Why did African cities grow wealthy and powerful?

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mrkirschner eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are three key regions of Africa that grew to have great wealth and power in Africa. In the northeast, Egypt grew to dominance.  In the west, three kingdoms:  Ghana, Mali, and Songhai were three prosperous kingdoms. On the eastern coast of Africa, Swahili city-states became centers of wealth and influence.  All three regions leveraged their natural resources to create prestigious trading kingdoms that were among the wealthiest nations in the world at the time.

The Egyptians used geography to their advantage.  Isolated by desert on all sides, the Egyptians did not need to focus on defense and military expenditures.  As a result, it was able to utilize the Nile River, and rich deposits of soil from the floods to create massive surpluses of agricultural goods.  The pharaohs would establish trade ties with countries as close as Kush to the south and as distant as Mesopotamia in present day Iraq. Egypt’s wealth and economic advantage was a result of its prolific ability to utilize the Nile flood plain to become the breadbasket of the world.  

In Western Africa, three kingdoms became wealthy beyond belief by controlling important stops along the trans-Saharan trade routes.  The major commodities exchanged in this lucrative network were gold and salt.  The kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai mined an abundance of gold, which was in high demand in North Africa and the southern Mediterranean coast of Europe.  The reason for the demand in gold in those areas was for the production of coinage systems.  The importance of salt in West Africa, where it was used to preserve and season food allowed for a profitable trade system. The famous ruler of Mali, Mansa Musa was said to have traveled to Egypt with a ton of gold.  When he gave away the gold as gifts, the price of the metal plummeted in the region.  This is one example of the abundance of gold found in this area of Africa.  

On the coast of east Africa, Bantu-speaking Africans and Arab settlers combined to create cities of wealth--again through trade.  The Swahili city-states supplied and connected African raw materials to the rest of the Indian Ocean world.  The Swahili had an extensive trade network, which included north Africa to Egypt, Oman on the Arabian Peninsula, Shiraz in Persia, and extended east to India and China.  The establishment of trading cities in this region led to great wealth and power along the eastern coast of Africa.