The saga of Mansa Musa – the wealthiest human being ever to have lived

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Mansa Musa or Kankan Moussa (c. 1280 – c. 1337) came to the throne as the 10th ruler of the Mali Empire one of the largest and wealthiest empires the world has ever known. Mansa is the Mandinka word for an emperor or sultan. He came into power around 1312 AD, only as a temporary substitute to his predecessor Abubakari Keita II who decided to explore and find out what was on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, he never made it back. However, according to some scholars and historians, Abubakari did make it to South America. With three thousand ships, some slaves, and gold that Abubakari took with him, it is difficult to grasp that they will disappear in thin air without a trace or a single survivor. Therefore, an Arab historian al-Umari, has speculated Abubakari’s voyage as a possible instance of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact.

Mansa Musa captured the attention of the Arab world when he left his home in the kingdom of Mali to make a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324. Although his grandfather Sundiata, practiced both traditional African religions along with Islam, Mansa Musa was a devout Muslim. As the last pillar amongst the five pillars of Islam, Hajj (pilgrimage) requires that all faithful Muslims make the spiritual journey to Mecca (Saudi Arabia) the holy city as long as it is within one’s means. 

On his journey to the holy city, Mansa Musa was said to have taken more than 500 people with him, an estimated 21000 KG of solid gold, and an estimated 12000 slaves with each individual carrying a staff of solid gold.  When Mansa Musa passed through the Egyptian city of Cairo, legends say he gave away so much gold that the price of gold fell, and the economy was affected for more than twenty years. The appearance of a wealthy king from a faraway land made a deep impression on the people he encountered, causing Mali to appear on maps throughout the Middle East and Europe. For the first time, sub-Saharan Africa became well-known north of the great desert, as well. The Catalan Atlas, created in 1375 C.E. by Spanish cartographers, shows West Africa dominated by a depiction of Mansa Musa sitting on a throne, holding a nugget of gold in one hand and a golden staff in the other. After the publication of this atlas, Mansa Musa became cemented in the global imagination as a figure of stupendous wealth.

Not only is he the wealthiest human being ever to have lived but he was also one of the most generous human beings. According to Forbes Magazines estimates, Mansa Musa was said to have been in possession of over $400 billion worth of gold which is well over the size of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musks’ wealth. Under Mansa Musa’s reign, the empire grew in unfathomable wealth which came from primarily gold and salt. Gold and salt were in abundant supply so much so that at the time approximately half of all gold in the old world which includes Africa, Asia, and Europe came from three of the main gold mines in the Mali Empire. He was a mesmerizing figure and one of the most dominant rulers of the Mali Empire founded by his grandfather Sundiata Keita. See our blog post on the epic of Sundiata.

It was on his way back from hajj that he came across the city of Timbuktu and Timbuktu will become one of his landmark legacies. On his discovery of the city of Timbuktu, Mansa Musa recognizes that Timbuktu was strategically located within the bounds of his kingdom and therefore, decided to invest in the city and invest in his legacy. This became the golden age of trade in West Africa. Consequently, it became part of the Mali Empire early in the 14th century. It was at this time that Mansa Musa founded his great mosque the Djingareyber Mosque. Timbuktu is home to the prestigious Koranic Sankore University and other madrasas (Islamic schools). Timbuktu was an intellectual and spiritual capital and a center for the propagation of Islam throughout Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries. Its three great mosques, Djingareyber, Sankore, and Sidi Yahia, recall Timbuktu’s golden age. The three big Mosques are sixteen mausoleums and holy public places, still, bear witness to this prestigious past. The mosques are exceptional examples of earthen architecture and of traditional maintenance techniques, which continue to the present time. Timbuktu flourished during the saga of Mansa Musa. Timbuktu and Gao became important cultural centers and known for its schools and libraries. Learn more about Timbuktu in our blog, “The fabled city of Timbuktu.”

Mansa Musa died in 1337 and was succeeded by his sons. His skillful administration left his empire well-off at the time of his death, but eventually, the empire fell apart.

The kingdom of Mali eventually weakened, and the neighboring kingdom of Songhai developed into the last black empire of pre-colonial West Africa. Songhai was destroyed after a bloody war with Morocco. Morocco’s sultan wanted West African gold, so in 1590, he sent an army of 3000 men south across the Sahara Desert. The spears and lances of the Songhai warriors were no match for the cannons and muskets of the Moroccan army, but the fighting continued long after the Songhai government had been destroyed. After ten years, the Sultan lost interest and abandoned his army in Songhai. The Moroccans were either killed or absorbed into the local population. The Moroccan invasion destroyed Songhai and the trade routes that had brought prosperity to the region for hundreds of years.

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