The Empire of Mali

The Mali Empire was the 2nd largest empire in Africa at 1.1 million KM, 2nd to Songhay. Take another look at the map above showing Africa’s kingdoms and empires. Notice the relationship between Ghana and Mali. The Kingdom of Mali includes all of Ghana plus a lot more territory! During its time, Mali was the second largest empire in the world only after the Mongolian empire in Asia. The dates that historians have designated for the Kingdom of Mali are from the 13th to 15th centuries CE. With the fall of the Ghana Empire, the Sosso expanded into a number of its former holdings, including its capital of Koumbi Saleh.

Under King Soumaoro Kanté, the Sosso briefly conquered the Mandinka kingdoms of what is now Mali. These gains were lost at the Battle of Kirina (c. 1240) when Mandinka prince Sundiata Keita led a coalition of smaller states to soundly defeat the Sosso, thus beginning the Mali Empire. Sundiata marched on to the city of Sosso itself and destroyed it, marking the kingdom’s end.

The Kingdom of Mali came to control the gold trade that the Kingdom of Ghana had controlled before it, but it also expanded its trading in many ways. The Kingdom of Mali controlled the salt trade in the north and many caravan trade routes. Additionally, it traded extensively with Egypt and the copper mine areas to the east.

The founder and first ruler of the Kingdom of Mali was Sundiata Keita. We know about him through the writings of a 14th century North African historian named Ibn Khaldun. Sundiata expanded the kingdom to include the Kingdom of Ghana and West African gold fields. The modern Sosso people trace their history to a 12th- and 13th-century Kaniaga kingdom known as the “Sosso.”

The most celebrated king of Mali was Mansa Musa. He greatly extended Mali’s territory and power during his reign. He made a name for himself in distant regions throughout the Muslim world through his pilgrimage to Mecca, which is in present-day Saudi Arabia. Sixty thousand people and eighty camels carrying 300 lbs. of gold each accompanied him to Mecca.

Several great centers of Islamic learning were also established during the Kingdom of Mali. Among them were the legendary Timbuktu, Djenne, and Gao. Scholars came from all over the Muslim world to study at these places, which have a long and rich history of learning in religion, mathematics, music, law, and literature. Although many people in Mali maintained their indigenous religions during this time, Islam was becoming well established throughout the kingdom.

The fourteenth-century traveler Ibn Battuta visited ancient Mali a few decades after Musa’s death and was much impressed by the peace and lawfulness he found strictly enforced there. The Mali empire extended over an area larger than western Europe and consisted of numerous vassal kingdoms and provinces. Following Mansa Musa’s death, Mali went into a long decline, shrinking to the size of its original territory by 1645.


From the ashes of the Ghanaian Empire emerged a new empire of truly legendary proportions: The Empire of Mali!

Sweeping out from the small state of Kangaba and led by Sundjata Keita, the Malians, also known as Mandinkas, captured the Ghanaian capital of Kumbi-Salah and its incredible wealth and trade routes. Islam had come to the kingdom of Mali in 1050 AD under their first Muslim monarch, king Baramandanah. History has it that one of his successors Musa Keita visited the holy places in Mecca four times such as his love for th efaith of Islam!

The groups now unified under the victorious Sundjata, who was now poised to be sovereign over a kingdom that would become the famed Mali Empire. 
Mamadou Kouyate recounts how Sundjata defeated the Sossos and sacked Kumbi Saleh;

‘Having drawn his sword, Sundjata led the charge, shouting his war cry. The Sossos were surprised by his sudden attack. The lightening that flashs across the sky is slower, the thnderbolts less frightening and flood waters less surprising than Sundjata. In a trice Sundjata was in the middle of the Sossos like a lion in the sheepfold. The Sossos, trampled under the hooves of his fiery charger, cried out. When he turned to his right, the Soumaoro fell in their tens, and when he turned to his left his sword made heads fall as when some one shakes a tree of ripe fruit.’


Sundjata Keita, although a mighty warrior was also a nation builder of vision. Establishing his capital at Niani he bid his soldiers to farm the land, literally turning swords into plough shares; soldiers in to farmers harvesting the land and raising poultry and cattle.

