Sites & cities that bear the name of Gao


Today in : Mali
First trace of activity : ca. 7th century C.E
Last trace of activity : today
Recorded names : Sarnāh?, Kawkaw, Gawgaw, Kuku

Description : Gao /ɡaʊ/, or Gawgaw/Kawkaw, is a city in Mali and the capital of the Gao Region. The city is located on the River Niger, 320 km (200 mi) east-southeast of Timbuktu on the left bank at the junction with the Tilemsi valley. For much of its history Gao was an important commercial centre involved in the trans-Saharan trade. In the 9th century external Arabic writers described Gao as an important regional power, and by the end of the 10th century, the local ruler was said to be a Muslim. Towards the end of the 13th century Gao became part of the Mali Empire, but in first half of the 15th century the town regained its independence and with the conquests of Sunni Ali (ruled 1464–1492) it became the capital of the Songhai Empire. The Empire collapsed after the Moroccan invasion in 1591 and the invaders chose to make Timbuktu their capital. By the time of Heinrich Barth's visit in 1854, Gao had declined to become an impoverished village with 300 huts constructed from matting. In 2009, the urban commune had a population of 86,633. The history of the Gao Empire precedes that of the Songhai Empire in the region of the Middle Niger. Both empires had the town of Gao as their capital. Apart from some Arabic epitaphs on tombstones discovered in 1939 at the cemetery of Gao-Saney (6 km to the east of the city) there are no surviving indigenous written records that date from before the middle of the 17th century. Our knowledge of the early history of the town relies on the writings of Arabic geographers living in Morocco, Egypt and Andalusia, most of whom never visited the region. These authors referred to the town as Kawkaw or Kuku. The two key 17th century chronicles, the Tarikh al-Sudan and the Tarikh al-fattash, provide information on the town at the time of the Songhai Empire but they contain relatively little on the social and economic history. The chronicles do not, in general, acknowledge their sources. Their accounts for the earlier periods are almost certainly based on oral tradition and for events before the second half of the 15th century they are likely to be less reliable. For these earlier periods, the two chronicles sometimes provide conflicting information. The earliest mention of Gao is by al-Khwārizmī who wrote in the first half of the 9th century when Gao was already an important regional power. Al-Yaqubi wrote in his Tarikh in around 872: There is the kingdom of the Kawkaw, which is the greatest of the realms of the Sūdān, the most important and most powerful. All the kingdoms obey its king. Al-Kawkaw is the name of the town. Besides this there are a number of kingdoms of which the rulers pay allegiance to him and acknowledge his sovereignty, although they are kings in their own lands. Ibn al-Faqih (writing c. 903) mentions a caravan route from Egypt to ancient Ghana via Kawkaw, but Ibn Hawqal (writing c. 988) states that the old route from Egypt to the Sudan was abandoned in the reign of the Egyptian ruler Ibn Tulun (ruled 868–884) as some of the caravans were attacked by bandits while others were overwhelmed by the wind-blown sand. The more direct route was replaced by one that went to Sijilmasa before heading south across the Sahara. In the 10th century, Gao is already Muslim and is described as consisting of two separate towns. Al-Muhallabi, who died in 990, wrote in a lost work quoted in the biographical dictionary compiled by Yaqut: Their king pretends before his subject to be a Muslim and most of them pretend to be Muslims too. He has a town on the Nile , on the eastern bank, which is called Sarnāh, where there are markets and trading houses and to which there is continuous traffic from all parts. He has another town to the west of the Nile where he and his men and those who have his confidence live. There is a mosque there where he prays but the communal prayer ground is between the two towns. The archaeological evidence suggests that there were two settlements on the eastern bank of the Niger: Gao Ancien situated within the modern town, to the east of the Tomb of Askia, and the archaeological site of Gao-Saney (Sané in French) situated around 4 km to the east. The bed of the Wadi Gangaber passes to the south of the Gao-Saney occupation mound (tell) but to the north of Gao Ancien. The imported pottery and glass recovered from Gao-Saney suggest that the site was occupied between the 8th and 13th centuries. It is possible that Gao-Saney corresponds to Sarnāh of al-Muhallabi. Al-Bakri writing in 1068 also records the existence of two towns, but al-Idrisi writing in around 1154 does not. Both al-Muhallabi (see quote above) and al-Bakri situate Gao on the west (or right bank) of the Niger. The 17th century Tarikh al-fattash also states that in the 10th century Gao was situated on the Gourma side (i.e. the west bank) of the river. A large sand dune, La Dune Rose, lies on the west bank opposite Gao, but at Koima, on the edge of the dune at a site 4 km north of Gao, surface deposits indicate a pre 9th century settlement. This could be the west bank Gao mentioned by 10th and 11th-century authors. The site has not been excavated. Al-Sadi in his Tarikh al-Sudan gives a slightly later date for the introduction of Islam. He lists 32 rulers of the Zuwa dynasty and states that in 1009–1010 A.D. the 15th ruler, Zuwa Kusoy, was the first to convert to Islam. He does not actually specify where they lived except for the legendary founder of the dynasty, Zuwa Alayman who he claims came from the Yemen to Kukiya. Towards the end of the 13th century Gao lost its independence and became part of the expanding Mali Empire. What happened to the Zuwa rulers is not recorded.

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