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Ancient African Civilizations Educational Posters
for social studies, history and geopgraphy classrooms and home schoolers.

history > ANCIENT AFRICAN CIVILIZATIONS | Africa < anthropology < social studies

Ancient African Civilizations Educational history posters series: Benin, Egypt, Ethiopia, Mali-Songhai, and Zimbabwe.

Ancient African Civilizations - Benin Wall Poster
Ancient African Civilizations Poster

Benin -

The empire of Benin was located in western Africa, in land that is now part of the modern countries of Benin and Nigeria. At its peak, it was a vibrant and creative culture, responsible for some of the best-known art and most influential religious traditions in all of Africa. Benin was even able to adapt where the Porteguese and other European came, but it did so at a heavy cost. Benin ended up as the main controller of the African slave trade.

In the 13th century the Edo people in this region began to organize themselves into an empire that later came to be called Benin. According to legend, they had no central king until they asked the leaders of the Ife, one of the main cities of their Yoruban neighbors, to send them one. This king, called the Oba had very little influence over his people. This changed when Euware the Great became Oba in 1440. Euware proposed a system of government in which a group of village rulers, the “uzama”, would guide the Oba to his decisions. This structure bound the villages together, and Benin was born.

The capital, Benin City, became well known as a hub for trading cotton, food, copper, ivory, and salt. It was also an important cultural center. Benin was famous for its art, which featured ivory – every hunter who killed an elephant had to give the Oba one of the tusks. The artists of Benin also created realistic “lost-wax” sculpture. To make them, an artist formed a sculpture out of wax, covered it with a clay mold, melted the wax inside, and then poured metal (usually bronze) into the mold to form the actual sculpture.

When the Portuguese first came into Benin, they were impressed with the dimensions of the palace in Benin City, as well as the huge moats that surrounded it to keep visitors out. But they were more interested in the West Africans that could be taken and sold as slaves. The rulers of Benin helped the Europeans capture and ship slaves to the New World. These leaders became rich – but their decisions had grave consequences for them and for their people. The slave trade with its new European patrons came to control Benin's economy, and slavery destroyed many of its villages. Benin started to decline in inflluence and power, and it was no longer able to defend itself. England eventually invaded Benin City and burned it in 1897.

Benin's lasting legacies are its sculpture and the Yoruban religion, which traveled with the slaves as they came to the Americas and influenced culture in America and all over the world.

Benin posters

Egypt Map
Egypt Map

Egypt –

Approximately 5,000 years ago, one of the world's first and most important civilizations spring up in northeastern Africa, centered on the Nile River. The Nile was important for many reasons. Not only was it the central transportation route in the region, but it also overflowed its banks every year, leaving dark soil perfect for growing crops and raising animals. In fact, the people called their land “Kemet,” which means “Black Land.” We know this civilization as ancient Egypt.

We date the beginning of Egyptian history to approximately 3100 B.C.E., when King Menes united two cultures that we called Lower and Upper Egypt. The word “Egypt” actually means “Two Lands.” Menes set up the first national government in world history. For the next 2,000 years kings – later called pharaohs – ruled this civilization.

When the pharaohs and other important people died, they were preserved as mummies. The ancient Egyptians believed that their pharaohs were gods, so they honored them by building giant pyramids to house their tombs. Gold, jewels, furniture, and other worldy possessions were placed in the pyramids as well, so that the pharaohs would have what they needed in the afterlife.

These giant pyramids are the best-known symbol of Egypt. The biggest pyramid is made of more than two million limestone blocks, each one averaging more than two tons!

These amazing buildings prove that Egypt was a scientifically advance civilization. Egyptians who developed the first 365-day calendar, and the sciences of mathematics and anatomy flourished there. People from all over the world came to Memphis and Thebes to learn from Egyptian scholars, and they carried this learning back to their own lands. The Egyptian written language was a form of picture-writing called hieroglyphics. The Egyptians used this system of more than 2,000 images to record their histories, their songs, and their myths and stories, many of which featured gods with heads of animals or birds. Egyptian artist also developed a distinctive two-dimensional style of painting.

But after many years of glory, and many years of fighting with other empires, Egypt was conquered in 332 B.C.E. by Alexander the Great of Greece. The legacy of ancient Egypt lives on, however, in the great pyramids and sculptures that decorate the landscape and in the scientific advances made by this remarkable civilization.

Egypt posters

 Ethiopia Map

Ethiopia -

Europeans in medieval times heard the legend of an enormously rich Christian kingdom in the middle of Africa, lead by a ruler name Prester John. This legend was clearly based on Ethiopia. Not only was it the only Christian empire in mostly Islamic Africa, but its rulers claimed to be descended from King Solomon himself.

Many cultures arose in this part of eastern Africa, dating back to 1000 B.C.E., when trade was established with the city of Saba. But most experts agree that the civiliation of Ethiopia started with the rise of the city of Axum in the 4th century C.E. Under King Ezana, Axum became a Christian Kingdom – centuries before most Europeans had ever heard of Chirstianity – and Ethiopia has remained Christian for most of the 1,700 years since then. Illustrated Bibles, prayer books, and religious manuscripts are the most common works of Ethiopian art. Ethiopia has also been a home for Muslims and Jews.

