Throughout history, Africa has been home to many great empires. One important kingdom arose in West Africa. Mali (Malle) was a prosperous and influential trading empire in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Mali was ruled by kings called mansa. Mansa Sundiata and his grandson Mansa Musa are known as two of the most influential Malian kings. Mali gained power through gold and salt mining and through control of the Trans-Saharan trade routes in the region. Mali’s relative location lay across the trade routes between the sources of salt in the Sahara Desert and the gold mines of West Africa. The Malian kings also brought in and supported the religion of Islam throughout the empire.
Timbuktu was the most important city in the kingdom. The center of culture and trade, it was home to one of the first universities in Sub-Saharan Africa and included a large library complete with books from places like Greece and Rome. Timbuktu also housed mosques for Islamic worship and prayers.
Many African kingdoms, empires, and tribes followed the custom of oral recitation. Storytellers in Mali, called griots (gree-ohs), passed down stories and traditions from one generation to the next. Most of what is known about Mali’s history comes from song stories and other oral accounts handed down by griots. The Kingdom of Mali ended about 1450 and its demise ushered in the age of the Songhai Empire of West Africa.
Linguistic diversity was a characteristic of the ancient Mali Empire, just as it is of modern Mali. In fact, the political structure of the Mali Empire perpetuated that linguistic diversity: peoples were organized into kingdoms that retained their own leaders provided they paid tribute and swore loyalty to the mansa, or leader, of the Mali Empire. Most of the indigenous languages of Mali belong to the Niger-Congo language family, making them distant cousins.
Present day Mande people trace their ancestry back to the great 13th century. Learn more about what archeology has uncovered in Jeno-Jenne about the past of the Mande people, Africans who helped settle America during the 17th and 18th centuries.
The people of Mali made their living as farmers, miners, and traders. They usually built their settlements along rivers or near the grasslands of the region. Farmers planted millet and other grain crops. Salt was also a valuable natural resource across West Africa. It is not only an essential nutrient for humans, but salt is also used for preserving foods. As a necessary commodity, salt was used as currency and was even traded for gold.
As Ghana declined over a period of 200 years, the ancient Mali Empire arose in the same area but descended territorially further along the Niger River. Mali encompassed a huge area stretching from the Lower Senegal and Upper Niger rivers eastward to the Niger bend and northward to the Sahel. Its great size made Mali an even more diverse state than Ghana. The majority of the people lived in small villages and cultivated rice or sorghums and millets, while some communities specialized in herding and fishing. Trade flourished in the towns, which housed a wide array of craftspeople, along with a growing number of Islamic teachers and holy men. The main commercial centers were its capitals Niani, Timbuktu, and Gao.
Writing in 1068, the Andalusian geographer al-Bakri (d. 1054) i presents an account of such an encounter that brought about the Islamization of the king of Malal, a small principality that two centuries later developed into the empire of Mali. The Muslim religious leader, according to this account, succeeded in winning over the king by demonstrating Allah’s omnipotence. In this instance, praying to Allah saved the kingdom, whereas the sacrifices performed by local priests had failed. Al-Bakri’s accounts, like other traditions, emphasize the role of the rulers as early recipients of Islamic influence and therefore the importance of kingdoms in the process of Islamization. Indeed, Islam did not penetrate into segmentary societies even when and where Muslim traders and religious leaders were present, because there were no rulers to mediate Islamic influence.
In the principality of Malal, as in Gao, only the king, his family, and his entourage accepted Islam. In this respect, Islam could have become a divisive factor between the Islamized kings and the non-Muslim commoners. Situated between their subjects and an influential Muslim minority, kings adopted a middle position between Islam and the local traditional religion. Kings behaved as Muslims in some situations but followed traditional customs on other occasions. They patronized Muslim religious experts but also referred to traditional priests. From this middle position, dynasties and individual kings could develop greater commitment to Islam or fall back on ancestral religion.
Mali began as a small Malinke kingdom around the upper areas of the Niger River. The Mali Empire began when a small Malinke kingdom within the Ghana Empire grew ever more powerful. It became an important empire after 1235 when Sundjata organized Malinke resistance against a branch of the southern Soninke, who made up the center of the older kingdom of Ghana. The empire developed around its capital of Niani, the city of Sundjata’s birth in the southern savannah country of the upper Niger valley near the gold fields of Bure.
Unlike the people of the older kingdom of Ghana, who had only camels, horses, and donkeys for transport, the people of Mali also used the river Niger. By river, they could transport bulk goods and larger loads much more easily than by land. Living on the fertile lands near the Niger, people suffered less from drought than those living in the drier regions further north. Food crops were grown on the level areas by the river, not only for local people but for those living in cities farther north on the Niger River and in oasis towns along the trade routes across the desert. Thus the Niger River enabled the kingdom of Mali to develop a far more stable economy than Ghana had enjoyed and contributed to the rise of the Mali empire.
