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State Building in Africa for AP World History

Cate O'Donnell

15 min read

Mar 31




Africa’s history is marked by the rise and fall of powerful kingdoms and empires, each contributing to the rich tapestry of Africa’s historical and cultural landscape. From the grandeur of the Mali Empire, renowned for its wealth and the legendary pilgrimage of Mansa Musa, to the architectural marvels of Great Zimbabwe and the strategic trading centers of the Swahili Coast, this period highlights the complexity and diversity of African societies. We will explore how these states were formed, governed, and connected through trade networks that extended beyond the continent, influencing and being influenced by the wider world. Our journey will also delve into the role of religion, culture, and technology in state building, offering insights into the social and political structures that shaped the development of these African states. Join me as we uncover the stories of resilience, innovation, and interaction that define state building in Africa between 1200 and 1450, illuminating a crucial chapter in the global history of civilization. Read the Google Slides to learn about developments in East Asia from 1200 to 1450 for AP World History.

Illustrative Examples

Great Zimbabwe


Hausa Kingdoms

map of Africa

The First People in Africa

The foundation of the first human settlements in Africa marks a pivotal chapter in the story of human civilization, rooted deeply in the continent’s rich and varied landscapes. Initially, people in Africa led nomadic lifestyles, dependent on hunting and gathering for food. However, around 12,000 years ago, coinciding with the end of the last Ice Age, significant climatic changes fostered the development of more permanent settlements.

The transition to settled life was gradual and influenced by the domestication of plants and animals, a transformative process that began independently in various parts of the world, including the fertile regions of the Nile Valley, the Ethiopian Highlands, and West Africa. In the Nile Valley, for example, the rich alluvial soil allowed for the cultivation of wheat and barley, leading to the establishment of some of the world’s earliest agricultural communities. Similarly, in West Africa, the domestication of African millet and sorghum supported the formation of settled communities, while the Ethiopian Highlands saw the cultivation of teff, a small ancient grain, and the rearing of livestock.

These early agricultural practices laid the groundwork for the development of complex social structures, trade networks, and technological innovations. The surplus food generated by farming allowed for population growth and the emergence of specialized roles within societies, paving the way for the development of large urban centers and the rise of powerful kingdoms and empires.

The Bantu People

The Bantu people refer to the speakers of the Bantu languages, encompassing over 400 different ethnic groups spread across Central, East, and Southern Africa. The term “Bantu” itself, meaning “people” in many Bantu languages, reflects the linguistic and cultural commonalities among these diverse groups.

The roots of the Bantu people trace back to the regions now known as southeastern Nigeria and the Cameroon highlands, from where they began a series of migrations around 1000 BC. This migration, one of the largest in human history, played a crucial role in shaping the demographic and cultural landscape of the African continent over the course of several millennia.

The Bantu migrations were driven by the Bantu peoples’ mastery of ironworking technology and advanced agricultural practices, which allowed them to clear forests and savannahs for farming as they spread. These skills, coupled with their knowledge of animal husbandry, facilitated not only their expansion but also the spread of their languages and cultures across a vast area of Africa, from the Congo Basin to the African Great Lakes, and down to the southern tip of the continent.

Throughout their migrations, the Bantu peoples interacted with and assimilated various indigenous hunter-gatherer populations, influencing and being influenced by the cultures they encountered. This resulted in a rich mosaic of Bantu societies, each with its unique blend of traditions, social structures, and languages, yet all sharing a common linguistic ancestry and similar cultural practices. Today, the Bantu people contribute significantly to the cultural, linguistic, and social fabric of Africa, evident in the widespread use of Bantu languages, such as Swahili, Zulu, Shona, and Xhosa, and in the enduring traditions and practices of Bantu societies across the continent.

Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt’s story begins with the gradual unification of Upper and Lower Egypt around 3100 BC, under the rule of the first pharaoh, Narmer (or Menes), setting the stage for a civilization that would endure for over three millennia. This civilization’s foundation was the Nile River, providing fertile lands that supported agricultural surplus, which, in turn, facilitated the development of one of the world’s earliest and most enduring societies. Ancient Egypt is renowned for its monumental architecture, including the Great Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx, as well as its advancements in writing, with the development of hieroglyphics, medicine, and mathematics.

