Mali Empire

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Date: 2019
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 981 words
Content Level: (Level 3)
Lexile Measure: 940L

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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.

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Fast Facts

  • Sundiata Keita was also known as the “Lion King.” Some people believe the 1994 Walt Disney movie The Lion King was inspired by the Epic of Sundiata.
  • Timbuktu became such a legendary city that it inspired a popular phrase. “From here to Timbuktu” is used to describe a journey to a distant, remote place.
  • Some historians believe that Mansa Musa may have been the richest person in the history of the world.

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.

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Connections: Mansa Musa’s Famous Journey

Like many people in the Mali Empire, Mansa Musa was a follower of Islam. All Muslims are supposed to make a journey to the holy city of Mecca once in their life. Mecca is in the country of Saudi Arabia. In 1324, Musa set out on his journey to Mecca. Musa did not go by himself. He took along thousands of soldiers, servants, and messengers. Some historians believe that he had about sixty thousand people with him. Musa also brought thousands of camels, each loaded with bags of gold.

When Musa stopped in Egypt, he gave a large gift of gold to the Egyptian ruler. Musa and his followers were given their own palace to stay in while they were in Egypt. They bought so many goods in the marketplaces that Egypt’s economy was flooded with gold. This actually hurt the nation’s economy. The story of Musa’s time in Egypt was one of the reasons the wealth of the Mali Empire became legendary in Europe.

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.

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Words to Know

A future event that is supposed to happen.
A long poem or story that recounts heroic deeds.
A religion founded in about 610 AD by the Prophet Muhammad. Islam is the major religion in many countries in the Middle East and northern Africa.
A follower of the Islamic religion.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|SJWUTS735590710