Kanem Empire

Kanem Empire
c. 700–1387

Flag of Kanem also known as Organa from Dulcerta atlas 1339

Influence of Kanem Empire around 1200 AD
Capital Njimi
Languages Tedaga
Religion traditional beliefs, later Islam
Government Monarchy
King (Mai)
   c. 700 Sef
  1382–1387 Omar I
Historical era Middle Ages
   Established c. 700
   Invaded and forced to move, thus establishing new Bornu Empire 1387
   1200[1] 776,996 km² (300,000 sq mi)
Succeeded by
Bornu Empire
Part of a series on the
History of Northern Nigeria

The Kanem Empire (c. 700–1376) was located in the present countries of Chad, Nigeria and Libya.[2] At its height it encompassed an area covering not only much of Chad, but also parts of southern Libya (Fezzan) and eastern Niger, northeastern Nigeria and northern Cameroon. The history of the Empire is mainly known from the Royal Chronicle or Girgam discovered in 1851 by the German traveller Heinrich Barth.


The empire of Kanem began forming around AD 300 under the nomadic Tebu-speaking Kanembu. According to the Girgam, the Kanembu were forced southwest towards the fertile lands around Lake Chad by political pressure and desiccation in their former range. The area already possessed independent, walled city-states belonging to the Sao culture. Under the leadership of the Duguwa dynasty, the Kanembu would eventually dominate the Sao, but not before adopting many of their customs. War between the two continued up to the late 16th century.

One theory proposes that the lost state of Agisymba (mentioned by Ptolemy in the middle of the 2nd century AD) was the antecedent of the Kanem Empire.[3]

Duguwa Dynasty (Kanembu)

Kanem was located at the southern end of the trans-Saharan trade route between Tripoli and the region of Lake Chad. The Kanembu eventually abandoned their nomadic lifestyle and founded a capital around 700 AD under the first documented Kanembu king ("mai") known as Sef of Saif. The capital of N'jimi (the word for "south" in the Teda language) grew in power and influence under Sef's son, Dugu. This transition marked the beginning of the Duguwa Dynasty. The mais of the Duguwa were regarded as divine kings and belonged to the ruling establishment known as the Magumi. Despite changes in dynastic power, the magumi and the title of mai would persevere for over a thousand years.

Kanem is mentioned as one of three great empires in Bilad el-Sudan, by Al Yaqubi in 872.[4]

Sayfawa Dynasty

The major factor that later influenced the history of the state of Kanem was the early penetration of Islam. North African traders, Berbers and Arabs, brought the new religion. In 1085, a Muslim noble by the name of Hummay removed the last Duguwa king Selma from power and thus established the new dynasty of the Sefuwa.

The introduction of the Sefuwa dynasty meant radical changes for the Kanem Empire. First, it meant the Islamization of the court and state policies. Second, the identification of founders had to be revised.

Islam and Kanem

Islam offered the Sayfawa rulers the advantage of new ideas from Arabia and the Mediterranean world, as well as literacy in administration. But many people resisted the new religion, favouring traditional beliefs and practices. When Hummay had assumed power on the basis of his strong Islamic following, for example, it is believed that the Duguwa/Sefuwa began some kind of internal opposition. This pattern of conflict and compromise with Islam occurs repeatedly in Chad's history.

By the 12th century, the Sayfawa ruled all over Kanem. At the same time, the Kanembu people drew closer to the new rulers and increased the growing population in Njimi. Even though the Kanembu became the main power base of the Sayfawa, Kanem's rulers continued to travel frequently throughout the kingdom and especially towards Bornu, west of lake Chad. Herders and farmers alike recognized the government's power and acknowledged their allegiance by paying tribute.

Mai Dunama Dabbalemi

Kanem's expansion peaked during the long and energetic reign of Mai Dunama Dabbalemi (ca. 1221–1259), also of the Sayfawa dynasty. Dabbalemi initiated diplomatic exchanges with sultans in North Africa and apparently arranged for the establishment of a special hostel in Cairo to facilitate pilgrimages to Mecca. During his reign, he declared jihad against the surrounding tribes and initiated an extended period of conquest. After consolidating their territory around Lake Chad, the Fezzan region (in present-day Libya) fell under Kanem's authority, and the empire's influence extended westward to Kano (in present-day Nigeria), eastward to Ouaddaï, and southward to the Adamawa grasslands (in present-day Cameroon). However, he also destroyed the national Mune cult and thus precipitated widespread revolt culminating in the uprise of the Tubu and the Bulala. The former could be quenched but the latter continued to linger on and finally led to the retreat of the Sayfuwa from Kanem to Bornu c. 1380.

Dabbalemi devised a system to reward military commanders with authority over the people they conquered. This system, however, tempted military officers to pass their positions to their sons, thus transforming the office from one based on achievement and loyalty to the mai into one based on hereditary nobility. Dabbalemi was able to suppress this tendency, but after his death, dissension among his sons weakened the Sayfawa Dynasty. Dynastic feuds degenerated into civil war, and Kanem's outlying peoples soon ceased paying tribute.

Fall of Kanem

After the death of Dunama II, Kanem quickly fell into a downward spiral. By the end of the 14th century, internal struggles and external attacks had torn Kanem apart.

Sao Resurgence

Between 1342 and 1352, the Sao, who had dominated Kanem prior to the Zaghawa, killed four mais in battle. The proliferation of mai claimants to the throne led to a series of internecine wars. It became a problem for them to rule.

Bulala Invasion

The death knell of Sayfawa power in Kanem was dealt by the Bulala, invaders from the area around Lake Fitri to the east. By 1376, the Bulala had driven the Sayfawa from their capital. By 1388, they had taken Kanem altogether. The Kanuri were forced back into their nomadic ways and migrated west of Lake Chad, eventually establishing a new empire in Bornu.

See also


  1. Shillington, page 733
  2. "Kanem-Bornu". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 24 September 2014.
  3. "The Mune as the Ark of the Covenant between Duguwa (Kanembu) and Sefuwa (Kanembu - Mayi)" Borno Museum Society Newsletter 66-67 (2006), 15-25. (The article has a map (page 6) of the ancient Central Sahara and proposes to identify Agisymba of 100 CE with the early Kanem state).
  4. Levtzion, Nehemia (1973). Ancient Ghana and Mali. New York: Methuen & Co Ltd. p. 3. ISBN 0841904316.


Further reading

External links

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