Under the leadership of Sundjata and his successors, the Malians forged an empire three times the already impressive size of Ancient Ghana, and stretched west to the Atlantic Ocean, south into the deep forests, east beyond the Niger River, and north to the salt and copper mines of the Sahara. In fact Mali encompassed a size akin to western Europe combined and included Senegal, Gambia, Guinea and Mauritania. A truly vast area indeed.

Ibn Battuta describes the Malians as such:
The blacks are seldom unjust and have a greater abhorrence to injustice than any other people. Their Sultan shows no mercy to anyone who is guilty of the act. There is complete security in their country. Neither traveller nor inhabitant in it has anything to fear from robbers or men of violence.


After the passing of Sundjata in 1255, history records and bears witness to the incredible sense of discovery and adventure that these Africans held in their hearts.

The Egyptian geographer Shihab ad-Din al-Umari published the Masalik ad Adsar fi  Mamalik al Amsar in 1342. In this astonishing volume the author describes the daring sea voyages of Mansa Abu Bakr II who equipped 200 ships with men, food, water and gold to last for several years and cast them off into the great unknown regions of the Atlantic Ocean. Their instructions? To sail west until all supplies where exhausted or until they reached the extremities of the ocean!
When only a single ship returned, the captain relayed the discovery of a mid-Atlantic current which took his fellow sea fares further west but from which he refuse to go into. Abu Bakr was resolved to traverse the ocean but this time equipped 2,000 ships as he had done with the previous crew and sailed with his men into the sea of darkness and fog.

They never came back. 

This was the year 1311, Christopher Columbus was not to make his famous voyage to the Caribbean for another 181 years! And indeed it has been discovered that Malian place names, customs, forms of Islamic dress and language have been found in Brazil, Peru and the United States. And contrary to the experience of the European explorers who landed upon the shores of the new world, the Muslim Mangdinkas where revered for their knowledge and piety and freely intermingled with the indigenous tribes along the length and breath of the Native American world.

Abu Bakr II had conferred the vastness of his power and legacy to Mansa Musa who was the grandson of Sundiata’s half brother and who’s name which conjures up tales of grandeur and elegance and unsurpassed generosity and wealth. In 1324, like every Muslim who endeavours to perform the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and participate in the Hajj, a monarch of Emperor Mansa Musa’s immense standing and prestige would do so in truly spectacular fashion!

Mounted before a caravan of 72,000 fellow pilgrims, comprising of soliders and servants and 900 camels loaded with 24,000 pounds of gold, much of which was given away to the poor (more), this wondrous entourage must have been a truly awe-inspiring sight and is only likened to the caravans of the Queen of Sheba sent to Prophet Solomon in ancient times.

 Between his home land and the fabled city of Mecca, Emperor Mansa Musa’s sojourn radically altered the economy of every state he passed through, such was the impact of his vast gold stores. Egypts own economy was devastated for 12 years after because of the breath taking amount of gold Mansa Musa brought into that country!

Under Mansa Musa, diplomatic ties with Tunis and Egypt were established, and Muslim scholars and artisans where brought into the empire, while the legendary name of Mali appeared on maps in Europe.

Ever a patron of the arts and sciences, Mansa Musa set about building institutions of learning and embarked upon building numerous universities, schools and mosques in Timbuktoo and Gao.They became important trading centers for all of West Africa as well as fabled centers of wealth, culture, and learning. It was in these cities that vast libraries were built and madrasas (Islamic universities) were endowed. They became meeting-places of the finest poets, scholars, and artists of Africa and the Middle East. Timbuktu, in particular, had become legendary in the European imagination, representing all the wealth of Africa.  In the capital Niana the Mansa erected the famous Hall of Audience a grand structure which boasted some of the finest examples of architectural techniques of the time including cut stone, adornments of arabesques, windows framed in gold and silver, wooden floors framed in silver foil and surmounted by a dome.

By way of establishing diplomatic ties with other African nations Emperor Mansa Musa sent hand picked gifts of friendship to the sultan of Morocco Abu Al-Hassan who in like manner send lavish presents but Emperor Mansa Musa died before they could reach his court. His successor Mansa Suleiman nonetheless received the gifts and established a tradition of similar exchanges for years to come.

By the fifteenth century, and like Ghana before it, the empire of Mali fell victim to internal feuding, droughts and invasion. With visionaries like Mansa Musa gone rival states rose to defy Mali and one in particular ushered in a new golden age.

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