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Urban commune and town
La Dune Rose and Gao city as seen from the top of the Tomb of Askia.
La Dune Rose and Gao city as seen from the top of the Tomb of Askia.
Country Mali (de jure)
 Azawad (de facto)
CercleGao Cercle
226 m (744 ft)
 • Total86,633
Time zoneUTC+0 (GMT)

Gao (pronounced /goʊ/) is the temporary capital of the de facto independent state of Azawad. Internationally, it is recognised as part of Mali. The city is located on the River Niger, lying 320 km (200 mi) east-southeast of Timbuktu. Situated on the left bank of the river at the junction with the Tilemsi valley, it is the capital of the Gao Region and had a population of 86,633 in 2009.

For much of its history Gao was an important commercial centre involved in the trans-Saharan trade. External Arabic sources state that by the 9th century Gao was already an important regional power, and by the end of the 10th century, the local ruler was a Muslim. Towards the end of the 13th century, Gao lost its independence and became part of the Mali Empire, but in first half of the 15th century, the town regained its independence and with the conquests of Sonni Ali (ruled 1464–1492) Gao became the capital of the Songhai Empire. The Empire collapsed after the Moroccan invasion in 1591 and the invaders chose to make Timbuktu their stronghold. By the time of Heinrich Barth's visit in 1854, Gao had declined to become a impoverished village with 300 huts constructed from matting. By 2009, it had a population of 86633.

On 31 March 2012, Gao was captured from Malian government forces by National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Ancar Dine rebels. After the additional captures of Kidal and Timbuktu, on 6 April, the MNLA declared the region independent of Mali as the nation of Azawad[2] and named Gao its capital.[3]



Gao is located on the eastern bank of the Niger River at the junction with the Tilemsi Valley. The sprawling town is the largest in eastern Mali. It is connected to the capital, Bamako at the western end of Mali, by 1200 km of good paved road. In 2006 the Wabaria bridge was inaugurated to replace the ferry service across the Niger.[4] The bridge was constructed by the China State Construction Engineering Corporation and financed by the Islamic Development Bank and the Malian government.

The town is strategically placed with road links (unpaved) to the desert Kidal Region to the north and to Niamey, the capital of Niger, to the south. The road to the south runs along the left bank of the river. The town of Ansongo is 103 km from Gao. The border with Niger is just south of the village of Labbezanga, a distance of 204 km.

There are also seasonal ferry services on the Niger River. A service between Gao and Koulikoro, a distance of 1380 km, is managed by the Compagnie Malienne de Navigation (COMANAV). It usually operates from the end of July, after the annual rains when there is sufficient water in the river, until mid November.[5] Smaller boats are able to operate for a longer season between Bourem and Ansongo.

The town is expanding rapidly. In the 1998 census the population of the urban commune was 52,201. By the census in 2009 this had increased to 86,633, a 4.7% annual growth rate.[1] For administrative purposes, the commune is divided into nine quartiers: Gadeye, Farandjiré, Aljanabanbia, Djoulabougou, Saneye, Sosso Koïra, Boulgoundjé, Château and Djidara.[6] The urban commune is bounded to the north by the commune of Soni Ali Ber, to the east by the commune of Anchawadi and to the south and west by the commune of Gounzoureye.


Climate data for Gao, Mali
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °F (°C) 100
Average high °F (°C) 87.4
Daily mean °F (°C) 72.7
Average low °F (°C) 58.6
Record low °F (°C) 47
Precipitation inches (mm) 0.00
Source: World Meteorological Organization [7]

The climate is hot and dry with the only rainfall occurring between June and September. August is normally the wettest month. The average annual rainfall is only 220 mm but there are large year to year variations. May is the hottest month with an average maximum temperature of 43 °C. December and January are the coolest months with minimum temperatures of 15 °C. From October to March during the dry period the north-easterly Harmattan wind blows from the Sahara. When it blows strongly the dust-laden wind reduces visibility and creates a persistent haze.

With the low rainfall the vegetation away from the river is sparse and consists mainly of various species of Acacia (Acacia raddiana, Acacia nilotica, Acacia ehrenbergiana) and Balanites aegyptiaca. The herbaceous plants are dominated by Cenchrus biflorus and Panicum laetum.[8]

Annual flood of the Niger River

Almost all the local agriculture depends on river water for irrigation. The annual flood of the Niger River is a result of the heavy rainfall in the headwaters of the Niger and Bani rivers in Guinea and the northern Ivory Coast. The rainfall in the headwater areas peaks in August but the flood water takes time to pass down the river system, through the Inner Niger Delta region and arrive at Gao. At Koulikoro the flood peaks in September,[9] while in Gao the flood lasts longer and reaches a maximum in December.[10] There is a large year to year variation in the extent of the flooding. The existing and proposed dams upstream of Gao reduce the overall flow of the river and could potentially have a large effect on the local agriculture.[11] When in flood the river is 4 km wide at Gao but during the dry season a number of islands appear in the river. There is very little flow, only 5% of the maximum, in June and July.


