Askia Mohammed I (Askia the Great)
Askia the Great made Timbuctoo one of the world's great centers of learning and commerce. The brilliance of the city was such that it still shines in the imagination after three centuries like a star which, though dead, continues to send its light toward us. Such was its splendor that in spite of its many vicissitudes after the death of Askia, the vitality of Timbuctoo is not extinguished.
—Félix Dubois, Tombouctou, la mystérieuse
After Sunni Ali Ber's death, his successor was removed by a coup d'etat. In 1493, one of his commanders, Mohammed Askia, later known as Askia Mohammed I and Askia the Great, mounted the throne.
Askia immediately embarked on the consolidation of the empire left by Sunni Ali Ber. More astute and farsighted than Sunni Ali Ber, he identified Islam's potential to usurp traditional Songhai religion. Askia decidedly courted his Muslim subjects, particularly in Timbuktu, where the clerics and scholars who fled from Sunni Ali Ber had returned. Askia orchestrated a program of expansion and consolidation, ultimately extending the empire from Taghaza in the north to the borders of Yatenga in the south; and from Air in the northeast to Futa Toro in Senegambia. Askia was also setting the stage for the Askia dynasty, systematically removing the surviving members of the preceding dynasties.
Within three years, he solidified his position to the extent that he could leave the country for two years. For political and pious reasons, he made the hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca. In Cairo, he consulted with scholars and examined legal and administrative methods. In addition, an ambassador to Songhai was appointed and Askia was made caliph, thus becoming the head of the Islamic community in the Western Sudan. He returned to Songhai where he embarked on a program to reinforce and refine Islam.
Askia was an efficient and astute administrator. Instead of organizing the empire along Islamic lines, he improved on the traditional model. He instituted a system of government which was unparalleled in Songhai in particular and the Western Sudan in general. He divided the empire into defined provinces, each with its own governor. Special governors were appointed for the towns of Timbuktu, Jenne, Masina and Taghaza. The provinces were then grouped into regions, which were administered by regional governors. An advisory board of ministers supported each regional governor. The nucleus of the bureaucracy was Askia himself, assisted by a council of advisers. Islamic law prevailed in the larger districts in an effort to dispense with traditional law. It is worth noting that Islam was practiced in the urban areas, whereas the traditional Songhai religion continued in other areas. He also maintained a standing army, essentially for expansion of the empire
Soon after his return from Mecca, Askia embarked on his expansionist enterprise, where he ultimately extended the empire on all borders. He waged a successful jihad against the Mossi of Yatenga; captured Mali; defeated the Fulani and extended the borders farther north than any other Sudanic empire to Taghaza, famous for its salt mines. Years later, he conquered Hausaland and, in a subsequent campaign, seized Agades and Air.
Askia encouraged learning and literacy. Under Askia, Timbuktu experienced a cultural revival and flourished as a center of learning. The University of Sankore produced distinguished scholars, many of whom published significant books. The eminent scholar Ahmed Baba produced many books on Islamic law, some of which are still in use today. Mahmoud Kati published Tarik al-Fattah and Abdul-Rahman as-Sadi published Tarik as-Sudan (Chronicle of the Sudan), two history books which are indispensable to present-day scholars reconstructing African history in the Middle Ages.
Askia fostered trade and commerce. State revenues were derived from estates founded throughout the nation, tributes exacted from vassal states, taxes, and custom duties. Timbuktu, Jenne and Gao were the commercial centers of the empire, and the trade routes were policed by the army to maintain their safety. In addition, he standardized weights and measures throughout the empire.
Askia's final years were filled with humiliation and suffering. In 1528, Askia Mohammed, now almost ninety years old and blind, was deposed by his son, Musa. Later, another son, Ismail, brought him back to the palace, where he died in 1538. The most illustrious reign in the history of the Western Sudan ended. Askia Mohammmed, regarded as the greatest of the Songhai kings, continued the work of Sunni Ali Ber and built the largest and wealthiest of the kingdoms of the Western Sudan.
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