kingdom had large organized armies and a well-laid-out method of taxation and administration. The empire's power and popularity mainly came from gold mining.

3. The Mali Empire

The Mali Empire is spread across parts of modern Guinea, Ivory Coast, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal, and Mauritania. The empire existed in these nations between the 13th and 17th centuries.

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The kingdom was established by King Sundiata Keita, known as the “Lion King”. It brought wealth, culture, and the Islamic faith to West Africa.

The empire was protected by a well-trained imperial army. It benefitted from being in the middle of trade routes. Its people mined gold and had gigantic salt deposits.

Its height of strength was seen during the reign of Mansa Musa I. He ensured territorial expansion and cultural advancements, particularly in architecture. He also established Islamic learning centers.

As a result, many West African civilizations are linked to this kingdom. When Mansa Musa died around 1337, the empire's influence started declining. Poor leadership led to its ultimate decline in power and influence.

4. The Songhai Empire

The Songhai Empire is home to some of the ancient African civilizations. Its people settled on the banks of the middle Niger River. They established a state in the 15th century.

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The empire unified a large section of western Sudan and developed into a brilliant civilization. It covered parts of present-day Benin, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Niger, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, The Gambia, Senegal, Mali, and Mauritania.

The royal family of Sonni ran it from the 13th to the late 15th century. Its capital was Gao, a city surrounded by a wall. Kola nuts, gold, ivory, slaves, spices, palm oil and precious woods were traded for salt, cloth, arms, horses and copper.

The Songhai had an elaborate and well-equipped defence system that was a political instrument and an economic weapon. People paid taxes to the king in return for internal and external security.

5. The Kingdom of Zimbabwe

The Kingdom of Zimbabwe is also known as Great Zimbabwe. It got its name from the stone ruins of an ancient city near modern-day Masvingo in Zimbabwe. Did you know Great Zimbabwe is the largest stone structure in pre-colonial Southern Africa?

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Great Zimbabwe was part of a wealthy global trading network. Historians have found pottery from China and Persia and Arab coins in the ruins.

Elite Shona people controlled trade. However, the urban empire was largely abandoned by the 15th century as the Shona people migrated elsewhere. They migrated due to the exhaustion of resources and overpopulation.

In 1986, the Great Zimbabwe ruins were designated a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site.

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Great Zimbabwe ruins in Masvingo area, Zimbabwe. Photo: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

6. The Kingdom of Mutapa

The Kingdom of Mutapa is also known as Matapa, Mwenemutapa, or Monomotapa. This empire was based in the north of modern Zimbabwe along the Zambezi River.

It covered parts of present-day South Africa, Lesotho, Zambia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Swaziland. It flourished between the mid-15th and mid-17th century CE. It prospered due to its local resources, i.e., gold and ivory.

Its people traded with Muslim merchants on the coast of East Africa and then with the Portuguese during the 16th century CE. Civil wars and the Portuguese conquest weakened and caused the death of this territory in 1633 CE.

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7. The Ethiopian Empire

The Ethiopian Empire is also known as the Abyssinia. It was established in the 12th century and lasted until 1974, and it covered what is now the northern half of Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian Empire is one of the longest-running African empires. It started as the Zagwe dynasty. Later the dynasty was overthrown by a king purporting to be a descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

Most of Ethiopia’s modern history occurred during the reign of The Ethiopian Empire. In the early 15th century, the empire made diplomatic contact with European kingdoms.

The diplomatic ties helped it avoid invasion. The kingdom successfully resisted Italian colonization in the 19th century.

Which African empire was the oldest?
Which African empire was the oldest? Photo: pexels.com, @Quang Nguyen Vinh
Source: UGC

8. The Kingdom of Kongo

The Kingdom of Kongo was a big kingdom in the western part of central Africa. It was named after KiKongo-speaking people.

The kingdom was founded in 1390 CE through the political alliance between Nima a Nzima and Luqueni Luansanze. Most of the early territorial expansion of the kingdom was done via voluntary agreements with smaller neighboring communities.

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This kingdom cut across parts of today's Angola, the Republic of Congo, and Gabon. It was overseen by a Kikongo warrior named Luken Lua Nimi.

