From the early 15th to the late 16th century, the Songhai Empire was one of the largest African empires in history. This empire bore the same name as its leading ethnic group, the Songhai. It was centered on the city of Gao, where a small Songhai state had existed since the 9th century; and its base of power was on the bend of the Niger River in present-day Niger and Burkina Faso.
At its greatest extent (c. 1498), the Songhai lands reached far down the Niger river into modern day Nigeria itself, all the way to the Northeast of modern day Mali, and even to a small part of the Atlantic coast in the West.
Prior to the Songhai Empire, the region had been dominated by the Mali Empire, centered on Timbuktu. Mali grew famous due to their immense riches obtained through trade with the Arab world, and the legendary hajj of Mansa Musa. However by the early 15th century, the Mali Empire was in decline. Disputes over succession weakened the crown and many subject peoples broke away. The Songhai were one of them, and made the prominent city of Gao their new capital.
The first great king of Songhai was Sonni Ali. Ali was a Muslim like the Mali kings before him, but he also kept the traditional animist beliefs as well. He was also an efficient warrior who in the 1460s conquered many of the Songhai's neighboring states, including what remained of the Mali Empire. With his control of critical trade routes and cities such as Timbuktu, Sonni Ali brought great wealth to the Songhai Empire, which at its height would surpass the wealth of the Mali.
Sonni Ali was followed by an emperor named Askia Mohammad from the MandÃ© people, who would preside over Songhai's golden age. Whereas Ali brought conquests, Mohammad brought political reform and revitalization. He set up a complex bureaucracy with separate departments for agriculture, the army, and the treasury, to each of which he appointed supervising officials. A devout Muslim, Mohammad not only completed a pilgrimage to Mecca like Mansa Musa before him, but opened religious schools, constructed mosques, and opened up his court to scholars and poets from throughout the Muslim world.
Songhai would continue to prosper until late into the 16th century, particularly under the long and peaceful rule of Askia Daoud (r. 1549-1582). Following Daoud's death, however, a civil war over succession weakened the Empire, leading Morocco Sultan Ahmad I al-Mansur Saadi to dispatch an invasion force under the Judar Pasha. Judar Pasha was a Spaniard by birth, but had been captured as a baby and educated at the Moroccan court. After a cross-Saharan march, Judar's forces razed the salt mines at Taghaza and moved on Gao; when Askia Ishaq II (r. 1588-1591) met Judar at the 1591 Battle of Tondibi, the Songhai forces were routed by the Moroccan's gunpowder weapons despite vastly superior Songhai numbers. Judar sacked Gao, Timbuktu, and DjennÃ©, destroying the Songhai as a regional power. However, governing such a vast empire across such long distances proved too much for the Moroccans, and they soon relinquished control of the region, letting it splinter into dozens of smaller kingdoms.