Born c. 1280
Died c. 1337
Emperor of Mali
M ansa Musa, emperor of Mali in West Africa, was the first African ruler to become widely known throughout Europe and the Middle East. His was an extraordinarily wealthy land, and it enjoyed respect far and wide, while at home he oversaw a growing and highly organized realm. A devout Muslim, he helped extend the influence of Islam throughout his region, and became celebrated for his pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca, during which he stopped in the Egyptian capital of Cairo and spent so much gold that he nearly wrecked the Egyptian economy.
The empire of Mali
The modern nation called Mali (MAH-lee) is a land-locked country which, like much of Africa, suffers under extreme poverty. In the 1990s, the average yearly income there was about the same as the average weekly income in the United States. But the medieval empire of Mali was quite a different place. For one thing, it lay along the Atlantic coast, to the southwest of present-day Mali; and more important, it was incredibly wealthy.
The source of Mali's wealth, like that of Ghana (GAH-nuh), an earlier kingdom in the region, was gold. The kings of Ghana had exerted tight control over the gold supply, and the dynasty or royal line that ruled Mali was similarly strong. The founder of this dynasty was Sundiata Keita (sun-JAH-tah kah-EE-tuh; see box in Basil II entry), who established his power through a series of conquests that began in about 1235.
Mansa Musa—"Mansa" was a title equivalent to highness—was either the grandson or the grandnephew of Sundiata, and became Mali's ninth ruler in about 1307. As for his early life, little is known, though it appears likely that he was educated in the Muslim religion.
Islam had taken hold in Mali around 1000, but historians disagree as to whether Sundiata was a Muslim or not. As for Musa, he later became famous for his devotion to the faith. Like many Muslims, he would undertake the hajj (HAHJ), the ritual journey to the Islamic holy city of Mecca in Arabia, a duty for all Muslims who can afford to do so. He was apparently the third Malian ruler to do so.
Musa's devotion to Islam put him at odds with groups in Mali who maintained the traditional African religions. Those religions were pagan, meaning that they involved many gods, most of whom had some connection with nature (for instance, a sun god). The conflict between Islam and traditional religions was a serious one, and had helped lead to the downfall of Ghana, whose kings had tried and failed to bring the two religions together.
A strong empire
For the most part, however, Musa was able to avoid serious conflicts over religion, primarily because he was a strong ruler and an effective administrator. His armies were constantly active, extending the power of Mali throughout the region. Even while he was away on his pilgrimage to Mecca, they captured a stronghold of the powerful Songhai (SAWNG-hy) nation to the east. Eventually his empire would control some 40 million people—a population two-fifths the size of Europe at the time—over a vast region nearly the size of the United States.
Like Mansa Musa, the Indian ruler Harsha (c. 590–647) built a great empire in which the arts and culture flourished. Harsha was similarly committed to a religion that placed him in conflict with other groups around him, and as with Musa's Malian empire, the vast realm controlled by Harsha did not long outlast him.
Fifty years before Harsha's time, the Gupta Empire of India had fallen, just as the Western Roman Empire had fallen before it, and in part from the same cause: an invasion by the Huns. In the aftermath, India was ruled primarily by rajas or princes such as Harsha's father, who controlled a small kingdom in the northwestern part of the country.
Harsha did not intend to become a ruler, but a series of misfortunes in his family forced him into action. First his father died; then his mother committed suttee (ritual suicide of a widow, a tradition in India); his brother and brother-in-law were murdered; and his sister was placed in danger. Eager for revenge against his brother's murderer, Sanaska (whom he never caught), sixteen-year-old Harsha began a war of conquest that would occupy most of his career.
Over the course of thirty years, Harsha subdued the northern portion of India, the river valleys where most of its people lived. Despite the fact that he was a warrior, he had a great deal of compassion for the poor, an outgrowth of his strong Buddhist faith. The latter placed him in conflict with adherents of the majority Hindu religion, but won him many admirers as well, including the Chinese traveler Hsüan-tsang (shooy-AHND ZAHNG; 602–664). The latter's writings are the principal source of information regarding Harsha's career.