The history of Ancient Egypt is typically divided into periods of stability and prosperity, known as the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, interspersed with intermediate periods of fragmentation and political instability. The Old Kingdom (c. 2686–2181 BC) saw the construction of the most famous pyramids and the establishment of a powerful central government. The Middle Kingdom (c. 2055–1650 BC) was a renaissance of art, literature, and public projects. The New Kingdom (c. 1550–1070 BC), Egypt’s most prosperous and powerful period, witnessed the expansion of its empire and the richness of its cultural life, including the reigns of powerful pharaohs such as Hatshepsut, Thutmose III, and Ramesses II.

The decline of Ancient Egypt was a gradual process, influenced by a combination of internal strife, including political corruption and civil war, and external pressures from invading forces, such as the Assyrians, Persians, and finally, the Romans, leading to Egypt becoming a province of the Roman Empire in 30 BC. Despite its fall, the legacy of Ancient Egypt continues to fascinate and influence, with its monumental ruins, complex religious beliefs centered around the afterlife, and contributions to human knowledge and culture leaving a lasting imprint on the world’s historical and cultural landscape.

Islam in Africa

The spread of Islam in Africa began in the 7th century AD, shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, and became one of the most significant religious and cultural transformations on the continent. Islam first entered North Africa through Egypt and rapidly spread across the Maghreb thanks to the Arab conquests. By the 8th century, it had reached the western Sahel region, facilitated by trade routes across the Sahara Desert. Muslim traders and scholars played a crucial role in disseminating Islamic beliefs, practices, and culture, intertwining with local traditions and customs as they moved.

The establishment of trade networks, particularly those involving gold, salt, and slaves, not only enriched local economies but also fostered the establishment of Islamic states and empires, such as the Ghana Empire, Mali Empire, and later the Songhai Empire. These states became centers of Islamic learning and culture, with cities like Timbuktu and Gao housing renowned universities and libraries that attracted scholars from across the Islamic world.

Islam’s spread in Sub-Saharan Africa, unlike in North Africa, was gradual and often peaceful, characterized by the adoption of Islam by ruling elites and its integration into local customs and practices. This process led to the formation of distinctly African Islamic societies, where African traditions and Islam were woven together, creating unique cultural and religious identities.

In Eastern Africa, Islam penetrated the coastal regions through Arab and Persian traders, leading to the emergence of Swahili city-states that were both economically prosperous and culturally vibrant, with Islam playing a central role in their societal framework.

Throughout its spread in Africa, Islam influenced various aspects of society, including law, governance, education, and art, while also being influenced and shaped by Africa’s diverse cultural landscapes. The legacy of Islam’s spread in Africa is evident today in the continent’s rich Islamic heritage and the prevalence of Islam as a major religious force.

The Maghreb

The Maghreb

The Maghreb is a region in North Africa that traditionally includes the countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and sometimes Libya and Mauritania. The term “Maghreb” comes from the Arabic word for “west,” indicating its position as the westernmost part of the Arab world, contrasting with the Mashriq, or the “east,” which refers to the eastern part of the Arab world. The Maghreb is geographically characterized by the Atlas Mountains, the Sahara Desert, and the Mediterranean coast.

Historically and culturally, the Maghreb has been a melting pot of influences, including indigenous Berber, Arab, African, and, due to colonialism, European (particularly French and Spanish) cultures. The spread of Islam in the 7th century AD and the Arab conquests significantly shaped the region’s cultural and linguistic landscape, making Arabic the dominant language and Islam the prevalent religion.

Throughout history, the Maghreb has been a crossroads of civilization, with its cities serving as major centers of trade, learning, and culture. The region has a rich heritage of literature, art, architecture, and music that reflects its diverse influences. Today, the countries of the Maghreb continue to share cultural and economic ties, while also facing their unique contemporary challenges and developments.

The Sahel

The Sahel Region

The Sahel region is a semi-arid zone that stretches across the African continent, acting as a geographical and ecological transition between the Sahara Desert to the north and the more humid savannas to the south. Covering parts of many countries, including Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Eritrea, Cameroon, and Ethiopia, the Sahel spans approximately 5,400 kilometers (about 3,360 miles) from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Red Sea in the east.

