Few states in history have testified to the theory that geography determines destiny as vociferously as the Mali Empire. Centred on the banks of the Niger River, the Mali existed at the junction point of two very different worlds that had little contact with one another; to the south lay the peoples of Sub-Saharan West Africa, while to the north lay the Mediterranean basin. This liminal position fostered a unique culture, which borrowed heavily from the civilisations which lay on either side of the great desert. But geography conferred another key advantage on the West African state; the empire sat on goldmines so vast that Mali would become the wealthiest power on the planet, and earn the continent of Africa itself a reputation for limitless riches.
Other than the thin strip of land bordering the Mediterranean Sea and the region surrounding Nile River, the Romans never controlled, or ever really even sought to control, North Africa. The reason for this was simple: travelling the Sahara was excruciatingly difficult, and trying to despatch soldiers or collect taxes from across the desert was effectively impossible. Yet that did not mean the Sahara was entirely impassable – although armies or empires couldn’t cross the ocean of sand, handfuls of brave and well organised merchants could. They certainly had enough incentive to make the perilous journey; the southern part of the West African region is one of the most gold-abundant regions in the world, only rivalled by South Africa, Siberia, Australia and the Americas – lands no empires of the medieval world had access to.
Accordingly, gold was even more scarce then than it is today, and the vast deposits of southern West Africa were all the more sought after. In return for their gold, the communities of these regions demanded salt, a substance that was vital to all pre-industrial societies due to its ability to preserve meats. By chance, North Africa possessed an abundance of salt it could trade with the gold-rich communities beyond the Sahara. Indeed, salt was one of the few resources that could be found in this region, with the travelling historian Ibn Battuta writing of towns north of the Niger River where houses and temples were built entirely from mineral, as the desert yielded nothing else but sand. Enterprising traders soon saw their opportunity, and quickly began mapping the routes which would lead them from the salt mines of the north to the gold reserves of the south.
Any state which could secure and police these commercial lanes would be able to lay claim to a large portion of the merchants’ gold, and grow fantastically wealthy as a result. The first empire to do so was that of Ghana, which conquered the lands between the salt and gold mines in the 4th Century. The Ghanaians held power in this region for nine hundred years, before they ultimately collapsed in the early 13th Century. The years following the fall of Ghana witnessed a scramble for power, as various successor states struggled to seize the old empire’s mantle.
Eventually, in the 1230s, Sundiata Keita defeated his final opponents and became the first ruler of the Mali – events which were later mythologised in the Epic of Sundiata. His reign witnessed a period of general prosperity, and his victorious army swept through West Africa, carving him out a realm larger even than the great Ghana Empire. While the Ghanaians had been content merely to tax the trade routes, the new African power began to conquer the gold and salt producing regions; instead of merely controlling the merchants, the Mali would control the supply itself. Yet the more the Mali Empire expanded, it began to come into ever closer contact with a radically different society.
The Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th Centuries had been a watershed moment in world history. Everything between the Atlantic Coast and the Indian Subcontinent was brought under the rule of the caliphs, who introduced these lands to Arabic government, the Arab language and Islam. Just as it had frustrated the Romans before them, the Sahara made it impossible for the Arabs to conquer lands beyond North Africa, but the Muslim empires still exerted an almost gravitational pull on the regions beyond their formal control. Fascinated with the language, state institutions and trade network of the Arabs, the enthralled elites of many West African kingdoms began borrowing ideas from the new northerners, including the faith of Islam itself – partially out of interest, and partially to maintain good relations with the great Muslim powers.
The Mali Empire was one such West African kingdom. The religion was enthusiastically received; the Malians were extremely disciplined when it came to attending prayers, they rigorously purified themselves and some began placing their children in chains until they had memorised the whole Quran. Yet Mali never had Islam imposed after being conquered by the caliphs – the religion was adopted, and it was adopted with a distinctly West African flair. Arab travellers were shocked by the way the women of Mali behaved – they were permitted to freely talk with males they were not related to and, instead of covering themselves appropriately, many simply strolled the streets of the capital topless. Similarly, the travellers were suspicious of how prevalent African traditions were – the monarch usually kept two donkeys and two horses with him at all times, to ward off spirits, and when addressing their monarch, subjects were expected to flick sand behind their backs. In this way, the Mansas (the King-Emperors of Mali) struck a careful balancing act between pleasing both the Islamic traders and their poorer subjects, who were strongly predisposed to favour the traditions of Mali’s past.
