The original empire was called Kanem and grew out of a coalition of chiefdoms near Lake Chad, located on the trade routes that linked sub-Saharan Africa with the Middle East. But a group called the Kanuri migrated into the Kanem area in the 1100s and in the 13th C the Kanuri began to conquer the surrounding areas. The main expansion occurred under Mai (King) Dunama Dibbalemi of the Sefuwa (Saifawa?) dynasty, who reigned from 1221 to 1259. He was the first of the Kanuri to convert to Islam and he declared jihad against the surrounding tribes and initiated an extended period of conquest. After consolidating their territory around Lake Chad they struck north at the Fezzan (Libya) and west at the Hausa lands (Nigeria).
This expansion was to protect the trade routes to the north. As the trade grew as did the power of the Kanuri Empire. In return for fabrics, salt, minerals and slaves, they received copper, guns, and horses. At the greatest extent, the Kanuri controlled a large strategic chunk of northern Africa. All the trade routes in north Africa had to pass through this territory. The culture of the Kanuri changed as their wealth increased, they gradually moved from a nomadic lifestyle into sedentary lifestyle build around urban centres, such as Njimi the first capital of the empire.
Following the death of Dunama Dibbalemi, internal rivalries began to seriously affect the empire. However in the early 1400s the Sefuwa dynasty reorientated from Kanem to Bornu, a kingdom to the west of Lake Chad. But it took until 1500 for the empire to regain its footing. The reign of Mai Ali Gaji (1497 - 1515) ended the internal division within the Empire, his forces recaptured the old capital Njima from the rebel Bulala dynasty, but he established a new capital at Ngazargamu. This revival coincided with the collapse of the Songhai Empire, creating an lucky opportunity into which the Kanem-Bornu stepped.
The Kanuri grew powerful enough during the reign of Mai Idris Alooma (1575-1610) to re-establish authority in the Fezzan area and the Hausa lands using a army equipped with muskets supplied by the Ottomans. Idris Alawma was another fervent Muslim, he saw his position as a mandate to spread Islam across Africa and internal jihads were launched to convert non-muslim subjects. He also set out the political and administrative foundations for the empire that was to last another 250 years.
The empire finally collapsed in the 1840s, it had been challenged by the growing anti-Muslim power of the Hausa states (see Usman dan Fodio) for many years (the Kanem capital had been destroyed in 1808) and the arrival of the colonial powers was the final blow. The empire was absorbed into the Wadai kingdom in 1846.
The history of the Kanuri from Mai Dunama Dibbalemi onwards is known from the Diwan (Royal Chronicles) discovered in 1850 by H Barth, a German archeologist.
see History of Islam