Mai Dunama ibn Salma (Dunama II) ruled from 1210 to 1248. He built Kanem into a great regional power. Commanding 30,000 cavalry and an even larger number of infantry, he conducted warfare in the desert. With camels instead of horses, his war machine campaigned against the entire Fezzan region of southern Libya. Crushed were the Bulala of the east. Pillaged were the Hausa cities of northern Nigeria. This latter group were compelled to pay tribute. Dr Davidson reconstructs a scene of: "Swinging tassels in the dust, harness brasses that glitter against quilted armour long spears pennoned and pointed, brilliant cavaliers, all the creak and swing and clatter and pomp of an aristocratic army saddled for sack and loot: with the footsore plebs in goat-skin, armed with clubs and spears and small hope, trailing out behind - such were the warrior columns of the old Sudan [i.e. Africa], the feudal fire and challenge that were thrown, times without number, against the easy marts and watered villages of one imperial region after another, now with one side winning, now with the other."
Mastery of the trade routes and the spoils of war built large state revenues. Kanemi Muslims established a school in Cairo that gained a considerable reputation. The institution had hostel facilities used by Kanem pilgrims going to or from Mecca or studying at Cairo's Al-Azhar University. Regularly they sent money for its upkeep. In 1246 Dunama II exchanged embassies with Al-Mustansir, the king of Tunis. He sent the North African court a costly present, which apparently included a giraffe. An old chronicle noted that the rare animal "created a sensation in Tunis".
Professor Ronald Cohen penned a good summary of the achievements of this early period in his important study on Kanem-Borno culture: "[B]y the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Kanem became a well-known state in the Islamic world. Trans-Saharan commerce was completely controlled, garrisons were built to protect the trade routes, and treaty relations were established with the Hafsid rulers of Tunis … [A] travel[l]er's house … was constructed in Cairo … At the other extreme of the Islamic world, in Spain, a poet from Kanem was renowned … for his praise songs … This was a great period of Islamic civilization and Kanem played its part in that florescence." Sir Richmond Palmer, the pioneering and erudite authority on Kanem-Borno, seemed equally impressed. In his own words: "[T]he degree of civilisation achieved by its early [rulers] would appear to compare favourably with that of European monarchs of that day." Especially when it is understood that "the Christian West had remained ignorant, rude, and barbarous".