The Malinke (literally, “the people of Mali”) were the Mande-speaking people associated with the empire of Mali. Malinke chiefs had come under Islamic influence before the time of Sundiata, the founder and ruler of Mali. Sundiata, a great hunter and magician, led his people in a war of liberation against another powerful magician, Sumanguru, the king of Soso, in the Battle of Kirina. Though a nominal Muslim, Sundiata turned to the traditional religion for support.
Sundjata built up a vast empire that stretched eventually from the Atlantic coast south of the Senegal River to Gao on the east of the middle Niger bend. It extended from the fringes of the forest in the southwest through the savannah (grassland) country of the Malinke to the Sahel and southern Saharan “ports” of Walata and Tadmekka. It included the gold fields of Bumbuk and Bure and the great cities of Timbuktu, Djenne, and Gao on the Niger River and extended to the salt mines of Taghaza. Many different peoples were thus brought in to what became a federation of states, dominated by Sundjata and the Malinke people. Under Sundjata’s leadership, Mali became a relatively rich farming area.
The Mali empire was based on outlying areas – even small kingdoms – pledging allegiance to Mali and giving annual tribute in the form of rice, millet, lances, and arrows. Slaves were used to clear new farmlands where beans, rice, sorghum, millet, papaya, gourds, cotton, and peanuts were planted. Cattle, sheep, goats, and poultry were bred.
The expansion of the Mali Empire into the region in the 1200s brought littoral societies into contact with the Mandé, leading to a process of mandinguisation, that is the progressive assimilation of certain aspects of Mandé culture by coastal groups, and their Islamisation , and promoting the circulation of Mandé as a lingua franca. While Manding kingdoms along the Gambia River erected trade settlements, the autonomous Kaabú federation emerged, governed by non-Islamised ruling familes; its erstwhile capital, Kansalá, being located in current day Guinea Bissau.
As morikundas [Muslim villages], such as Jabikunda and Bijine, were erected along trade routes in the Geba Valley from the thirteenth century onwards, followed by others such as Sutuko and Kassan along the Gambia River, they served as bases for traders and clerics, some pertaining to Muslim brotherhoods, to roam the intermediate and littoral zones.35 As a result, well before the arrival of Europeans, coastal regions were integrated into regional trade and religious networks connected to the Upper Niger River.
The wealth of ancient Mali was based on trade, particularly the trans-Sahara trade. Control and taxation of trade pumped wealth into the imperial treasury and sustained the Mali Empire’s existence. The most profitable commodities traded were gold and salt. Gold was mined first at Bambuk on one of the tributaries of the upper Senegal River. Later, it was mined at Bure on the headwaters of the Niger River. The location of the gold mines moved as the mines in the west became exhausted and new sources were discovered further east. The mansa (King) claimed all the gold nuggets, but gold dust was available for trade. Gold is still mined today in Mali.
Salt was mined deep in the Sahara, near the towns of Taghaza and Taoudeni. Slabs brought by camel can still be found in the market of Timbuktu, Mopti, and other Niger River towns. These and other commodities were involved in the trans-Sahara trade. Great camel caravans brought salt, iron, copper, cloth, books, and pearls from the north and northeast. They were exchanged for gold, kola nuts, ivory, leather, rubber, and slaves from the south. The Niger River became a major artery of trade. When the caravans met the Niger, their goods would be unloaded on riverboats, and the camels would return north laden with valuable commodities from the south. Although salt and gold dust were used as currency during the fourteenth century, cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean were introduced as currency as well. Their use improved the collection of taxes and the exchange of goods. Ancient Mali also had craftsmen who worked with iron, wood, metal, weaving, dyeing, and tanning leather.
By the possession of Muli the people of Mali had ready ingress into the countries whence slaves were taken, but there is no authority whatever for the supposition that they ever extended their dominion further eastward; and care must be taken, therefore, not to confound the Mandingo empire of Mali with the country called Marra or Malla, situate on the confines of the former in the north-western part of Houssa. It seems clearly ascertained that the north-west part of Houssa, or the territory between Zanfara and the Kowara, is called by the natives Marra, or by those who affect the Arab sounds, Malla. The ancient greatness assigned to Marra in the historical traditions of the natives, favours the opinion that it was the Melil or Malilo of the early Arab writers. The Mali Empire grew and prospered by monopolizing the gold trade and developing the agricultural resources along the Niger River.