In addition to his skills as a conqueror and ruler, Harsha was also an accomplished playwright. Among his plays was Priyadarsika, a clever work using the play-within-a-play structure. Harsha's final play, Nágánanda (translated as The Joy of the Snake-World), explores Buddhist and Hindu themes.
The power of Mali was partly a result of Musa's strong leadership, but undergirding his power was the wealth of the nation's gold. That wealth in turn owed something to events far away. For many centuries following the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476, Europe's economy had been weak; but beginning in about 1100—in part as a result of the Crusades, a series of wars against the Muslims for control of the Middle East—the European economy had begun growing again. This growth created a need for gold coins, which drove up gold prices and in turn increased Mali's wealth. Like the rulers of Ghana before them, the dynasty of Sundiata Keita established a monopoly, or state control, over the gold supply.
Gold wealth in turn spurred cultural advances under Musa's reign. Upon his return from Mecca, Musa brought with him an Arab architect who designed numerous mosques, Muslim places of worship, as well as other public buildings. Some of those mosques still stand in present-day Mali.
Musa also encouraged the arts and education, and under his leadership, the fabled city of Timbuktu became a renowned center of learning. Professors came from as far away as Egypt to teach in the schools of Timbuktu, but were often so impressed by the learning of the scholars there that they remained as students. It was said that of the many items sold in the vast market at Timbuktu, none was more valuable than books.
The pilgrimage to Mecca
In 1324, Musa embarked on his famous pilgrimage to Mecca, on which he was attended by thousands of advisors and servants dressed in splendid garments, riding animals adorned with gold ornaments. He stopped in Cairo, the leading city of Egypt, and spent so much gold that he caused an oversupply of the precious metal. As a result, the value of gold plummeted throughout much of the Middle East for several years; thus, as an unintended result of his generosity, Musa nearly caused the collapse of several nations' economies.
Musa died in 1337 (some sources say 1332), and none of his successors proved to be his equal. Later kings found the vast empire difficult to govern, and they were plagued by religious and political conflicts. By the mid-1400s the Songhai, who rejected Islam in favor of their tribal religions, broke away from Mali and established their own highly powerful state.
But even more powerful forces had been awakened far away—yet another unintended result of Musa's display of wealth. Europeans had some idea of the vast gold supplies in Mali, but when rumors from Egypt began spreading westward, this sealed the fate of the African kingdom. Previously, European mapmakers had filled their maps of West Africa with pictures of animals, largely creations of their own imaginations intended to conceal the fact that they really had no idea what was there. But beginning in 1375, maps of West Africa showed Musa seated on a throne of solid gold. Eager to help themselves to the wealth of the distant land, Portuguese sailors began making their way southward. It was the beginning of the end of West Africa's brief flowering.
For More Information
Burns, Khephra. Mansa Musa: The Lion of Mali. Illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 2000.
Davidson, Basil. African Civilization Revisited: From Antiquity to Modern Times. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1991.
Davidson, Basil. African Kingdoms. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1978.
Polatnick, Florence T. and Alberta L. Saletan. Shapers of Africa. New York: J. Messner, 1969.
Schulberg, Lucille. Historic India. New York: Time-Life Books, 1968.
"African Empires Timeline." [Online] Available http://www.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/hum211/timelines/htimeline2.htm (last accessed July 26, 2000).
"Mansa Musa in the Electronic Passport." [Online] Available http://www.mrdowling.com/609-mansamusa.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).
"Medieval India 600–1207." [Online] Available http://www.stockton.edu/~gilmorew/consorti/1eindia.htm (last accessed July 26, 2000).
"Teachers' Guide for FOOTSTEPS' Mansa Musa, King of Mali Issue, September 1999." [Online] Available http://cobblestonepub.com/pages/TGFOOTMansa.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).