Koumbi Saleh

Koumbi Saleh, sometimes Kumbi Saleh is the site of a ruined medieval town in south east Mauritania that may have been the capital of the Ghana Empire.

Site of medieval town in Mauritania
Koumbi Saleh
Site of medieval town

Koumbi Saleh
Location within Mauritania


Country  Mauritania

From the ninth century, Arab authors mention the Ghana Empire in connection with the trans-Saharan gold trade. Al-Bakri who wrote in eleventh century described the capital of Ghana as consisting of two towns 10 kilometres (6 mi) apart, one inhabited by Muslim merchants and the other by the king of Ghana. The discovery in 1913 of a 17th-century African chronicle that gave the name of the capital as Koumbi led French archaeologists to the ruins at Koumbi Saleh. Excavations at the site have revealed the ruins of a large Muslim town with houses built of stone and a congregational mosque but no inscription to unambiguously identify the site as that of capital of Ghana. Ruins of the king’s town described by al-Bakri have not been found. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the site was occupied between the late 9th and 14th centuries.

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The earliest author to mention Ghana is the Persian astronomer Ibrahim al-Fazari who, writing at the end of the eighth century, refers to “the territory of Ghana, the land of gold”.[1] The Ghana Empire lay in the Sahel region to the north of the West African gold fields and was able to profit from controlling the trans-Saharan gold trade. The early history of Ghana is unknown but there is evidence that North Africa had begun importing gold from West Africa before the Arab conquest in the middle of the seventh century.[2]

In the medieval Arabic sources the word “Ghana” can refer to a royal title, the name of a capital city or a kingdom.[3] The earliest reference to Ghana as a town is by al-Khuwarizmi who died in around 846 AD.[4][5] Two centuries later a detailed description of the town is provided by al-Bakri in his Book of Routes and Realms which he completed in around 1068. Al-Bakri never visited the region but obtained his information from earlier writers and from informants that he met in his native Spain:

The city of Ghāna consists of two towns situated on a plain. One of these towns, which is inhabited by Muslims, is large and possesses twelve mosques, in one of which they assemble for Friday prayer. … In the environs are wells with sweet water, from which they drink and with which they grow vegetables. The king’s town is six miles [10 km] distant from this one and bears the name of Al-Ghāba. Between these two towns are continuous habitations. The houses of the inhabitants are of stone and acacia wood. The king has a palace and a number of domed dwellings all surrounded with an enclosure like a city wall. In the king’s town, and not far from his courts of justice, is a mosque where Muslims who arrive in his court pray. Around the king’s town are domed buildings and groves and thickets where the sorcerers of these people, men in charge of the religious cult, live.[6]

The descriptions provided by the early Arab authors lack sufficient detail to pinpoint the exact location of the town. In fact, the sources appear contradictory with al-Idrisi placing the town on both sides of the Niger River.[4][7][8] This has led to the suggestion that at some point the capital may have been moved south to the Niger River.[9] The much later 17th-century African chronicle, the Tarikh al-fattash, states that the Malian Empire was preceded by the Kayamagna dynasty which had a capital at a town called Koumbi.[10] The chronicle does not use the word Ghana. The other important 17th-century chronicle, the Tarikh al-Sudan mentions that the Malian Empire came after the dynasty of Qayamagha which had its capital at the city of Ghana.[11] It is assumed that the “Kayamagna” or “Qayamagha” dynasty ruled the empire of Ghana mentioned in the early Arabic sources.[12]

In the French translation of the Tarikh al-fattash published in 1913, Octave Houdas and Maurice Delafosse include a footnote in which they comment that local tradition also suggested that the first capital of Kayamagna was at Koumbi and that the town was in the Ouagadougou region, northeast of Goumbou on the road leading from Goumbou to Néma and Oualata.[13]

The Soninke Wangara exchanged salt for Bambuk gold, though they kept the source of the gold a secret from Muslim traders, with whom they exchanged the gold for clothing and other Maghrib goods. The king received one dinar of gold for each load of Saharn salt imported from the north, and two for each load exported to the south, keeping each gold nugget for himself. Muslim secretaries were employed to keep records of the taxable trade. Yet, in the 11th and 12th centuries, the Bure goldfields were developed, so that by the end of the 12th century, Ghana no longer dominated the gold trade. The Soninke farmers and traders then settled further south and west in the early 13th century.[14][15]

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