The Mali Empire was a wealthy and powerful kingdom that ruled West Africa from about 1235 to 1645 AD. The empire stretched from the Atlantic coast into the modern nation of Niger. Its location allowed it to grow rich on trade between northern and southern Africa. Timbuktu, one of its most important cities, was home to several large universities and libraries. The story of the empire’s founding became one of the first true works of African literature. The Mali Empire was famous across Europe for its wealth. It was so well-known, in fact, that explorers were still searching for a “lost city of gold” centuries after the empire fell.
The Empire Is Born
Since the time of the ancient Egyptians, several empires had flourished in northern and eastern Africa. The first powerful West African empire was the Kingdom of Ghana, which rose in the 700s. The empire was built on the gold trade. However, it had begun to lose influence by the 1100s. Parts of the empire were conquered by the Kingdom of Sosso near the end of the century.
In the early 1200s, Sosso was ruled by a king named Sumanguru Kante. Sumanguru was a cruel ruler who grew his kingdom by capturing neighboring territories. In the 1230s, a prince of the Malinke people named Sundiata Keita rose up against Sumanguru. Sundiata’s armies defeated the Sosso king at the Battle of Krina in 1235. The victorious Sundiata united several local tribes under a new central government. Sundiata was named king, and the Mali Empire was formed.
The story of Sundiata’s victory was retold in a poem called the Epic of Sundiata. The poem is based on the true story but turns it into a magical battle between kingdoms. In the tale, Sumanguru is an evil sorcerer who seems unstoppable. Sundiata places a magical rooster claw on an arrow and shoots Sumanguru. The arrow’s magic defeats the sorcerer and Sundiata fulfils his destiny to become king. The story was originally shared only by word of mouth. It is one of the oldest-known works of African literature in history.
Built on Trade
Sundiata named his empire Mali, which means “the place where the king lives.” The king was known as Mansa and lived in a large palace in the capital city of Niani. Sundiata expanded the empire by absorbing several nearby kingdoms. The Mali Empire soon became a very wealthy center for trade.
The empire was located between two important regions. To the south were the rain forests and grasslands of central Africa. To the north were wealthy Muslim kingdoms. Mali traders exchanged goods between the two regions. Some of the most popular trading goods were salt, ivory, spices, and clothes. The empire also controlled areas that produced valuable gold.
The trading center of Timbuktu grew to become the richest city in the empire. People from many different cultures lived in the city. Many people in the Mali Empire were followers of Islam. Muslim scholars founded several universities in Timbuktu to teach the Islamic religion. The city was also home to libraries that may have held more than 700,000 books.
Height and Decline
The Mali Empire reached its greatest height under the rule of Mansa Musa in the early 1300s. The empire covered an area where the nations of Senegal, Mauritania, Guinea, The Gambia, Mali, and Niger are today. Word of the empire’s wealth soon spread into Europe. Some mapmakers even drew pictures on their maps of Mansa Musa holding a gold nugget. Timbuktu became known as a legendary city of gold. During the next few centuries, many explorers tried to find the city and its riches.
The Mali Empire began to decline after the death of Mansa Musa. European ships began trading with some of the areas that used to trade with the empire. The empire was also attacked by foreign invaders. In the late 1400s, some regions of the empire began fighting each other. About 1468, much of the empire’s territory was captured by the Songhai Empire. By the mid-1600s, the only part of the Mali Empire left was a small region near the coast. About 1645, this region fell under the control of the Moroccan Empire.