Great African Empires, Part 6: The Tattooed Lords of the Desert
Previous Great African Empires, Part 4: Philosopher Kings of the Sahara
His spending sprees were legendary. His entourage crashed whole cities’ economies. Meet the flashiest emperor in African history.
Imagine a billionaire arriving with his entourage in London, or Las Vegas, or Rome; and completely taking over an entire city block— turning a five-star restaurant into his exclusive kitchen; a skyscraper into his private office; a museum into his personal art gallery.
The CEO brings along hundreds of aides and assistants, all of them clad in designer clothes, driving luxury cars. At each stop along the way, he instantly turns ordinary people into millionaires with a single swipe of his credit card.
It’s hard to imagine any modern mogul willing to flash that kind of cash — but that doesn’t even begin to describe Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage.
In the year 1327, the mansa (emperor) Musa Keita I of Mali decided to set off on hajj (Islamic pilgrimage) for Mecca.
Adjusted for inflation, Musa’s personal fortune amounted to $400 billion — more than the GDP of Austria — making him the richest single individual in all human history.
According to eyewitnesses, Musa’s traveling entourage consisted of no less than 60,000 people — the population of a mid-sized town — including a “personal retinue” of 12,000 slaves, all clad in the finest Persian silk.
The mansa himself rode on horseback; and in front of him walked 500 slaves, each of them carrying a staff adorned with gold. His baggage train of 80 camels carried 50 to 300 pounds of gold apiece.
All this wealth wasn’t just for show. Along the journey — from his capital of Timbuktu, close to the heart of the old Wagadu Empire (whom we met in Part 4), through Cairo, across the Red Sea and into Arabia, Musa and his entourage spent gold lavishly at every stop, paying for the construction of at least 12 mosques.
Legend had it that Musa commissioned a new mosque every single week — and although this is almost certainly an exaggeration, sources make it clear that he and his people did make enormous donations to the poor.
Musa’s spending attracted so much attention in Cairo that the sultan himself (Al-Malik al-Nāṣir) became annoyed — although that may have been for more practical reasons:
Mansa Musa threw around so much gold in Cairo that the local currency dropped in value — Creating a 12-year recession in Cairo’s economy.
It’s not hard to recognize this journey for what it truly was: an advertising campaign, broadcasting to the wider Muslim world — and to Europe — that a bold new power had risen in West Africa.
It worked. In Mecca, Musa rubbed shoulders with the royal elite of Islamic kingdoms throughout Europe and Asia, which — quite literally — stamped Mansa Musa on the map.
Who was this man — and who were his people? How did the Mali Empire amass such outrageous wealth, yet still find themselves so ignored that they had to stage a cripplingly expensive publicity stunt in order to get noticed?
The story begins with the fall of the Kingdom of Wagadu — whom you met in Part 4 of this series.
Remember, when we last left our Wagadu friends in the mid-1200s, they’d been worn down to exhaustion by years of all-out war against the Moroccan Almoravids, a dynasty of the Amazigh (“Berber”) people, whom you’ll meet in Part 6.
The Wagadu Empire was rapidly falling apart; they were losing control of cities and trade routes every year, under constant attack by invading dynasties like the Sosso.
Deep within the Wagadu Kingdom lay a province known as Manden — which was about to become very important.
All the way back to the 1000s, Manden had been ruled by loyal kings known as faamas, who came from the Mandinka people (also known as the Malinke).
According to the Epic of Sundiata, the national epic of the Mandinka people, Manden’s real trouble started when Wagadu power began to crumble, and the Sosso dynasty invaded — levying impossible taxes on the Mandinka, kidnapping their women, and creating an atmosphere of terror in the land.
But in the early 1200s — just as the Kingdom of Wagadu was suffering its final collapse —
And deep within the green-forested hills of Manden, a great Mandinka hero was born.
Prince Sundiata gathered all 12 Manden kingdoms into an alliance, along with the core of the Wagadu army, as well as the army of a city-state called Mema.
This alliance launched a fierce rebellion against the Sosso, scored a decisive victory at the Battle of Kirina, and expelled their enemies from the land. Sundiata was declared faama of faamas — and also mansa, emperor of all 12 kingdoms of the Manden alliance, including Mema and the remnants of Wagadu — at the age of 18.
