Mansa Musa Makes His Hajj, Displaying Mali's Wealth in Gold and Becoming the First Sub-Saharan African Widely Known among Europeans

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Mansa Musa Makes His Hajj, Displaying Mali's Wealth in Gold and Becoming the First Sub-Saharan African Widely Known among Europeans


Though the modern nation of Mali is a landlocked country that, like much of Africa, suffers under extreme poverty, the medieval empire of Mali was quite a different place. Not only was its location along the Atlantic coast to the southwest of present-day Mali, it enjoyed considerable wealth, power, and prestige. The greatest of Mali's emperors was Mansa Musa, a devout Muslim who in 1324 made a pilgrimage to the Islamic holy city of Mecca. Along the way, he stopped in the Egyptian capital of Cairo and spent so much gold that he nearly wrecked the Egyptian economy. As tales of his wealth spread, he became the first sub-Saharan African leader to gain notoriety among western Europeans—some of whom later came southward, spurred by visions of gold in West Africa.


Mali is not the only African geographical term that needs some clarification. Likewise, the Sudan is not to be confused with the modern nation of Sudan: the Sudan is an arid region of some 2 million square miles (3.2 million square km), about the size of the United States west of the Mississippi River. Located just south of the Sahara desert, it stretches from the Atlantic coast in the west almost to the Red Sea coast in the east. Farming is difficult there, but during the Middle Ages the region became home to a number of empires spanning trade routes across Africa.

The first of these was Ghana, yet another land not to be confused with the country that today bears its name: the modern nation of Ghana is located to the south of the medieval empire of Ghana. The latter came into existence during the fifth century in what is now southern Mauritania. Despite the climate, its people were originally farmers, but over time Ghana began to acquire wealth through conquest: by the eleventh century the empire had an army of some 200,000 men. Ghana became rich in gold, a metal so plentiful that the king's advisors carried swords made of it. The horses bore blankets of spun gold, and even the dogs had gold collars. The king, whose people considered him divine, held absolute control over the gold supply, and further increased his wealth by taxing trade caravans that passed through the area.

Ghana's capital was Kumbi-Saleh, formed from two neighboring towns. One of these municipalities became a center for Islam, a faith brought into the region by merchants from across the desert, while the other remained faithful to the native religion. Islamic practices were not permitted in public because they might challenge the spiritual authority of the king, and as it turned out, Muslims did destroy Ghana, though not from within: in 1080, the Almoravids of Morocco moved southward, bringing the kingdom to an end.

The next great power in the region was Mali, whose name means "where the king lives." The realm took shape under the leadership of Sundiata Keita (d. 1255), a figure whose biography is so filled with mythological elements—for instance, that he was crippled from birth but miraculously cured in his twenties—that it is hard to discern the exact details of his story. What is known is that beginning in about 1235, Sundiata led his people on a series of conquests, and established a capital in the town of Niana. By the fourteenth century, his dynasty ruled perhaps as many as 40 million people—a population two-fifths that of Europe at the time—in a region from the upper Niger River to the Atlantic.

Mansa Musa—or rather, Musa, since "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 faith.

In his early years as a leader, Musa's devotion to Islam put him at odds with groups in Mali who maintained the traditional African religions. The latter were pagan, involving many gods, most of whom had some connection with nature (such as a sun god.) For the most part, however, Musa was able to avoid the sort of conflicts over religion that had affected the political climate in Ghana, primarily because he was a strong ruler and an effective administrator. His armies were constantly active, extending the power of Mali throughout the region.

Undergirding that power was the wealth of the nation's gold, wealth that 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—ironically, in part as a result of the Crusades against Muslims in the Middle East—the European economies had begun growing again. This growth created a need for gold coins, which drove up gold prices and, thanks to trade with Arab caravans on the Sahara, increased Mali's wealth. Like the rulers of Ghana before them, the dynasty of Sundiata Keita established a monopoly 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, as well as other public buildings. Some of those mosques still stand. 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 were more valuable than books.

In 1324 Musa embarked on his famous hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are expected to make at least once in their lives if they can afford to do so. He, for one, could certainly afford the trip: attended by thousands of advisors and servants dressed in beautiful garments, riding animals adorned with gold ornaments, Musa must have made a splendid figure when he arrived in Cairo. The Egyptian historian al-Omari later quoted a friend as saying, "This man spread upon Cairo the flood of his generosity: there was no person ... who did not receive a sum of gold from him. The people of Cairo earned incalculable sums from him.... So much gold was current in Cairo that it ruined the value of the money." Indeed, by spending so much gold, Musa caused an oversupply of the precious metal, and as a result, the value of gold plummeted throughout much of the Middle East for several years.

It is a hallmark of Musa's power as a leader that he could afford to be gone on the hajj, which took several years. In fact, while he was gone, his armies conducted a successful campaign against the powerful Songhai nation to the east. However, after his death in 1337 (some sources say 1332), none of his successors proved to be his equal, and later kings found the vast empire increasingly difficult to govern. Furthermore, they were plagued by religious and political conflicts, and by the mid-fifteenth century the Songhai, who rejected Islam in favor of their tribal religions, broke away from Mali and established their own state.


Yet even more powerful forces had been awakened far away—another unintended, and far more sinister, result of Musa's profligate spending. Europeans already 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 cartographers 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, these maps showed Musa seated on a throne of solid gold. It was the beginning of the end of West Africa's brief flowering.

When Portuguese sailors came to West Africa in the early to mid-fifteenth century, gold was among the commodities they found: hence the name for the region that became the modern nation of Ghana, the "Gold Coast." They also found ivory, and that too became part of a national title, Ivory Coast or Côte d'Ivoire. The name for the region to the west of the Gold Coast, however, would never become official for any country, though it serves to illustrate the worst outgrowth of the Europeans' arrival: the Slave Coast.

Elsewhere the fate of West Africa was symbolized by that of the fabled Timbuktu, which reached its peak under Songhai rule. Beginning in the fifteenth century, Europeans became increasingly fascinated by tales of a great city on the edge of the desert, which housed both wealthy merchants and scholars wealthy in knowledge. In 1470 an Italian journeyer became one of the first Europeans to visit, and more information surfaced with the publication of Description of Africa by Leo Africanus (c. 1485-c. 1554) in 1550. A series of wars and invasions by neighboring peoples during the early modern era, however, robbed Timbuktu of its glory. In 1828 a French explorer went to find the legendary Timbuktu, and in its place he found a "mass of ill-looking houses built of earth." Today it is known as Tombouctou, a town of some 30,000 inhabitants in Mali, and the name Timbuktu has long since become a synonym for a remote place.


Further Reading

Bovill, E. W. The Golden Trade of the Moors. London: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Davidson, Basil. African Kingdoms. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1978.

Polatnick, Florence T. and Alberta L. Saletan. Shapers of Africa. New York: J. Messner, 1969.

Trimingham, J. Spencer. A History of Islam in West Africa. London: Oxford University Press, 1962.

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Mansa Musa Makes His Hajj, Displaying Mali's Wealth in Gold and Becoming the First Sub-Saharan African Widely Known among Europeans

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