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The Influential West African Empire of Ife during Medieval Times

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

“One of the most considerable countries of the Sudan, and their sultan, one of the greatest sultans.” – Famous Historian of the Medieval World, Ibn Battuta


Image I (Left): In 1910, a majestic bronze sculpture was found in the Nigerian (Yoruba) city of Ife (Ile-Ife).


Image II (Top Right): Oduduwa Flag. King Oduduwa of Ife was known as the father of the Yoruba people and all people of the world.


Image III (Bottom Right): Ife Empire. c. 1200 – 1420 AD. The Ife Empire during the mid-14th century. 



The origins of the Ife Kingdom started in the 9th century, but the Ife Kingdom became a powerful empire from 1200 to 1420 AD. Ife rose to power through trade with the Sahelian and the forest states. The capital of the Ife Empire was Ile-Ife, which was one of the largest urban centers in the 14th century in West Africa, and it is estimated that Ile-Ife had a population of 70,000 to 105,000 people.

 

At the height of Ife’s power during the 14th century, the Ife Empire extended across around 186 miles, and encompassed the kingdoms of Owu, Jebba, Tada, and Oyo in the north, and Great Benin and Ijebu in the south. Ife’s cultural influence spread far westward to the southwestern region of present-day Togo. As the Ife Empire grew, it became more ethnically diverse, especially the northern parts of the Ife Empire around the Niger River. In the Oyo Kingdom region of the Ife Empire, Oyo had multiple other African ethnic groups or tribes such as the Nupe, Ìbàrìbá, and various Songhai peoples like the Zarma subgroup, who were the most prominent. Although Yoruba was the main language of the Ife Empire, there were also various spoken dialects and languages. These various ethnic groups or tribes all migrated to the Ife Empire for commercial and resource opportunities. The Zarma of the Songhai were the main carriers of Yoruba goods into the Sahel region of West Africa during the Classical period of Ife, and showed a great amount of political and religious influence.

 

The Ife Empire was one of the oldest trading empires in West Africa, and an early partner in the trans-Saharan trade. One of the Ife’s earliest trade routes was up the Niger River to the Songhai kingdom of Gao, and the route became active as early as the 9th century. The Gao Kingdom later eventually became the capital of the Songhai Empire during the 15th and 16th centuries. At its height in the 16th century, the Songhai Empire was the same size as all of Europe combined.


Glass beads were one of the most sought-after items in West Africa, and Ife had a near monopoly of this market. Ife was probably the third place in the world where glass was indigenously invented. Dichroic glass beads from Ile-Ife have been found in different parts of West Africa, like at Kissi in present-day Burkina Faso; Diouboye in present-day Senegal; Gao Ancien, and Essouk in present-day Mali; and Kumbi-Saleh in present-day Mauritania, all in 12th and 14th century contexts. Ile-Ife was the only known industrial center for HLHA glass production. Glass beads were used as a form of currency in Ife, and strings and other standard measurements of Segi beads were used for purchasing high value products and services.

 

Items traded to Ife were Saharan copper and salt, Mediterranean and Chinese silk, and other clothing materials, which entered the region from across the Niger River by the 11th or 12th century. In exchange, Ife would trade sundry rain forest goods, of which glass beads and ivory were the most highly prized. The Ife Empire was also likely a part of the Silk Trade on the famous Silk Road between the 12th and 14th centuries, with long-distance trade routes going all the way to Nubia from Kanem-Bornu during the 14th century.



Image I (Left): The word “Ife” when translated from the Yoruba language to the English language means “Love.” The “Ife” people are the “Love” people.

 

Image II (Right): Beautiful Yoruba Bride



Ife’s fame and glory had spread far and wide, because in 1352, famous historian Ibn Battuta was informed during his visit to the Mali Empire about a powerful Black so-called “Pagan” kingdom further south called Yufi, which he described as “one of the most considerable countries of the Sudan, and their sultan, one of the greatest sultans.”