By the mid-1300s, Sundiata’s descendants, known as the Keita dynasty, had expanded their Mali Empire to encompass large parts of what’s now Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bassau, Ivory Coast, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal.
The name of the Keitas has become synonymous with Mali in African history. In fact, even the current president of Mali, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, has the same surname taken by Sundiata.
The mansas of Mali held their empire together using a very clever administrative approach (which also worked well for the Achaemenids and Sasanians in Persia): they trusted local rulers to run things at the village level, according to their own customs and laws.
Village elders reported to county administrators, who reported in turn to province governors, chosen by election. As long as the tax money kept flowing to Timbuktu, no problem.
If a provincial lord got a bit too greedy, though, the mansa himself might step in — and install a more trustworthy administrator.
Like the Kushites (from Part 2), the Aksumites (from Part 3) and the Wagadu before them, the Mali Empire amassed most of its vast wealth from the gold trade.
Since the Mali people were occupying many of the same lands as the Wagadu, it’s no surprise that they also mined enormous amounts of gold — and traded heavily in salt and copper, across the Sahara and along the West African coast.
The mansas put their vast wealth to practical use, imitating the Sahalo-Sudanese architectural style of their Wagadu predecessors — but carrying it to greater heights than ever before. Their sprawling palaces and mosques remain among the world’s largest surviving mud-brick buildings.
This empire’s people spoke several distantly related languages, including Mandinka, Malinke, Fulani and Bozo. Although the state religion was unquestionably Islam, it’s unclear how much of the indigenous animistic religion survived among the common people, as it had survived under the Wagadu — and still survives in many areas of West Africa today.
Since the days of Sundiata, the Mali Empire’s military had been organized into 16 clans, each reporting to a ton-tigi or “quiver-master” — a feudal landowner rich enough to own a horse and armor. Beneath the ton-tigi, men known as kèlè-koun, “war-heads,” commanded the infantry, who may have numbered as many as 90,000 men at the empire’s peak.
Mandinka warriors were famous for their deadly javelins and fire-tipped arrows.
By the 1400s, the military had grown into a tightly organized force led by land-owning knights called farariya, who led an entire hierarchy of warriors, each distinguished according to his rank by the cut of his trousers and the gold bracelets on his ankles.
Infantry units were led by local clan chiefs, and individual fame clearly played a major part in military morale. In fact, Mali infantrymen prided themselves on carrying their own personalized weapons into battle, and relished opportunities to grapple with enemies face-to-face.
The imperial line of the Keitas reigned in splendor for about 300 years — but by the late 1500s, the cracks were starting to show. Every great empire collapses due to a wide range of interlocking causes, and the Mali Empire was no exception.
A new Kingdom of Songhai was rising in the north, swallowing up Mali territory, including the city of Mema. Meanwhile, the Kaabu Empire appeared on the west coast — and began gobbling up the Mali Empire’s western provinces.
Perhaps not even a great mansa could have saved Mali from its fate — but Mansa Mahmud Keita III, who came to power in 1496, was far from great.
Keita tried to forge an alliance with newly arrived Portuguese traders — who, perhaps sensing that his empire was unraveling, chose not to partner with him.
He went on to lose numerous battles against the Songhai — spearheading a few successful counterattacks, but mostly getting pushed back toward Timbuktu.
Mahmud III’s successor, Mahmud Keita IV, handled the army much better. He equipped his troops with firearms for the first time in Mali’s history, and inflicted a string of serious defeats on the Songhai — and for a while, it looked like Mali and Songhai might share West Africa as rough equals.
In the end, though, the Mali Empire was undone not by external enemies, but by internal rivalries. Mahmud IV’s three sons — each claiming the title of mansa — fought for control of the empire, and tore it into three separate kingdoms.
In 1630, the Bamana people gutted the Mandinka cities and seizing control of the Niger River. The last generation of mansas fled their strongholds — and the Kingdom of Manden was no more.
But the cities, the trade routes and the cultural core of Mali remained in place. Even as governments came and went, the cities, architectural styles, food, clothing and religion all remained firmly in place.
Timbuktu is still a thriving city in Mali. In the shadows of its mud-brick buildings, people still speak the Mandinka language, and sing songs of their empire’s golden age.