The history of the Gao Empire precedes that of the Songhay Empire in the region of the Middle Niger. Both empires had the town of Gao as their capital. Apart from some Arabic epitaphs on tombstones discovered in 1939 at the cemetery of Gao-Saney (6 km to the east of the city)[12] there are no surviving indigenous written records that date from before the middle of the 17th century.[13] Our knowledge of the early history of the town relies on the writings of external Arabic geographers living in Morocco, Egypt and Andalusia, most of whom never visited the region. These authors referred to the town as Kawkaw or Kuku. The two key 17th century chronicles, the Tarikh al-Sudan and the Tarikh al-fattash, provide information on the town at the time of the Songhay Empire but they contain relatively little on the social and economic history.[14] The chronicles do not, in general, acknowledge their sources.[15] Their accounts for the earlier periods are almost certainly based on oral tradition and for events before the second half of the 15th century they are likely to be less reliable. For these earlier periods the two chronicles sometimes provide conflicting information.

The earliest mention of Gao is by al-Khwārizmī who wrote in the first half of the 9th century.[16] In the 9th century Gao was already an important regional power. Al-Yaqubi wrote in his Tarikh in around 872:

There is the kingdom of the Kawkaw, which is the greatest of the realms of the Sūdān, the most important and most powerful. All the kingdoms obey its king. Al-Kawkaw is the name of the town. Besides this there are a number of kingdoms of which the rulers pay allegiance to him and acknowledge his sovereignty, although they are kings in their own lands.[17]

Ibn al-Faqih (writing c. 903) mentions a caravan route from Egypt to ancient Ghana via Kawkaw,[18] but Ibn Hawqal (writing c. 988) states that the old route from Egypt to the Sudan was abandoned in the reign of the Egyptian ruler Ibn Tulun (ruled 868–884) as some of the caravans were attacked by bandits while others were overwhelmed by the wind-blown sand.[19] The more direct route was replaced by one that went to Sijilmasa before heading south across the Sahara.

In the 10th century Gao is already Muslim and is described as consisting of two separate towns. Al-Muhallabi, who died in 990, wrote in a lost work quoted in the biographical dictionary compiled by Yaqut:

Their king pretends before his subject to be a Muslim and most of them pretend to be Muslims too. He has a town on the Nile [Niger], on the eastern bank, which is called Sarnāh, where there are markets and trading houses and to which there is continuous traffic from all parts. He has another town to the west of the Nile [Niger] where he and his men and those who have his confidence live. There is a mosque there where he prays but the communal prayer ground is between the two towns.[20]

UNESCO World Heritage Site
Tomb of Askia
Name as inscribed on the World Heritage List
Gao, the Tomb of Askia
Criteriaii, iii, iv
UNESCO regionAfrica
Inscription history
Inscription2004 (28th Session)

The archaeological evidence suggests that there were two settlements on the eastern bank of the Niger:[21] Gao Ancien situated within the modern town, to the east of the Tomb of Askia, and the archaeological site of Gao-Saney (Sané in French) situated around 4 km to the east. The bed of the Wadi Gangaber passes to the south of the Gao-Saney occupation mound (tell) but to the north of Gao Ancien. The imported pottery and glass recovered from Gao-Saney suggest that the site was occupied between the 10th and 13th centuries. It is possible that Gao-Saney corresponds to Sarnāh of al-Muhallabi.[22] Al-Bakri writing in 1068 also records the existence of two towns,[23] but al-Idrisi writing in around 1154 does not.[24] Both al-Muhallabi (see quote above) and al-Bakri[25] situate Gao on the west (or right bank) of the Niger. The 17th century Tarikh al-fattash also states that in the 10th century Gao was situated on the Gourma side (i.e. the west bank) of the river.[26] A large sand dune, La Dune Rose, lies on the west bank opposite Gao, but at Koima, on the edge of the dune at a site 4 km north of Gao, surface deposits indicate a pre 9th century settlement. This could be the west bank Gao mentioned by 10th and 11th century authors. The site has not been excavated.[27]

Al-Sadi in his Tarikh al-Sudan gives a slightly later date for the introduction of Islam. He lists 32 rulers of the Zuwa dynasty and states that in 1009–1010 A.D. the 15th ruler, Zuwa Kusoy, was the first to convert to Islam.[28] He does not actually specify where they lived except for the legendary founder of the dynasty, Zuwa Alayman who he claims came from the Yemen to Kukiya.[29][30]