Ethiopia's rulers from the 13th century on claimed to be directly descended from the legendary King Menilek I. Ethiopian legend says that Menilek I was the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Almost every ruler from Yekano Amlek in 1270 through Haile Selassie in 1930 saw himself as a member of this 3,000-year “Solomonic dynasty.” This dynasty includes legendary kings like Zara Yaqob, who reighed by brutal force and terror in the 1400s, and Menilek II, whose army kept Italy from conquering Ethiopia in 1896.

The last ruler in the Solomonic dynasty was Haile Selassie. When he became the emperor of Ethiopia in 1930, he stood up against European colonialsim, even leading troops against the Italian army. Selassie became famous around the world as a symbol of free Africa. He also inspired an entire religion called Rastafarianism. Rastafarians think of Selassie as the messiah. The Solomonic dynasty ended when Selassie was deposed by Communist rebels in 1974. He died in 1977.

Ethiopia posters

Ancient African Civilizations - Ghana / Mali / Songhai Wall Poster
Ghana, Mali, Songhai
Ancient African Civilizations Poster

Ghana, Mali, Songhai-

Taken together, Ghana, Mali, and Songhai controlled most of western Africa for nearly 1,000 years. All three empires were fabulously wealthy and powerful, and their influence can still be felt in the culture and arts and sciences of modern West Africa. The civilization of Ghana was established during the 5th and 6th centuries C.E. This hightly structured empire, which spread over the countries now known as Mauritania, Senegal, and Mali, was fueled by the huge gold reserves in the southern savanna lands. Visitors to Ghana were shocked to see how much gold the king (called “Ghana”) displayed in his royal palace – even the horses and dogs wore gold collars. Important trade routes helped Ghanan merchants to sell their ware all over Africa. But all the gold in Ghana could not save the empire when a group of Berber Muslims known as the Almoravids, invaded in 1076 and burned the capital.

After several centuries of fighting to control the trade routes, the Mandinka prince Sundiata Keita rose to power in the year 1233 and established the empire of Mali. This civilization, which lasted for more than 300 years, incorporated all the trade routes and land west of the Niger River as well as the gold reserves of the south. Timbuktu became the capital and soon earned a reputation as one of the most worldly cities in Africa, as well as one of the richest in the world. Arts and education flourished in the Islamic universities of Timbuktu. Malian sculpture became famous for its strong shapes. Musical storytellers called griots were the royal musicians, and the sound of a guitar-like instruments called the kora was soon heard all over western Africa.

But Mali began to weaken in the 1400s, when the empire became too big to manage. The Songhai people rose to power in 1464, under the leadership of Sonni Ber Ali, who eventually conqured Timbuktu and the leading city of Jenne. Ali and his successors ruled over the Songhai empire for more than 100 years, until it fell to Moroccan invaders.

While no great empire rose up to replace Songhai, the traditions of all three civilizations live on in the art, music, and traditions of modern Africa – and in the vibrant and sophisticated city of Timbuktu.

The Songhai Empire succeeded the declining Mali Empire and from the early 15th to the late 16th century was one of the largest African empires in history. The Songhai Empire was centered in eastern Mali and stretched through parts of present day Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Benin, Ghana, Senegal, Mauritania, and Guinea.

The first great king of Songhai was Sunni Ali, a Muslim like the Mali kings before him, who had derived great wealth through trade with Arabs. The Songhai Empire continued to be a strong trading economy with the goldfields of the Niger River a primary resource of the Songhai Empire. Gold was sometimes traded one to one for precious salt, a primary ingredient in food preservation.

Zimbabwe, Africa, Map


Visitors to the modern nation of Zimbabwe can see the ruins of a large stone-walled city that was once home to almost 20,000 people. This city, called Great Zimbabwe, was the center of an empire that dominated southern Africa for hundreds of years. But Great Zimbabwe was suddenly abandoned sometime between the years 1450 and 1600, and no one is sure why. This is just one of the mysteries of this civilization which was one of the most important cultures of ancient Africa.

Although the San people (sometimes called “Bushmen”) had been living in this area since the Stone Age, Zimbabwe came into its own when Bantu-speaking tribes moved there in the 8th century. These people used the rich lands of the high plateau for farming and mining and traded with countries all over Africa and Asia. The Shona established their first kingdom soon afterward and built stone-walled villages all over the region. The word ‘Zimbabwe’ means “house of stone” or “important house” in Shona.

Great Zimbabwe, the most impressive of these walled cities, probably also served as the home of the Shona king. The outer wall was about 800 feet around and more than 30 feet high. It was made of granite pieces that fit together without mortar. Inside this wall were large huts and a 30-foot-tall tower with no stairs or rooms in it. Archeologists have found statues and other artifacts in the ruins, but no evidence of human remains has ever been discovered. There are many theses about why. Great Zimbabwe was deserted seemingly overnight, but there are no answers.

The unified empire of Zimbabwe came to an end by the 1500s, when the Shona split into different warring camps. But the ruins of Great Zimbabwe still stand to show us the beauty, skill, and mystery of the civilization named for its houses of stone.

Ancient Civilizations Map and Timeline, Art Print
Ancient Civilizations
Map and Timeline,
Art Print

Ancient Civilizations Map and Timeline

• more maps posters

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last updated 11/19/13