Unfortunately, Mali was wracked with turmoil in the years following Sundiata’s death. The rules of succession in the Mali Empire seem to have been extremely vague, and certainly nothing as rigid as primogeniture was ever introduced. Accordingly, almost every Mansa’s death was followed by a dynastic dispute. Furthermore, few of those who eventually became Mansas were good rulers, with most taking instead after Khalifa, a Mansa who developed a penchant for shooting arrows at his subjects. Eventually, Mansa Muhammad ibn Qu (also referred to as Abu Bakr II) managed to convince himself that there lay beyond the Atlantic a great island of rivers and gold. Accordingly, he personally accompanied a fleet headed towards the setting Sun, convinced he would become the first Mansa to lead the Mali into this brave new world. He was never seen again. When the Malians lost hope that their Mansa would return, they crowned the regent, a man named Musa.
The state Musa I inherited was wealthy, vibrant and cultured, but it was also extremely autocratic. The name Mali comes from the local word for ‘where the King dwells’, and the empire was run largely as the personal property of the Mansa. The all-important gold mines were owned by the state and, as Musa was himself the state, were the monarch’s possessions. The northern salt mines were, effectively, labour camps, and the movements of foreigners were strictly controlled. Punishments were harsh, with one state penalty being forced to live among a community of cannibals who dwelt on the edge of the empire.
Musa’s first act as Mansa was to raise the great Malian army and begin fanning out across West Africa. In an age when most European armies were between 10,000 and 30,000 strong, Musa could mobilise 100,000 men. With such overwhelming force, Musa was able to conquer more vital mines than even Sundiata, and he carved out for himself an empire larger than any Africa had seen before – indeed, only the Mongol Khans in the east controlled more land at the time. This expanded Mali state now possessed almost two-thirds of the old world’s gold supplies, making Musa unimaginably wealthy.
Musa then prepared to make the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. As well as being a display of piety, the Hajj was also an opportunity for Musa to forge closer ties with the lands north of Mali and to attract Arab scholars and judges, who were invaluable tools for governments throughout the Islamic world which wished to further centralise their authority. Musa had a simple strategy to attract allies, commercial partners and Muslim bureaucrats: he would show the world the fortune his goldmines had granted him, and dazzle all with displays of his breathtaking riches.
According to legend, and much of what we know about Musa’s famed Hajj is based either on oral tradition or the reports of later writers, the Mansa brought with him a retinue of 60,000 servants, each of whom wore the finest Persian silk. Five hundred slaves walked before the main party, all carrying solid gold staffs. Musa brought with him no fewer than eighty camels, each of which carried three hundred pounds of gold. Attempting to calculate relative purchasing power across seven centuries is futile, but the amount of gold these camels alone carried would be worth around £500 million today. When Musa arrived in Egypt, he sent the local ruler a gift of more than four hundred pounds of gold and, when he stayed in Cairo for a few months, Musa spent so much that he flooded the market with gold, leading to hyperinflation and a decade long economic slump.
These tales have led some to argue Mansa Musa ought to be considered the wealthiest man in history, and some modern commentators have placed his wealth at around $400 billion. Ultimately, such ‘precise’ figures are entirely fanciful, and it is utterly impossible to declare that one person was the wealthiest person in human history. How would Musa compare with men like Stalin, who – though he did not travel to Yalta accompanied by a camel train laden with gold – had virtually unlimited access to the resources of a continent-sprawling industrialised nation-state? What can be stated, however, is that Musa almost certainly possessed more immediately accessible wealth than any of his contemporaries in either Europe or Africa, and had an effectively limitless supply of capital to spend.
