Mansa Musa: Great Leader of the Malinké Kingdom

Creating West Africa's Trading Empire

The Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu, where Mansa Musa established a university in the 14th century.
The Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu, where Mansa Musa established a university in the 14th century. Amar Grover / Getty Images

Mansa Musa was an important ruler of the golden age of the Malinké kingdom, based on the upper Niger River in Mali, West Africa. He ruled between 707–732/737 according to the Islamic calendar (AH), which translates to 1307–1332/1337 CE. Malinké, also known as Mande, Mali, or Melle, was founded around 1200 CE, and under Mansa Musa's reign, the kingdom leveraged its rich copper, salt, and gold mines to become one of the richest trading empires in the world of its day.

A Noble Inheritance

Mansa Musa was the great-grandson of another great Mali leader, Sundiata Keita (~1230-1255 CE), who established the Malinké capital at the town of Niani (or possibly Dakajalan, there is some debate about that). Mansa Musa is sometimes referred to as Gongo or Kanku Musa, meaning "the son of the woman Kanku." Kanku was the granddaughter of Sundiata, and as such, she was so Musa's connection to the legitimate throne.

Fourteenth-century travelers report that the earliest Mande communities were small, clan-based rural towns, but under the influence of Islamic leaders such as Sundiata and Musa, those communities became important urban trading centers. Malinke reached its height by about 1325 CE when Musa conquered the cities of Timbuktu and Gao.

Growth and Urbanization of Malinké

Mansa Musa—Mansa is a title meaning something like "king"—held many other titles; he was also the Emeri of Melle, the Lord of Mines of Wangara, and the Conquerer of Ghanata and a dozen other states. Under his rule, the Malinké empire was stronger, richer, better organized, and more literate than any other Christian power in Europe at the time.

Musa established a university at Timbuktu where 1,000 students worked towards their degrees. The university was attached to the Sankoré Mosque, and it was staffed with the finest jurists, astronomers, and mathematicians from the scholarly city of Fez in Morocco.

In each of the cities conquered by Musa, he established royal residences and urban administrative centers of government. All of those cities were Musa's capitals: the center of authority for the entire Mali kingdom moved with the Mansa: the centers where he was not currently visiting were called "king's towns."

Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina

All of the Islamic rulers of Mali made pilgrimages to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, but the most lavish by far was Musa's. As the richest potentate in the known world, Musa had full right of entry into any Muslim territory. Musa left to see the two shrines in Saudi Arabia in 720 AH (1320–1321 CE) and was gone for four years, returning in 725 AH/1325 CE. His party covered great distances, as Musa toured his western dominions on the way and back.

Musa's "golden procession" to Mecca was immense, a caravan of an almost inconceivable 60,000 people, including 8,000 guards, 9,000 workmen, 500 women including his royal wife, and 12,000 slaves. All were dressed in brocade and Persian silks: even the slaves carried a staff of gold weighing between 6-7 pounds each. A train of 80 camels each carried 225 lbs (3,600 troy ounces) of gold dust to be used as gifts.

Every Friday during the sojourn, wherever he was, Musa had his workmen build a new mosque to supply the king and his court with a place to worship.

Bankrupting Cairo

According to historical records, during his pilgrimage, Musa gave away a fortune in gold dust. In each of the Islamic capital cities of Cairo, Mecca, and Medina, he also gave an estimated 20,000 gold pieces in alms. As a result, prices for all merchandise rocketed in those cities as the recipients of his generosity rushed to pay for all kinds of goods in gold. The value of gold quickly depreciated.

By the time Musa returned to Cairo from Mecca, he had run out of gold and so he borrowed back all the gold he could get at a high rate of interest: accordingly, the value of gold in Cairo mounted to unprecedented heights. When he finally returned to Mali, he immediately repaid the vast loan plus interest in a single astounding payment. Cairo's money lenders were ruined as the price of gold fell through the floor, and it has been reported that it took at least seven years for Cairo to fully recover.

The Poet/Architect Es-Sahili

On his homeward journey, Musa was accompanied by an Islamic poet he met in Mecca from Granada, Spain. This man was Abu Ishaq al-Sahili (690–746 AH 1290–1346 CE), known as Es-Sahili or Abu Isak. Es-Sahili was a great storyteller with a fine eye for jurisprudence, but he also had skills as an architect, and he is known to have built many structures for Musa. He is credited with building royal audience chambers in Niani and Aiwalata, a mosque in Gao, and a royal residence and the Great Mosque called Djinguereber or Djingarey Ber which still stands in Timbuktu.

Es-Sahili's buildings were built primarily of adobe mud brick, and he is sometimes credited with bringing the technology of adobe brick to West Africa, but archaeological evidence has found baked adobe brick near the Great Mosque dated to the 11th century CE.

After Mecca

The Mali empire continued to grow after Musa's trip to Mecca, and by the time of his death in 1332 or 1337 (reports vary), his kingdom stretched across the desert to Morocco. Musa eventually ruled a swath of central and northern Africa from the Ivory Coast in the west to Gao in the east and from the great dunes bordering Morocco to the forest fringes of the south. The only city in the region which was more or less independent from Musa's control was the ancient capital of Jenne-Jeno in Mali.

Unfortunately, Musa's imperial strengths were not echoed in his descendants, and the Mali empire fell apart shortly after his death. Sixty years later, the great Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun described Musa as "distinguished by his ability and holiness... the justice of his administration was such its memory is still green."

Historians and Travelers

Most of what we know of Mansa Musa comes from the historian Ibn Khaldun, who collected sources about Musa in 776 AH (1373–1374 CE); the traveler Ibn Battuta, who toured Mali between 1352–1353 CE; and the geographer Ibn Fadl-Allah al-'Umari, who between 1342–1349 talked with several people who had met Musa.

Later sources include Leo Africanus in the early 16th century and histories which were written in the 16th–17th centuries by Mahmud Kati and 'Abd el-Rahman al-Saadi. See Levtzion for a detailed list of these scholars' sources. There are also records about the reign of Mansa Musa located in the archives of his royal Keita family.