Characterized by its arid grasslands, sparse vegetation, and seasonal rainfall, the Sahel faces significant environmental challenges. These environmental challenges have profound implications for the livelihoods of the region’s inhabitants, who have primarily relied on subsistence agriculture and pastoralism.

The Sahel is also a region of rich cultural diversity and historical significance, with a history of powerful empires and kingdoms, such as the Ghana Empire, Mali Empire, and Songhai Empire, that thrived due to trade across the Sahara. These societies were instrumental in the spread of Islam, which remains the dominant religion in the region.

Societies in North Africa

The Almohad Caliphate (1121–1269): Following the decline of the Almoravid dynasty, the Almohads rose to power, uniting a vast territory that included modern-day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and parts of Spain and Portugal. They are noted for their architectural contributions and for fostering a vibrant intellectual life.

The Hafsid Dynasty (1229–1574): Established in Tunis, the Hafsids controlled Ifriqiya (approximately modern Tunisia, eastern Algeria, and western Libya) after the fragmentation of the Almohad Caliphate. They played a crucial role in Mediterranean trade and were instrumental in the cultural and economic prosperity of the region.

The Marinid Dynasty (1248–1465): Emerging in the wake of Almohad decline, the Marinids took control of Morocco, making Fez their capital. They are renowned for founding madrasas (Islamic educational institutions) and enhancing the architectural and cultural landscape of Morocco.

The Zayyanid Dynasty of Tlemcen (1236–1556): Ruling in the central Maghreb, the Zayyanids made Tlemcen (in modern-day Algeria) their capital. This period saw Tlemcen become a center of art, culture, and trade, maintaining independence from both the Marinids to the west and the Hafsids to the east.

The Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt (1250–1517): Although not located in the Maghreb, the Mamluks had significant interactions with North African societies. They ruled Egypt and parts of the Levant, and their era is noted for military successes against the Crusaders and Mongols, as well as contributions to Islamic art and architecture.

Societies in Sub-Saharan Africa

The Mali Empire (c. 1235–1600 AD): Founded by Sundiata Keita, who is celebrated for his victory against the Sosso Empire at the Battle of Kirina in 1235, the Mali Empire became one of the most powerful and wealthy states in African history. It was renowned for its vast gold mines and played a pivotal role in the trans-Saharan trade.

The Great Zimbabwe (c. 11th century–15th century AD): This city-state, known for its massive stone structures and walls, was the heart of a thriving trade empire from the 11th to the 15th centuries. It controlled much of present-day Zimbabwe and parts of Mozambique, trading gold, copper, and ivory with the Swahili coast and beyond.

The Ethiopian Empire/Abyssinia (c. 1270–present): Although its origins can be traced back much earlier, the Solomonic Dynasty was established around 1270 by Yekuno Amlak, who claimed descent from the biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The empire was a Christian stronghold, with deep connections to the Coptic Christian world.

The Kingdom of Ife (c. 11th century–15th century AD): Located in present-day Nigeria, Ife is known for its unique naturalistic sculptures and artworks in terracotta, brass, and bronze. It was a major center for religion, arts, and culture in West Africa.

The Benin Empire (c. 1180–1897 AD): Established around the 11th century, it reached its peak in the 15th and 16th centuries under the Oba (king) Ewuare. The Benin Empire was famous for its sophisticated governance system and its remarkable brass sculptures.

The Kingdom of Kongo (c. 1390–1914 AD): Founded around the late 14th century, the Kingdom of Kongo was situated in what is now northern Angola, Cabinda, the Republic of Congo, and the western portion of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was known for its production and trade of cloth, pottery, and metal goods.

The Kingdom of Zimbabwe (c. 1220–1450 AD): This kingdom was the successor to the Great Zimbabwe and continued to thrive on trade in gold and ivory. It was part of a complex trade network that extended to the Indian Ocean.

The Swahili City-States (c. 10th–16th century AD): Stretching along the East African coast from Somalia to Mozambique, these city-states, including Kilwa, Mombasa, and Zanzibar, were hubs of commerce and culture. They flourished through trade in gold, ivory, and slaves with the Middle East, India, and later Europe.