Like Ghana, Mali prospered from the taxes it collected on trade in the empire. All goods passing in, out of, and through the empire were heavily taxed. All gold nuggets belonged to the king, but gold dust could be traded. Gold was even used at times as a form of currency, as also were salt and cotton cloth. Later, cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean were introduced and used widely as currency in the internal trade of the western Sudan.
Mali prospered only as long as there was strong leadership. Sundjata established himself as a great religious and secular leader, claiming the greatest and most direct link with the spirits of the land and thus the guardian of the ancestors. After Sundjata, most of the rulers of Mali were Muslim, some of whom made the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).
The most famous haji (pilgrim to Mecca) was Mansa Musa, king of Mali and grandson of one of Sundjata’s sisters. Mansa Musa is the most remembered of the kings of Mali. During Musa’s reign 1307–1337, Mali’s boundaries were extended to their farthest limits. There were fourteen provinces ruled by governors or emirs who were usually famous generals. Berber provinces were governed by their own sheiks. They all paid tribute to Musa in gold, horses and clothes. Musa instituted national honors for his provincial administrators to encourage devoted service. In 1324, accompanied by some 60,000 people and carrying large quantities of gold, Mansa Musa traveled from Niani along the Niger to Timbuktu and then across the Sahara via the salt mines of Taghaza from oasis to oasis, to reach Cairo. From there he went on to Mecca and Medina.
Mansa Musa visited Cairo on his way to Mecca in 1324, where he was described by an Egyptian official as a pious man, who “strictly observed the prayer, the recitation of the Quran, and the mention of Allah’s name.” The same informant told Mansa Musa that his treatment of free women as if they were slave concubines was forbidden by Islamic law. “Not even to kings?” Mansa Musa asked. “Not even to kings,” replied the official, “Ask the learned scholars.” Mansa Musa responded, “By Allah. I did not know that. Now I will renounce it completely.” Shortcomings in the application of Muslim law were most apparent in marriage customs and sexual behavior.
He ruled impartially with a great sense of justice. To help in this work he had judges, scribes and civil servants. Musa established diplomatic relationships with other African states, especially Morocco, with whom he exchanged ambassadors. Mansa Musa is probably best known as the ruler who firmly established the Islamic religion in Mali along with peace, order, trade and commerce. Mansa Musa started the practice of sending students to Morocco for studies and he laid the foundation for what later became the city of Timbuktu, the commercial and educational center of the western Sudan.
The emperor Mansa Musa built mosques with minarets, instituted public prayer, and attracted Maliki scholars. Mansa Musa was an exceptionally wise and efficient ruler. He divided the empire into provinces, each with its own governor, and towns that were administered by a mochrif or mayor. A huge army kept the peace, putting down rebellions in the smaller kingdoms bordering the central part of the empire, and policing the many trade routes. Timbuktu became a center of learning, luxury, and trade, where river people met with the desert nomads, and where scholars and merchants from other parts of Africa, the Middle East, and even Europe came to its universities and bustling markets.
From its center on the upper Niger River, Mali expanded into the Sahel in the direction of the Sahara. Muslim towns became part of the empire, and Muslim traders traveled over routes that traversed the empire. Through the control of the Saharan trade and the pilgrimage to Mecca, Mali came closer to the larger Muslim world. As the small Malinke kingdom evolved into a vast multiethnic empire, with influential Muslim elements inside and extensive Islamic relations outside the empire, its kings moved along an imaginary continuum, from attachment to the traditional heritage toward greater commitment to Islam.
Ibn Battuta traveled further and visited more countries than any other person in medieval times. In Ibn Battuta’s time, Dar al-Islam (The Home of Islam) extended from West Africa across North Africa to the Middle East, Persia, Central Asia, India, and the East Indies. His final journey took him to Mali. In 1352, Ibn Battuta joined a desert caravan headed for Mali on his last great adventure. In 1352-53, during the reign of Mansa Sulayman, Mansa Musa’s brother, the great traveler and author Ibn Battutah (1304–68) visited the king’s court.
Ibn Batutah fell sick soon after his arrival in the capital of Mali, and two months elapsed before he was able to visit Mansa Suleiman. Returning on that occasion from the palace, he was followed by those who brought the King’s present. They called to him to rise and receive it, while they bore it towards him with an air of much importance. But what was the surprise of the Arab traveller, who expected to receive a handsome garment, or a sum of money, to find the royal gift to consist of only three scraps of bread, some hashed mutton, and a calabash of milk. He subsequently took occasion to reprove Mansa Suleiman for his want of munificence, and thereupon received from him, as a conciliatory gift, a robe, lodging, an allowance while he remained, with a sum of money at his departure.
