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African Civilization

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

African Civilization

Archaeological evidence has determined that the Homo sapiens evolved on the African continent. People slowly migrated from Africa to Europe and Asia and thence to the Americas. There is no such thing as a unified “African civilization” or “African culture”; the continent is too large and ethnically diverse and the peoples too widely separated by geographical obstacles, such as the Sahara Desert. There was no shared linguistic or religious bond among the early African tribes.

The Nubian Civilization

Nubia rivaled its neighbor Egypt in terms of civilization in ancient North Africa. Located on the Upper Nile and occupying the area between Egypt and the Red Sea, Nubia was a literate civilization before 1000 BC with an organized army, skilled artisans, a complex religion, and monumental architecture. The Nubians conquered Egypt and ruled it for a century, only shouldered aside by the Assyrians in 671 BC. With a later Egyptian resurgence, the Nubians moved their capital to a safer location at Meroe. Alexander’s conquest of Egypt resulted in the Hellenization of both Egypt and Nubia. Around AD 543, Byzantine missionaries converted the Nubian aristocracy to Christianity.

The Axumite Civilization

The Sabeans from the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula (present-day Yemen) sailed across the Red Sea to present-day Ethiopia and established trading posts. These colonizers intermarried with the local African population and the resulting Arab-African cultural tradition eventually emerged as the Axumite civilization around 100 BC. Axumite civilization reflected Arabic religion, politics, and farming methods in addition to Arabic writing while also reflecting ethnic and cultural African traits.

Located at the mouth of the Red Sea, Axum was ideally situated to make its fortune in international trade. King Aphilas of Axum even invaded and conquered Yemen to tighten his control on access to the trade routes. The Axu- mites traded with India, China, and the eastern Mediterranean civilizations, as well as with the tribes of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

Around AD 350, King Ezana of Axum converted to Christianity. He then led the takeover of the Nubian capital at Meroe, thus ensuring the continued existence of Axum as a great military power. The Axumites stormed the gates of Mecca in 570 but were repulsed. This show of strength enabled Mecca to become, over time, the greatest Arabian military and economic power. Thus the Christian civilization failed to take what became the holiest city of Islam, and, in the tenth century, the Muslims converted the Axumites. The final blow to Axumite civilization came in 960, when Jewish warriors sacked the city of Axum; the Jews would maintain a presence in Ethiopia until they migrated to Israel in massive numbers in the twentieth century.

The Kingdom of Ghana

The most valuable commodities in western Africa were gold and slaves. As Europe converted more and more into being a money economy, gold became a necessity, and slave labor was a constant in all ancient civilizations.

This foreign desire for gold caused the kingdom of Ghana to rise to prominence around 300 BC. When Islam was introduced in the ninth century, the local Muslim traders and the people of Ghana held aloof from one another, but eventually they began to jell into one society despite their different faiths (the people of Ghana practiced a traditional, polytheistic African religion). In AD 1076, the Berber people sacked the Ghanan capital city of Kumbi, thus ending the prominence of the kingdom.

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