Lesson One Lecture–Ancient Civilizations and Cultures in Africa
Our opening lesson is about the history of ancient and pre-colonial African civilizations. This is a good subject for us to begin with because many of us are unfamiliar with the African contributions to Western Civilization. Also much of Western history overlooks the contributions and accomplishments of African civilizations. It is a part of the legacy of subjugation and oppression that accompanied the Atlantic Slave Trade. As Europeans attempted to justify their relationship with the African Slave Trade by claiming that Africans had contributed nothing to the advancement of civilization, they were confronted by the legacy of the Ancient Egyptians who created the pyramids and developed advance techniques in mathematics and geometry. How could they have shared these ideas and concepts with Greece and Rome and and still be Africans who were routinely depicted as barbarians and savages? It took several generations of intellectual sophistry to remake the Egyptians as “White,” or “Asiatic,” Africans.
The capital of the Egyptian Empire was based in Upper Egypt at the city of Thebes—upper in the sense that it was located in the hills and valleys near the convergence of the White and Blue Nile rivers. More importantly, Egypt was at the center of a political, social, cultural, and commercial world that reached to the south and west across Africa, east into Mesopotamia and Arabia, and north into the Mediterranean world and Southern Europe. If you connect the dots you will see that Ancient Egypt dominated commercial and political affairs in northern Africa and the Mediterranean for more than 3000 years. Many of the great city-states and polis’ in Greece began their life as Egyptian colonies and continued to trace their cultural roots back to Egypt.
In later centuries the orientation of commerce and politics would shift from the Mediterranean world to Western Africa. Between the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Italian Renaissance, three great empires arose in succession in West Africa. The first was the ancient empire of Ghana which controlled the gold supply of the western world until Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. The succeeding empires of Mali and Songhai parlayed their wealth from the gold mines with trade in salt, metals, minerals, and agricultural produce to control commerce across the Sahara Desert to the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Timbuktu, one of the most important cities in the world during this time, emerged as the capital of Songhai. It was the home of the first university style center of learning where scholars from all over the world could come and exchange ideas. Imagine the significance of place that people were willing to travel to from the ends of the earth, or at least the ends of the European world to acquire the goods and knowledge that were available in West Africa or. It is were we get the phrase, “As far away as Timbuktu.”
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