But the arrangements of Mansa Suleiman’s court did not betray the sordid disposition imputed to him. They appear to have been conceived in a style of rude pomp and majesty no longer witnessed in the same country. Within the royal palace was an alcove or vaulted chamber communicating with the interior, and having towards the hall of audience three windows covered with silver gratings, and as many more with gratings of gold or silver gilt. Over these gratings hung silk curtains, the drawing of which served to show that the king was seated within. The officers and people then assembled.
The Farari or chief captains, with their archers, spearmen, and musicians, ranged themselves on both sides of the alcove, and on the signal being given, by thrusting a handkerchief of Egyptian muslin through the grating of one of the windows, the musicians fell to work with drums, ivory flutes, pipes of cane and calabashes, and made an extraordinary din. Outside the alcove stood Dugha, the interpreter, and near him a man who carried his words to the king, and brought back the royal answer.
At times the king gave audience in the open air, seated on a platform covered with silk, and called Bambi. A large silk umbrella, like a canopy, was held over his head, having on the top a golden bird as large as a falcon. He walked slowly on these occasions, surrounded by 300 armed slaves. Two horses and two rams were led forth, among other emblems of royal state. The King’s words gave rise to laudatory harangues in the assembly, in the course of which the soldiers signified their approbation by twanging their bows. Whoever spoke to the King, or was addressed by him, stripped himself to the waist, and, throwing himself prostrate, sprinkled dust or clay over his head, and beat the ground with his elbows. The frequent exhibition of this abject humility offended Ibn Batutah, who also reprobated the custom of allowing the female slaves and young girls, not excepting the King’s daughters, to go completely naked, and to appear in that state before the King himself.
Ibn Batutah was impressed by the way Muslims in Mali observed public prayer on Fridays and by their concern for the study of the Quran. He described the celebration of the two great Islamic festivals: the “sacrificial feast” on the tenth day of the month of the pilgrimage and the festival of the “breaking of the fast” at the end of Ramadan. The presence of the king made public prayer an official occasion to which non-Muslims were also drawn. In return, the prestige of the new religion was mobilized to exhort loyalty to the ruler. The alliance between kingship and Islam made Islam into an imperial cult.
Ibn Batutah relates that Balba Kasa, the queen of Mansa Suleiman, sent, in a fit of displeasure, a confidential messenger to Mari Jatah, the King’s nephew, instigating him to revolt, and promising to gain over the army to his interest. Mari Jatah was at that time governor of Kombori. Ibn Batutah relates the transaction above alluded to with many details illustrative of the manners of Mali. The King, it appears, grew tired of his chief wife, BalbS Kasa, who, by the custom of the country, shared his authority: (Kasa, the Caza of old vocabularies, means Queen;) he therefore placed her in confinement in the house of one of his Farari or captains, and took for queen in her stead his other wife Banju, who was not of the blood royal.
The people manifested dissatisfaction at this change. The female relatives of the King, in visiting Banju, put dust on their elbows, but not on their heads. When Balbs Kisli, however, was soon after released from confinement, the same parties presented themselves before her with their heads covered with dust and ashes. Thereupon Banju complained that the deposed queen was treated with more honour than herself. Mansa Suleiman was incensed ; and his relatives, fearing his vengeance, fled to the sanctuary. He soon pardoned them, however, and then the ladies, according to custom, presented themselves before him naked. But the public discontent with the King continued to increase, till one day the Royal Interpreter DughS led forth before the assembly a young female slave in chains, who disclosed the conspiracy above related. It was then agreed that Balba Kasa deserved death.
The Mali Empire collapsed when several states, including Songhai, proclaimed and defended their independence. Around the 1430s, the rulers could not prevent rebellions from breaking out. The Tuareg people take back the city of Timbuktu in 1433 and by 1500, the Mali rule over a small portion of land.
The empire of Mali reached in zenith in the fourteenth century but its power and fame depended greatly on the personal power of the ruler. After the death of Mansa Musa and his brother Mansa Sulayman, Timbuktu was raided and burned. Several states revolted and seized their independence, including the Tuareg, Tukulor, and Wolof. The Mossi attacked trading caravans and military garrisons in the south. In the east, the Songhai gathered strength. Mali lasted another 200 years, but its glory days were over.
In the fifteenth century Mali lost its control over the Sahel and was cut off from direct contact with the trans-Saharan routes and the larger Muslim world. The capital declined and was eventually deserted by the foreign Muslim community. As more ethnic groups escaped Mali’s domination, the kingdom gradually contracted back to its Malinke nucleus, and the traditional particularistic spirit of the Malinke nation triumphed over the universal supratribal appeal of Islam. By 1500, it had been reduced to little more than its Malinke heartland. By the seventeenth century, Mali had broken up into a number of small independent chiefdoms.