Luken Lua Nimi's political and military prowess was highly recognized as he dominated central Africa. His people traded copper, ivory, textiles, and pottery. Its decline was caused by scheming nobles, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and feuding royal factions.

9. The Kingdom of Benin

The Kingdom of Benin prospered from the 1200s to the 1800s C.E. It was based in western Africa, in present-day Nigeria.

The kingdom reached its peak under Oba Ewuare the Great. This leader expanded the kingdom and improved the capital. It was under his tenure that present-day Benin City, a city defined by massive walls, was built.

Artisans from this community were known for sculping plaques from wood and ivory. They traded with the Portuguese, who wanted the kingdom’s artwork, ivory, gold, and pepper. The Portuguese were also involved in slave trade.

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The Kingdom of Benin started losing power during the 1800s. This was after royal family members fought for power and control of the throne. The situation was aggravated by civil wars.

What is the oldest civilization in Africa?
What is the oldest civilization in Africa? Photo: pexels.com, @David McEachan
Source: UGC

10. The Kingdom of Kush

The Kingdom of Kush is an African kingdom also known as the Kushite Empire or Kush. Kush is often referred to as Nubia.

Kush was located in Northeast Africa, south of ancient Egypt. The primary urban areas of this empire were situated along the Nile River, the White Nile River, and the Blue Nile River.

This empire stood as a regional and robust power in Africa for more than a thousand years. Its people traded in iron, slaves, gold, feathers, incense, animal hides, and ivory. People built pyramids and worshipped Egyptian gods. They also mummified the dead.

Famous and powerful African kingdoms
Photo: canva.com (modified by author)
Source: UGC

What were the major empires in Africa?

There were multiple empires in Africa. Some of the major ones were the Aksumite, Kongo, Kush, Mali, Ghana, Songhai, Mutapa, Ethiopian, and Benin empires.

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What is the most famous African civilization?

Some of the most famous African civilizations are the Aksumite, Kongo, Kush, Mali, Ghana, Songhai, Mutapa, Ethiopian, and Benin kingdoms.

What were the major ancient civilizations of Africa?

The major ancient civilizations of Africa included the kingdoms of Zimbabwe, Aksumite, Benin, Kongo, Kush, Mali, Ghana, Mutapa, Ethiopian, and Songhai.

What is the biggest kingdom in Africa?

Songhai was arguably the largest of the indigenous empires in Africa.

How many kingdoms are there in Africa?

There were numerous African kingdoms in the past. Today, the continent is divided into 54 countries.

What are the names of the African kingdoms?

Each African kingdom had a unique name. Examples are Zimbabwe, Songhai, Aksumite, Ethiopian, Benin, Mali, Kongo, Kush, Ghana, and Mutapa.

What is the oldest civilization in Africa?

Egypt was the first African nation to experience civilization.

Which African empire was the oldest?

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The earliest kingdom in Africa was ancient Egypt.

Without African civilizations, the continent would not be as is today. Ancient Africans established kingdoms that changed the history of their communities.

Briefly.co.za recently published a list of the most powerful countries in Africa in 2023 according to the Global Fire Power Index report. The most powerful country on the continent has the strongest military.

The Global Firepower score uses over 50 factors, including the military's defence budget, logistical capability, and geographical location, to determine a nation's PowerIndex score. Strong political influence, economic stability, and solid international alliances are crucial factors for determining a nation's power.

Source: Briefly News

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Ruth Gitonga (Lifestyle writer) Ruth Gitonga has a background experience in Mass Communication for over six years. She graduated from the University of Nairobi with a degree in Mass Communication in December 2014. In 2023, Ruth finished the AFP course on Digital Investigation Techniques. She has worked for Briefly.co.za for five years now. She specializes in topics like lifestyle, entertainment, travel, technology, and sports. Email: gitongaruth14@gmail.com.

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Cyprine Apindi (Lifestyle writer) Cyprine Apindi is a content creator and educator with over six years of experience. She holds a Diploma in Mass Communication and a Bachelor’s degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from Kenyatta University. Cyprine joined Briefly.co.za in mid-2021, covering multiple topics, including finance, entertainment, sports, and lifestyle. In 2023, she finished the AFP course on Digital Investigation Techniques. She received the 2023 Writer of the Year Award. In 2024, she completed the Google News Initiative course. Email: cyprineapindi@gmail.com