 

Ife was almost certainly called Yufi, and Akinwumi Ogundiran wrote:

 

“Ilé-Ifè was the largest urban center, the biggest emporium, and the wealthiest polity in West Africa’s rain forest belt south of the Niger River during the mid-fourteenth century, with more than two centuries of trading contact with the Western Sudan. On account of these facts alone, it is the best match for Ibn Battuta’s Yufi. Moreover, on linguistic grounds, Yufi is a Mandé or an Arabic transliteration of “Ufè,” the proper name for “Ifè” in a central Yorùbá dialect.”

There was even evidence of Coptic cross motifs found on objects, burial sites, and statues in the Ife Empire. Historic Ife ritual contexts also suggest possible early Coptic Christian contact through long distance trade. There is also likely Ife regalia modeled on an ancient Nubian shield ring that probably reached the Ife Empire between the 12th to the 14th Century era through trade.

 

“In the centuries of Ife’s great wealth and influence, it does not seem to have had any significant military establishment. The traditions provide no account of external wars or military action; the impression one gets is that, after the suppression of the Igbo-Igbo (i.e., not the Igbo African ethnic group or tribe from present-day Southeastern Nigeria) raids, Ife did not have to defend its interests with any major force. Small royal establishments held the toll posts on the main trade routes to provide security and collect the king’s toll. Beyond that, no military establishment seems to have been needed or created.” – Dr. Stephen Adebanji Akintoye

 

The Ife Empire gradually became the exalted leader of the world around the country, not using arms, but by the influence of the expansion of its enormous cultural heritage. The empire of Ife was held together by power of commerce, the belief in a common ancestry, and the manifested oneness of cultural heritage.



Image I (Slide I): Ori-olokun sculpture which sits at the entrance of the ancestral city of Ile Ife. The ancient city is home to beautifully preserved artworks in bronze and terracotta which holds the potential for authentic ethnological studies of Yoruba culture, these are on show in its museum of Ife antiquities located in the Kings palace at Enuwa Square Ile Ife.


Image II (Slide II): 14. Orisanla priests, Ile-Ife. Photo: R. Manny, 1949, IFAN.

 

Image III (Slide III): Ife Empire. c. 1200 – 1420 AD. The Ife Empire during the mid-14th century. 

 

The Ife people are the first Yoruba people who are ancient, originally spiritual, highly advanced artistically, creatively, and intellectually, and master agriculturalists.

 

“The royal city of Ile-Ife, the heart of the kingdom of Ife – and source of light to the Yoruba people – had come to stay.” – Dr. Stephen Adebanji Akintoye




Sources:

 

Akintoye, S. A History of the Yoruba People. Amalion Publishing. (Jan 1, 2010). Dec. 13, 2023. p. 81, 98, 119, 139, 153.


apple.news. Nigerian Treasures: The Majestic Art of Ife – National Geographic History. apple.news. Pinterest. Dec. 13, 2023. https://www.pinterest.com/pin/690739661620917939/


Dayo, B. Do You Remember How Geles Were Back In The Day? APR News. Aug. 23, 2018. Dec. 13, 2023. https://apr-news.fr/en/actualites/do-you-remember-how-geles-were-back-day


Kwekudee. Ife People: Ancient Artistic, Highly Spiritual and First Yoruba People. Trip Down Memory Lane. Blogspot. Sept. 14, 2014. Dec.. 13, 2023. https://kwekudee-tripdownmemorylane.blogspot.com/2014/09/ife-people-ancient-artistic-highly_14.html?m=1


Oramfe. File: Oududwa Flag.jpg. Wikimedia Commons. March 15, 2021. https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oduduwa_Flag.jpg


Ronnyswork. Ife Means Love, Yoruba Language, African Word Art, Printable Download, Love Affirmations, Positive Word Art, Simple Unique Afrocentric Quote. Ronnyswork. Etsy. Dec. 13, 2023. https://www.etsy.com/Ronnyswork/listing/555905118/ife-means-love-yoruba-language-african?utm_campaign=Share&utm_term=so.smt&share_time=1509855792000


Walker, R. When We Ruled: The Ancient and Mediaeval History of Black Civilizations. Black Classic Press. (May 1, 2011). Dec. 13, 2023. p. 384.


Wikipedia. Ife Empire. Dec. 13, 2023. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ife_Empire


 

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