Musa succeeded in his objective of purchasing a brain trust the Islamic world’s finest minds – the Mansa procured one polymath by merely throwing two hundred kilograms of gold at his feet. Musa spent more than a year on the Hajj, and when he finally returned to West Africa, he was accompanied by a small army of architects, scholars and other intellectuals. During the Mansa’s absence, his armies had continued their conquests, bringing both Timbuktu and Gao (two wealthy city states on the western side of the Niger River) under the Mali’s influence. Musa toured Timbuktu before he journeyed back to the Malian heartland, and resolved to transform the city; using his fortune and his newly acquired advisors, the Mansa would turn Timbuktu into the cultural centre of Africa.
The great existing mosques of Timbuktu were converted into madrassas, or Islamic schools. The eventual product was the University of Sankore; with a capacity of 25,000 students and hundreds of thousands of hand written manuscripts, the university was the greatest institution of its kind since the Library of Alexandria had been destroyed. Still not content, Musa then ordered the construction of the Djinguereber Mosque, a vast temple that could host 2,500 worshippers at once. An apt metaphor for the Mali state itself, the Djinguereher Mosque was a fusion of the West African and Islamic; erected to worship Allah, the mosque was not built from stone as buildings were in the Arabian Peninsula, but mud brick, the standard material favoured by the builders of West Africa.
It is worth noting that the oral tradition is not kind to Mali’s most famous ruler. The name Musa has become synonymous in Malian with the famed pilgrimage, but it has also become intertwined with all things Arabic. Many Malians, it seemed, viewed their Mansa as a xenophiliac wastrel, who squandered their nation’s resources. Several modern scholars have sympathised with this perspective, though it is worth noting that the Mali state continued to prosper in the years immediately after Musa’s death. After a brief and mysterious reign by his son, Mansa Magdha, Musa was succeeded by his brother, Mansa Suleyman. Suleyman adopted a policy of austerity, and began to cut down on what were perceived as frivolous expenses – something that suggests that Musa’s unlimited wealth was not, perhaps, as unlimited as appearances implied. Ultimately, Suleyman’s reign was successful, and he skilfully steered the ship of state until his death.
Unfortunately, the following leaders faced a growing menace – the Songhai Empire. The rebellious city of Gao rose up in defiance of the Mali yoke, and the Mansas were unable to quell the revolt. The newly independent city ruthlessly began exploiting the political unrest in the Mali Empire, caused by a series of weak kings and succession disputes. A century after Mansa Suleyman’s passing, Sonni Ali led Gao in a shock campaign that smashed the Mali Empire, captured Timbuktu and seized all the lands touching the Niger. As the enlarged Gao was rechristened the Songhai Empire, the Mali Empire was reduced to a rump state. When Sonni Ali drowned in the Niger, many in Mali might have hoped that his successor would prove to be a less capable leader. Unfortunately, Sonni Ali’s son was swiftly deposed in a military coup by one of his generals, Askia – later known to history as Askia the Great. Askia began his reign by seizing the valuable salt mines from the Malians and, when they tried to resist him, he met them in battle, crushed them and took even more of their lands.
Yet the final nail in the Mali Empire’s coffin would not be hammered in by Songhai. North of the Sahara, the Moroccan Sultan, Ahmad al-Mansur, had resolved to expand his kingdom southwards. In an astonishing feat of logistics, the Moroccans, with the assistance of some 8,000 camels, were able to lead an army of around 5,000 through the desert. 12,000 soldiers from Songhai marched against the Moroccans, but al-Mansur’s men, armed with new gunpowder weapons, quickly cut them to pieces. The Moroccans pushed further, eventually encountering and defeating the Mali, though only after a bloody battle at Djenne. Mali’s strength was truly broken, and though the Moroccans did not conquer Mali outright, one more succession crisis proved too much for the empire to manage. In 1610, Mansa Mahmoud Keita IV died, and his three sons began a long and futile civil war. This time, with its army broken, its control of the Niger lost and its remaining goldmines having been rendered considerably less valuable by the riches of the recently discovered New World, the Mali state failed to reconstitute itself, and no true Mansa emerged. The Mali Empire had come to a close.
Ibn Khaldun., Kitab al’-Ibar
Ibn Battuta., The Travels of Ibn Battuta
Oliver, P., 2013. Mansa Musa and the Empire of Mali. CreateSpace