Towards the end of the 13th century Gao lost its independence and became part of the expanding Mali Empire.[31] What happened to the Zuwa rulers is not recorded.[32] Ibn Battuta visited Gao in 1353 when the town formed part of the Mali Empire. He arrived by boat from Timbuktu on his return journey from visiting the capital of the Empire:

Then I travelled to the town of Kawkaw, which is a great town on the Nīl [Niger], one of the finest, biggest, and most fertile cities of the Sūdān. There is much rice there, and milk, and chickens, and fish, and the cucumber, which has no like. Its people conduct their buying and selling with cowries, like the people of Mālī.[33]

After staying a month in the town, Ibn Battuta left with a caravan for Takedda and from there headed north back across the Sahara to an oasis in Tuat with a large caravan that included 600 slave girls.

Sometime in the 14th century, Ali Kulun, the first ruler of the Sunni dynasty, rebelled against the Malian hegemony but the Malians were able to regain control.[34][35] It was not until the first half of the 15th century that Sunni Sulayman Dama was able to throw off the Malian yoke. His successor, Sunni Ali Ber (1464–1492), greatly expanded the territory under Songhay control and established the Songhay Empire. He made Gao his capital.

Leo Africanus visited Gao sometime between 1506 and 1510 when the town was ruled by Askiya Muhammad I, the first ruler of the Askiya dynasty. He observed that the large town lacked a surrounding wall and was full of rich merchants.

The town is very civilized compared to Timbuktu. Bread and meat are abundant, though you cannot find wine or fruits. Actually, melons, cucumbers, and excellent squash are plentiful, and there are enormous quantities of rice. There are many sweet water wells. There is a square where on market days huge numbers of slaves are sold, both male and female. A young girl of fifteen is worth about six ducats, and a young man almost as much; small children are worth about half as much as grown slaves.[36]

Towards the end of the 16th century, Gao controlled an empire that extended for over 1,4000 km2.[37] The Tarikh al-fattash reports that a survey conducted during the reign of Askiya Al-Hajj (1582–1586) found that there were 7,626 houses without counting the huts made of straw.[38] Assuming each house was occupied by an average of 6 people, this would imply a population of around 45,000.

The Moroccan invasion of 1591 led to the collapse of the Songhay Empire. The invaders chose to make Timbuktu their stronghold.

The German explorer Heinrich Barth visited Gao in 1854 on his return journey from Timbuktu. He found a village of about 300 huts constructed of matting and grouped in clusters.[39] The inhabitants were very poor and had few boats as they lacked wood for their construction. The site of the ancient town was overgrown with Capparis decidua bushes.[40]

The town remained small until French rule was imposed in the early twentieth century, expanding the port and establishing a colonial base.[citation needed]

On 31 March 2012, one day after the capture of Kidal, Malian military forces retreated from Gao's military bases, allowing it to be occupied by Tuareg rebellion member groups MNLA and Ancar Dine.[41] Timbuktu was captured the following day.[42] On 6 April, the MNLA declared the region independent of Mali as the nation of Azawad.[43]


The population of Gao mostly speak Songhay but includes many ethnicities, including the Bozo (traditionally nomadic river dwellers), Fulfulde/Fulani cattle herders, and Tuareg nomads, as well as Bambara peoples from western Mali.

The seventh Festival des arts et cultures songhay was celebrated in February 2007 at Gao, reflecting the city's importance as a Songhay cultural capital.[44]


Attractions in Gao include the original fourteenth century Gao Mosque, the Askia Tomb (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) built in 1495 and incorporating another mosque, a museum devoted to the Sahel, markets including a night market, and La Dune Rose, a sand dune named for its appearance at dawn and nightfall.

After the 2012 rebellion forced the Malian Army out of Gao and the state of Azawad was proclaimed, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad took control of the governor's building, flying the flag of Azawad over it and rechristening it the Palace of Azawad.[45]

