When Mansa ("king of kings") Musa came to power (1312 AD), Mali already had firm control of the trade routes to the southern lands of gold and the northern lands of salt. Now Musa brought the lands of the Middle Niger under Mali's rule. He enclosed the cities of Timbuktu and Gao within his empire. He imposed his rule on trans-desert trading towns such as Walata. He pushed his armies northward as far as the important salt-producing place called Taghaza, on the northern side of the great desert. He sent them eastward beyond Gao to the borders of Hausaland. He sent them westward into Takrur.
So it came about that Musa enclosed a large part of the Western Sudan within a single system of law and order. He did this so successfully that the Moroccan writer Ibn Batuta, travelling through Mali about twelve years after Musa's death, found 'complete and general safety in the land'. This was a big political success, and made Mansa Musa one of the greatest statesmen in the history of Africa.
The Dyula (Wangara) traders were greatly helped by all this. Their trading companies began to travel in many parts of West Africa. These Dyula traders were men of skill and energy. But they also drew strength from being Muslims. Belonging to Islam gave them unity. They stuck together even when members of their trading companies came from different clans or territories.
Like the Mali kings before him, Musa was a Muslim. But most of his people were not Muslims, so he supported the religion of the Mandinka people as well as Islam. Different religious customs and ceremonies were allowed at his court.
Musa's pilgrimage to Mecca became famous. He began it in 1324. His magnificent journey through the Egyptian capital of Cairo was long remembered with admiration and surprise throughout Egypt and Arabia, for Musa took with him so much gold, and gave away so many golden gifts, that 'the people of Cairo earned very big sums' thanks to his visit. So generous was Musa with his gifts, indeed, that he upset the value of goods on the Cairo market. Gold became more plentiful and therefore worth less. In the cities of Cairo, Medina and Mecca, the sudden influx of gold devalued the metal for the next decade. Prices on goods and wares super inflated in an attempt to adjust to the newfound wealth that was spreading throughout local populations. To rectify the gold market, Musa borrowed all the gold he could carry from money-lenders in Cairo, at high interest. This is the only time recorded in history that one man directly controlled the price of gold in the Mediterranean. (Goodwin 1957, p. 110)
Mali in the fourteenth century, the North African scholar, Ibn Fadl Allah al-Omari, who lived in Cairo a few years after Mansa Musa's visit and wrote about it, declared that of all the Muslim rulers of West Africa Musa was 'the most powerful, the richest, the most fortunate, the most feared by his enemies and the most able to do good to those around him'. Behind these words of praise we can glimpse the power and reputation that Mali drew from its control of a very wide region of trade in precious goods such as gold, salt, ivory and kola nuts.
Mali was now a power of more than local or even regional significance. Under Mansa Musa, Mali ambassadors were established in Morocco, Egypt, and elsewhere. Mali's capital was visited by North African and Egyptian scholars. On returning from pilgrimage, Musa brought back with him a number of learned men from Egypt. These settled in Mali and Timbuktu. One of them, called as-Saheli, designed new mosques at Gao and Timbuktu, and built a palace for the emperor. The fashion of building houses in brick now began to be popular among wealthy people in the cities of the Western Sudan.
From al-Omari, Masalik al Absar fi Mamalik al Amsar, in the French version of Gaudefroy-Demombynes (Paris: 1927). Translated by Basil Davidson, The African Past (1964):
The Empire of Mali
The title he prefers is that of lord of Mali, the largest of his states; it is the name by which he is most known. He is the most important of the Muslim Negro kings; his land is the largest, his army the most numerous . . .
Reception at Court
The sultan of this kingdom presides in his palace on a great balcony call bembre where he has a great seat of ebony that is like a throne fit for a large and tall person: on either side it is flanked by elephant tusks turned towards each other. His arms stand near him, being all of gold, saber, lance, quiver, bow and arrows. He wears wide trousers made of about twenty pieces of a kind which he alone may wear. Behind him there stand about a score of Turkish or other pages which are bought for him in Cairo: one of them, at his left, holds a silk umbrella surmounted by a dome and a bird of gold: the bird has the figure of a falcon. His officers are seated in a circle about him, in two rows, one to the right and one to the left; beyond them sit the chief commanders of his cavalry. In front of him there is a person who never leaves him and who is his executioner; also another who serves as intermediary between the sovereign and his subjects, and who is named the herald. In front of them again, there are drummers. Others dance before their sovereign, who enjoys this, and make him laugh. Two banners are spread behind him. Before him they keep saddled and bridled horses in case he should wish to ride.
The Importance of Horses
Arab horses are brought for sale to the kings of this country, who spend considerable sums in this way. Their army numbers one hundred thousand men of whom there are about ten thousand horse-mounted cavalry . . . the officers of this king, his soldiers and his guard receive gifts of land and presents. Some among the greatest of them receive as much as fifty thousand mitqalsof gold a year, besides which the king provides them with horses and clothing. He is much concerned with giving them fine garments and making his cities into capitals.
Niani, the capital of all this empire, has long since disappeared. Yet as late as the sixteenth century, the Moroccan traveller Leo Africanus (Hassan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan az-Zayyati) could still describe it as a place of 'six thousand hearths', and its inhabitants as 'the most civilized, intelligent and respected' of all the peoples of the Western Sudan. The spread of Islam also called for new methods of rule. Mansa Musa opened courts of law for Muslims, alongside the old courts of law for those who were not Muslims.
In 1337, Maghan Musa inherited the empire from his father at the height of its glory. He reigned for only four years before being succeeded by his uncle Suleyman and mansa of the Mali Empire from 1341 to 1360.
Mansa Musa I of Mali is the richest human being in history with a personal net worth of $400 billion! Malian Empire which covered modern day Ghana, Timbuktu and Mali in West Africa. Mansa Musa's shocking wealth came from his country's vast production of more than half the world's supply of salt and gold. Musa used his wealth to build immense mosques that still stand today, nearly 700 years later. His kingdom and wealth didn't last much longer after his death. His heirs were not able to fend off civil war and invading conquerors. Just two generations later, his world record net worth was gone.
The death of Mansa Kankan Musa is still highly debated among modern historians and the Arab scholars who recorded history of Mali.
In Pop Culture:
Mansa Musa appears as the leader of the Mali Empire in the multi-award winning computer game Civilization IV.
Mansa Musa: The Lion of Mali
56 pages (2001)
Reading level: Ages 9-12
(left) The Sultan of Agades within a courtyard of his palace. The dried mud walls are built on a wooden framework. The palace of Mansa Musa, Emperor of Mali, would have been larger, but of every similar construction. This palace was first put up in the fourteenth century, and has been repaired. (Atmore 1979)
(right) Architecture at Agades, is the largest city in northern Niger.