Swahili Civilization

The Swahili civilization, flourishing along the East African coast from the 9th to the 19th century, represents a remarkable synthesis of African, Arab, Persian, and later European influences, reflecting its role as a dynamic center of commerce, culture, and navigation. Anchored by city-states such as Kilwa, Mombasa, and Zanzibar, this civilization was characterized by its unique Swahili culture, language (a Bantu language infused with Arabic), and architecture, notable for its coral stone buildings, grand mosques, and fortifications. The Swahili people were skilled merchants and sailors, facilitating trade across the Indian Ocean, connecting the African interior with Arabia, India, and beyond. They traded gold, ivory, and slaves from the interior for spices, textiles, and other luxuries from overseas. The prosperity of the Swahili coast was also reflected in its sophisticated urban centers, where Islamic education and scholarship flourished. Despite facing challenges such as Portuguese conquest in the 16th century and later European colonialism, the Swahili civilization has left a lasting legacy on the cultural and historical landscape of Eastern Africa, a testament to the rich intercultural exchanges that shaped the region.

Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe is an ancient city in the southeastern hills of today’s Zimbabwe, serving as a testament to one of the most significant civilizations in Africa south of the Sahara. Dating from the 11th to the 15th centuries, it was the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, part of a vast trading network that stretched across the Indian Ocean. The site is most renowned for its impressive stone structures, known as “Zimbabwe” in the Shona language, meaning “houses of stone.” The most famous of these structures are the Great Enclosure, which contains a conical tower and walls over five meters thick and up to eleven meters high, and the Hill Complex, believed to have been the royal palace.

Great Zimbabwe was the economic, political, and religious center of its civilization, thriving on cattle husbandry, crop cultivation, and the gold trade. Its wealth and influence were largely derived from its strategic position in the trade routes between the gold-producing regions of the interior and the coastal trading cities. The city’s architecture, marked by its intricately carved soapstone birds and sophisticated stone masonry, reflects a complex society with a deep understanding of engineering and artistry.

The decline of Great Zimbabwe in the 15th century remains a subject of scholarly debate, with theories including resource depletion, political instability, and climate change.

The Ghana Empire

The Ghana Empire, also known as Wagadou, was a powerful West African kingdom that flourished between the 6th and 13th centuries AD. It is often hailed as one of the earliest and richest empires in sub-Saharan Africa, with its wealth and power largely deriving from its strategic position at the crossroads of the Saharan trade routes. This position allowed it to control the trade in gold mined from regions south of the Sahara and salt from the vast mines in the Sahara itself. The empire’s capital, Koumbi Saleh, became a major center for trade, attracting merchants from North Africa and the Middle East, facilitating the exchange of goods and cultural ideas.

Ghana’s kings, known for their wealth and splendor, wielded significant power, overseeing a sophisticated administrative apparatus and a formidable army. The empire was renowned for its opulence, with reports by Arab historians and geographers describing the king’s lavish court and the abundance of gold in the empire. Despite the empire’s might, the introduction of Islam by North African traders also played a crucial role in the social and political life of the empire, influencing its culture and governance.

The decline of the Ghana Empire in the 13th century was due to a combination of factors, including overgrazing, deforestation, internal rebellion, and external pressures from the Almoravids, a North African Muslim dynasty that sought to extend its influence into West Africa. The fall of Ghana paved the way for the rise of subsequent West African empires, such as Mali and Songhai, which would continue the legacy of complex societal organization and wealth in the region.

The Mali Empire

The Mali Empire, founded by Sundiata Keita in the early 13th century following his victory over the Sosso king at the Battle of Kirina in 1235, emerged as one of the most prosperous and extensive empires in African history. At its zenith in the 14th century, under the reign of Mansa Musa, Mali was renowned for its wealth, particularly in gold, which accounted for half of the Old World’s supply. The empire covered a vast area, including parts of present-day Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso, and was a vital center for Islamic scholarship and culture.

Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 highlighted Mali’s wealth and Islamic devotion on the world stage, as he traveled with a caravan including thousands of soldiers, slaves, and camels carrying gold. Timbuktu and Gao within the empire became key centers of trade, education, and Islam, housing prestigious institutions like the University of Sankore and attracting scholars from across the Islamic world.

The Mali Empire’s sophisticated administration managed its vast territories through a network of governors and tribute-paying vassals, ensuring stability and prosperity. However, by the late 15th century, internal divisions, succession disputes, and external pressures began to erode its power, paving the way for the rise of the Songhai Empire.

The Hausa Kingdoms

The Hausa Kingdoms were a collection of independent city-states located in what is today northern Nigeria and southern Niger, flourishing from the 7th century AD and reaching their zenith between the 12th and 15th centuries. Known for their rich cultural heritage, the Hausa states—among them Kano, Katsina, Zaria, and Gobir—were renowned for their advanced social, political, and economic systems. Each kingdom was governed by its own king, or Sarki, who presided over a highly organized administrative structure. The Hausa developed sophisticated methods of agriculture, impressive architectural styles, and were especially noted for their craftsmanship in leather and textile production, which were traded along trans-Saharan trade routes.

Islam played a central role in Hausa society and governance, having been introduced to the region around the 11th century. The religion’s influence is evident in the region’s art, education, and legal systems, with Islamic scholarship flourishing in urban centers. The famous city of Kano, for example, became a leading center of Islamic learning and commerce.

The end of the independent Hausa Kingdoms came in the early 19th century, culminating with the Fulani Jihad led by Usman dan Fodio in 1804. This religious and social revolution targeted the Hausa Kingdoms, among others, aiming to purify Islam in the region and address social injustices under the Hausa rulers. The Fulani, pastoralists who had settled in the Hausa states over centuries, were increasingly discontented with the Hausa Kings, whom they accused of deviating from the teachings of Islam. Usman dan Fodio’s call to jihad attracted a significant following, not only from the Fulani but also from disenfranchised peasants and slaves within the Hausa states.

The Fulani forces succeeded in overthrowing many of the Hausa Kings by 1808 and established the Sokoto Caliphate, a vast Islamic empire that extended over much of present-day northern Nigeria and parts of neighboring countries.


Ethiopia, with a history that stretches back to the dawn of humanity, has always stood out as a beacon of cultural and political independence in Africa. It is a region known for its ancient civilizations, including the Kingdom of Aksum, which flourished between the 1st and 7th centuries AD. Aksum was a major trading empire, its influence extending across the Red Sea to Arabia, engaging in trade with the Roman Empire and India, and it was one of the early states to adopt Christianity in the 4th century.

Following the decline of Aksum due to economic isolation and environmental changes, the Zagwe dynasty emerged, ruling from the 12th to the late 13th century. The Zagwe are celebrated for their remarkable rock-hewn churches at Lalibela, which remain a testament to Ethiopia’s rich religious artistic tradition. The restoration of the Solomonic dynasty in 1270 by Yekuno Amlak, who claimed descent from the biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, marked another significant era. This period underscored Ethiopia’s deep ties to both its African roots and its Judeo-Christian heritage.

Throughout these centuries, Ethiopia maintained its independence by leveraging its mountainous geography and by skillfully navigating relationships with neighboring Islamic states and the Europeans who arrived in the 15th century. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church played a pivotal role in society, acting as a unifying force and a key institution in Ethiopian life.

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“Ethiopia and Eritrea.” Lumen Learning, Accessed 31 Mar. 2024.

“Great Zimbabwe.” National Geographic, 13 Oct. 2013, Accessed 31 Mar. 2024.

“Kingdoms of Ancient and Medieval West Africa & Trade across the Sahara.” Pardee School of Global Studies: African Studies Center, Accessed 31 Mar. 2024.

Love, Cassandra. “In Their Footsteps: Human Migration Out of Africa.” National Geographic, 9 Feb. 2024, Accessed 31 Mar. 2024.

“The People of the Swahili Coast.” National Geographic, 13 Oct. 2013, Accessed 31 Mar. 2024.

“Trade and the Spread of Islam in Africa.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accessed 31 Mar. 2024.

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Cate O'Donnell

15 min read

Mar 31