The area around present-day Mali was the home of a hugely wealthy series of West African empires that flourished over the course of more than 800 years. The Ghana Empire lasted from AD 700 to 1000, and was followed by the Mali Empire (around AD 1250 to 1500), which once stretched all the way from the coast of Senegal to Niger. The Songhai Empire (AD 1000–1591) was the last of these little-known, trade-based empires, which at times covered areas larger than Western Europe, and whose wealth was founded on the mining of gold and salt from Saharan mines. Camels carried these natural resources across the desert to cities in North Africa and the Middle East, returning laden with manufactured goods and producing a huge surplus of wealth. One Malian emperor was said to possess a nugget of gold so large you could tether a horse to it! Organised systems of government and Islamic centres of scholarship – the most famous of which was Timbuktu – flourished in the kingdoms of West Africa, but conversely, it was Islam that led to their downfall when the forces of Morocco invaded in 1591.
While the West African kings were trading their way to fame and fortune, a similar process was occurring on Africa’s east coast. As early as the 7th century AD, the coastal areas of modern-day Tanzania, Kenya and Mozambique were home to a chain of vibrant, well-organised city-states, whose inhabitants lived in stone houses, wore fine silks and decorated their gravestones with fine ceramics and glass. Merchants from as far afield as China and India arrived on the East African coast in their magnificent, wooden sailing boats, then set off again with their holds groaning with trade goods, spices, slaves and exotic beasts. The rulers of these city-states were the Swahili sultans – kings and queens who kept a hold on their domains via their control over magical objects and knowledge of secret religious ceremonies. The Swahili sultans were eventually defeated by Portuguese and Omani conquerors, but the rich cultural melting pot they presided over gave rise to the Swahili language, a fusion of African, Arabic and Portuguese words that still thrives in the present day. The Omani sultans who replaced the Swahili rulers made the fabled island of Zanzibar their headquarters, building beautiful palaces and bathhouses and cementing the hold of Islamic culture on the East African coast.