Songhai, Empire, formerly in the western Sudan in Africa. It flourished in the 15th and 16th centuries in the area of the great bend in the Niger River, in present Niger and Mali. The capital was Gao, near the top of the bend, from ancient times a terminal of trans-Saharan caravan trade.

Songhai Empire.Songhai Empire. This map shows the Songhai Empire in West Africa at the height of its power. When Emperor Askia Muhammad ruled, the empire stretched from the Atlantic coast to what is now central Nigeria. It included parts of what are now Burkina Faso, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Senegal. Trade routes to and from Songhai made the empire the richest in West Africa.

The Songhai people occupied Gao about 800 A.D. and became Muslims in the early 11th century. In the mid-1200's neighboring Mali expanded into an empire, with a prosperous trade in gold and salt. About 1325 Mali conquered Songhai. Fifty years later Songhai regained independence and in the 15th century conquered most of Mali, including Timbuktu, a center of trade and learning.

On a pilgrimage to Mecca, 1495–97, Songhai Emperor Askia Muhammad was appointed caliph in the western Sudan. He and his successors further expanded the empire to the east. Songhai's wealth aroused the avarice of the sultan of Morocco. In 1591 he sent a force of musket-bearing mercenaries, who easily defeated the Songhai forces armed with spears and bows and arrows. The Songhai Empire then collapsed and was reduced to a small kingdom. In the 1890's it became part of the French colony of French West Africa.

The Songhai people live today along the bend of the river in Mali and Niger.