Arab traders shown visiting the Malian King Mansa Musa
- medieval Catalan Atlas of Majorca, 1375 AD
According to African oral histories the small state of Kangaba, led by Sundiata defeated the nearby kingdom of Soso at the Battle of Kirina in 1235, founding what was to become the Mali Empire.
Located in West Africa was the second great Sahelian kingdom rising on the heels of fallen Ghana: Mali. The Sahel, the savannah region south of the Sahara which, after c.750, became the center of culturally and politically dynamic cities and kingdoms because of the strategic importance of the region for trade across north Africa. The historical founder of Mali was Sundjata Keita or Sundiata. A figure of both history and legend, he was said to have begun as a royal servant and magician among the Soso peoples who then ruled the Ghanian state
According to African oral histories the small state of Kangaba, led by Sundiata defeated the nearby kingdom of Soso at the Battle of Kirina in 1235. The Soso had been led by king Sumanguru Kante. The clans of the heartland unified under the vigorous Sundiata, now king of the vast region that was to become the Mali Empire, beginning a period of expansion. Sundiata, called The Lion King of Mali, would become immortalized in an epic told and retold by oral historians, Malinke djelis (griots), for centuries.
The early rulers of Mali nominally converted to Islam, but held strong ties with traditional Mande religions. Sundiata was said to have ruled Mali from c.1230-1255. Under Sundiata and his immediate successors, Mali expanded rapidly west to the Atlantic Ocean, south deep into the forest regions, east beyond the Niger River, and north to the salt and copper mines of the Sahara. The city of Niani may have been the capital. At its height, Mali was a confederation of three independent, freely allied states (Mali, Mema, and Wagadou) and 12 garrisoned provinces.
constructed of adobe in the 1900s, it was built on the spot
of an original mosque dating back to the 13th century.
One of the most remembered of the Mali kings was Mansa (meaning king or emperor) Musa. Either the grandson or the grandnephew of Sundiata Keita, Musa came to the throne in c.1307. Sometimes called Mousa or Kanku Musa (Musa son of Kankou, his mother) it was he who expanded Mali's influence over the large Niger city-states of Timbuctu, Gao, and Djenné. A devout Muslim and patron of education, it was Musa who built magnificent mosques and schools all throughout the Mali sphere of influence. Yet it was Musa's elaborate and impressive hajj to Mecca that became enshrined in legends throughout West Africa, the Muslim world and medieval Europe.
Departing from his capital of Niani on the Upper Niger River to Walata (modern day Oualâta, Mauritania) and onto Tuat (now in Algeria) before making his way to Cairo, Egypt, Mansa Musa was accompanied by an impressive caravan that was claimed to have consisted of over 60,000 people including a personal entourage of 12,000 servants, all dressed in brocade and the finest Persian silk.
As the tale is told, the emperor himself rode on horseback and was directly preceded by 500 of his men, each carrying staffs adorned with gold. Most famously, Mansa Musa had a train of 80 camels, each carrying 300 pounds of gold which he lavishly dispensed among the poor. Whether these reports are exaggerated is lost in the historical annals. But it was said that the surplus in gold ruined the markets of regions such as Egypt for years after Musa's visit through their respective kingdoms.
Of his travels through the Egyptian state it was said:
"Mansa Musa's prodigious generosity and piety, as well as the fine clothes and exemplary behavior of his followers, did not fail to create a most favorable impression. The Cairo that Mansa Musa visited was ruled over by one of the greatest of the Mamluk sultans, Al-Malik an-Nasir. The meeting between the two rulers might have ended in a serious diplomatic incident, for so absorbed was Mansa Musa in his religious observances that he was only with difficulty persuaded to pay a formal visit to the sultan. The historian al-'Umari, who visited Cairo 12 years after the emperor's visit, found the inhabitants of this city, with a population estimated at one million, still singing the praises of Mansa Musa. So lavish was the emperor in his spending that he flooded the Cairo market with gold, thereby causing such a decline in its value that, some 12 years later, the market had still not fully recovered".
Mansa Musa's fame and wealth, as well as that of the Mali Empire, was made known far and wide due to his hajj, and his kingdom became enshrined in Genoan and other Mediterranean maps of the era. This panel is of the Catalan Map of Charles V (c.1375 -France, made in Majorca) entitled, "Mansu Musa: Lord of the Negroes of Guinea" showing the Malian king in European dress holding up a large nugget of gold.
Mansa Musa ruled over an empire that was one of the largest in the world at that time. During his pilgrimage to Mecca, one of his generals, Sagmandia (Sagaman-dir), captured the Songai capital of Gao. A kingdom measuring several hundreds of miles across, the conquest of Songhai greatly extended the already spreading Mali Empire. It was boasted by Musa that it would take a year to travel from one end of his empire to the other. Though an exaggeration by a proud king, the 14th-century traveler Ibn Battuta indeed noted that it took about four months to travel from the northern borders of the Mali Empire to Niani in the south.
Delighted with news of the conquest of Songhai, Musa decided to delay his return to Niani and to visit Gao instead. There he accepted the personal submission of the Songhai king and, as was custom, took two Songhai princes back with him to raise as his own. At both Gao and Timbuctu, a Songhai city near equaling Gao's importance, Musa commissioned Abu Ishaq as-Sahili, a Moorish Granada poet and architect who had traveled with him from Mecca, to build several mosques. The Gao mosque, built of burnt bricks, which had not, until then, been used as a material for building in West Africa, was still being admired as late as the 17th century.
with recently discovered texts dating back to medieval Mali
Under Musa, the Timbuctu grew into an important commercial city with caravan connections to Egypt and other important trade centers in the Muslim world. It was under Mansa Musa that Timbuctu also became a major cultural and scholarly center. Under Mansa Musa's patronage, vast libraries were built and "madrasas" (Islamic universities) were endowed; Timbuctu became a meeting-place of the finest Qu'ranic theologians, poets, scholars, and artists of Africa and the Muslim world. Many of the teachers at these schools were said to be paid from the king's own personal treasury. Even after the power of Mali declined, Timbuctu remained the major Islamic center of the region. Timbuctu's sister city of Djenne was also an important center of learning, predating Mali itself. Recent archaeology has placed the antiquity of Djenne at 200 to 250BC.
After the death of Mansa Musa around 1332, the power of Mali began to decline. Losing its sphere of influence, its subject states began to break off and establish themselves independently. In 1430 nomadic Tuareg Berbers in the north seized much of Mali's territory, including the city of Timbuctu. A decade later the Mossi kingdom to the South seized much of Mali's southern territories. Finally, the kingdom of Gao, which had been subjugated to Mali under Mansa Musa, gave rise to a Songhai kingdom that eventually eclipsed the fading Empire of Mali.