According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a golden age is a term that defines “a period of great happiness, prosperity, and achievement”, essentially meaning that it is a point at which there is a high yield in the concentrated discipline. When further contextualising this to define what the golden age of an empire is, a coherent definition emerges: an Empirical Golden Age is an extended period for an empire that is characterised by prosperity in the three sustainability measures of political, societal, and economical factors. In comparing the Songhai and Ming dynasties of Africa and China respectively, neither empire exemplifies the characteristics of a Golden Age, contrary to the mainstream perception of each of these empires, which is largely due to the lack of a proper political structure.
The Songhai Empire was an extremely prominent West African empire near the Niger River in the late 15th century up until the 1590s, and an exemplar of how a strong empire may not sustain a full Golden Age. A large part of the Songhai’s existence is considered a Golden Age, as early under the leadership of their first leader, Sunni Ali, they were able to seize Timbuktu, establish their capital of Gao, and build up enormous economic inter-empirical trade routes from their location through numerous parts of sub-Saharan Africa. The Songhai fostered relationships with foreign empires through trade, and later had slaves who would fight in wars as soldiers, allowing the people to grow their economy further. They had a centralised focus on music and pottery, and practised tribal religions, and had over five languages. After his untimely death, Sunni Ali’s son, Sunni Barū succeeded him and the Sunni-Songhai empire was soon taken over by the Askians, who had none of the leadership requisites but were easily able to overthrow Sunni Barū. During the reign of Askia Ishaq II, the bad political structure and battle against the smaller Moroccan forces led to their ultimate destruction at the Battle of Tondibi. Though having larger armies, they were already overrun with civil war and strife, and thus could not sustain an external battle as well.
The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) was an ancient Chinese empire that began their claim to a golden age in the early 1400s, but they did not sustain a full golden age either. The Ming dynasty was created from the victory of their first leader Zhu Yuanzhang in Beijing. They then established two primary trade systems: the tribute system, which was trade between others and the Emperor, who would be given exotic items in exchange for his permission grant for trade in the 1400s, and Maritime trade – the allowance of the diffusion of European culture into China, while maintaining silk exports from China – in the 1500s. and this widened China’s eclecticism and artistic culture. Also, the Ming dynasty upheld an extremely strong military, which helped with the extended defence against their primary enemies, the Mongols.
However, much like the Songhai, the Ming ended amidst expansion when Li Zicheng, a poor man, managed to take over Beijing, and capitalised on the political unrest caused by previous peasant uprisings (the Ming were class organised), and create the Shun dynasty, leading the Ming’s collapse and the suicide of the final Chongzen Emperor of the Ming, showing their lack of scalable government.
In comparing both the Songhai and Ming dynasties, there is a clear similarity between the two; they both lacked a scalable political solution that contributed to their sustenance. They instead used the clan system and absolute monarchy respectively, which led to an ultimate internal revolt that weakened them enough so that they could be easily defeated.
Even with extremely large populations in the Songhai, and the feared powerful military of the Ming they were rendered incapable of defence once enough congestion built up in their empires due to their political structures. In both empires, it is evident that they were successful in both economic trade and societal expansion, but did not have a governmental pattern that could be succeeded and evolved into new empires, rather than destroyed. Ultimately, it was a political organisation that affected other aspects of culture that resulted in an unfavorable result for both empires. As such, it cannot be said that these empires experienced Golden Ages, as they did not fulfill all of the proper characteristics.
Overall, it is unambiguous that these empires experienced a similar problem that refutes their claim to the Golden Age, but it can also be applied as a general statement in ancient empires. This is fortified by the fact that this study drew information from two extremely different ancient empires of diverse periods that make such an analysis holistically applicable, along with the addition of primary sources to further audit the weights and biases being applied to the overall comparison of empirical downfalls. Though in contemporary society, numerous literature and formal education sites such as the Songhai and Ming as golden ages, further steps need to be taken to validate such an assumption. Through further research, it is revealed that many empires lacked the assimilative capabilities of political structures, thus not making them full Golden Age empires.
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