Twin Cities

Gao is twinned with Thionville, France and Berkeley, California, USA.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Resultats Provisoires RGPH 2009 (Région de Gao) (PDF), République de Mali: Institut National de la Statistique
  2. "Tuareg rebels declare the independence of Azawad, north of Mali". Al Arabiya. 6 April 2012. Retrieved 6 April 2012.
  3. "Tuaregs claim 'independence' from Mali". Al Jazeera. 6 April 2012. Retrieved 6 April 2012.
  4. Chabasseur, Eglantine (12 November 2006), Le pont de Gao, "un rêve devenu réalité" (in French), Radio France internationale, retrieved 10 December 2010CS1 maint: unrecognized language (link)
  5. Coulibaly, Baye (7 April 2010), Comanav : Les bateau de la discord (in French), L'Essor, retrieved 20 December 2010CS1 maint: unrecognized language (link)
  6. Plan de Securite Alimentaire Commune Urbaine de Gao 2005–2009 (PDF) (in French), Commissariat à la Sécurité Alimentaire, République du Mali, USAID-Mali, 2005CS1 maint: unrecognized language (link).
  7. World Meteorological Organization. "Weather Info for Gao". World Meteorological Organization. Retrieved 9 April 2012.
  8. Schéma Directeur de Lutte Contre L’ensablement dans le Nord Du Mali (6ème Et 7ème Régions): Monographie de la Commune de Soni Ali Ber (PDF) (in French), Ministère de l’Environnement et de L’assainissement, République du Mali, 2004CS1 maint: unrecognized language (link)
  9. Composite Runoff Fields V 1.0: Koulikoro, University of New Hampshire/Global Runoff Data Center, retrieved 30- Jan-2011 Check date values in: |accessdate= (help).
  10. Composite Runoff Fields V 1.0: Ansongo, University of New Hampshire/Global Runoff Data Center, retrieved 30 January 2011.
  11. Zwarts, Leo (2010), Will the Inner Niger Delta shrivel up due to climate change and water use upstream? A&W Report 1537. Commissioned by Wetlands International (PDF), Feanwâlden, The Netherlands: Altenburg & Wymenga.
  12. Sauvaget 1950; Moraes Farias 1990; Lange 1991.
  13. Levtzion & Hopkins 2000, p. 1.
  14. Hunwick 2003, p. xxxviii.
  15. Hunwick 2003, pp. lxiii–lxiv.
  16. Levtzion & Hopkins 2000, p. 7.
  17. Levtzion & Hopkins 2000, p. 7; Levtzion 1973, p. 15
  18. Levtzion & Hopkins 2000, pp. 27, 378 n4.
  19. Levtzion & Hopkins 2000, pp. 45, 51, 382 n21.
  20. Levtzion & Hopkins 2000, p. 174.
  21. Insoll 1997.
  22. Insoll 1997, p. 23.
  23. Levtzion & Hopkins 2000, p. 87.
  24. Levtzion & Hopkins 2000, p. 113.
  25. Levtzion & Hopkins 2000, p. 85.
  26. Kâti 1913, p. 329; Hunwick 1994, p. 265
  27. Insoll 1997, pp. 4–8.
  28. A similar list of rulers is given in the Tarikh al-fattash. Kâti 1913, pp. 331–332
  29. Kukiya is a town mentioned in the Tarikh al-sudan and the Tarikh al-fattash (as Koûkiya in the French translation). It is believed to have been near the modern village of Bentiya on the east side of the Niger 134 km south east of Gao near 15°20′56″N 0°45′36″E / 15.349°N 0.760°E / 15.349; 0.760. Tombstones with Arabic inscriptions dating from the 14th and 15th centuries have been found in the area. Moraes Farias 1980, p. 105
  30. Hunwick 2000, pp. xxxv, 5.
  31. Levtzion 1973, p. 76.
  32. Hunwick 2003, p. xxxvi.
  33. Levtzion & Hopkins 2000, p. 300.
  34. Hunwick 2003, p. xxxvii.
  35. Lange 1994, p. 421.
  36. Hunwick 2003, p. 283.
  37. Hunwick 2003, p. xlix.
  38. Kâti 1913, p. 262
  39. Barth 1859, p. 481
  40. Barth 1859, p. 482
  41. "Mali Tuareg rebels seize key garrison town of Gao". BBC News. 31 March 2012. Retrieved 31 March 2012.
  42. Rukmini Callimachi (1 April 2012). "Mali coup leader reinstates old constitution". Associated Press. Retrieved 31 March 2012.
  43. "Tuareg rebels declare the independence of Azawad, north of Mali". Al Arabiya. 6 April 2012. Retrieved 6 April 2012.
  44. Festival des arts et cultures Songhay: Un facteur d’épanouissement de la région de Gao, Les Echos du 14 février 2007
  45. "Malians protest against Azawad independence". The Telegraph. 6 April 2012. Retrieved 6 April 2012.


Further reading

  • Cornevin, R. (1991), "Gao", Encyclopaedia of Islam Volume 2 (2nd ed.), Leiden: Brill, pp. 976–978, ISBN 9004070265. First published in 1965.
  • Mauny, Raymond (1951), "Notes d'archéologie au sujet de Gao", Bulletin de l'Institut Français d'Afrique Noire (B) (in French), 13: 837–852CS1 maint: unrecognized language (link).
  • Moraes Farias, P.F. de (2003), Arabic medieval inscriptions from the Republic of Mali : Epigraphy, chronicles and Songhay-Tuareg history, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0197262228.

External links

Coordinates: 16°16′N 0°03′W / 16.267°N 0.050°W / 16.267; -0.050

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