Mansa Musa was well known for his tall tales. He often boasted that he owned a gold plant—a plant that grew the precious metal in the ground just like a carrot.
Mansa Musa ruled a fabulously wealthy fourteenth-century empire in the central part of western Africa. He provided the financing and inspiration to transform the small nomadic village of Timbuktu (Tombouctou) into an intellectual and economic center deep inside the continent. European explorers would not set foot there for another 500 years. Mansa Musa spearheaded the spread of Islamic law and civilization in the region. (Islam is the religion of those who worship Allah). His leadership and the achievements of the old Mali kingdom contradict all claims that little was achieved in black Africa until whites arrived.
Few outsiders other than Muslim traders from northern Africa and the East knew of Musa's legendary country until 1324, when the flamboyant king made an extravagant pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest city of Islam (located in today's Saudi Arabia). By the end of his pilgrimage, he had attracted the world's attention. Soon Musa's image adorned world atlases prepared by European mapmakers who knew little of the geography of the unexplored continent below Africa's northern rim. These early atlases cited Musa as evidence that riches and "Negro" royalty existed in central and western Africa.
The Origin of the Mali Kingdom
Sundiata Keita, or Sunjaata (c. 1190s-c. 1255), was the legendary founder of the medieval Mali kingdom. Sundiata is credited with freeing his small Mandé-speaking community from its oppressive overlords and laying the foundation for one of the wealthiest, most powerful kingdoms of Africa. His father, Nare Fa Maghan, ruled a small kingdom called Kangaba, located between the headwaters of the Niger and Senegal rivers around the border of modern Mali and Guinea. The first Keita ruler of Kangaba was Barmandana, who converted to Islam around A.D. 1050.
To protect themselves from their more powerful neighbors who raided for slaves, the Keita family united previously scattered family-based communities, villages, and clans under their leadership. The Kangaba were not strong enough, however, to defend themselves against the Soso, who raided their kingdom and killed 11 of Nare Fa Maghan's sons. The Soso did not bother executing Sundiata because he was crippled and they did not think he was a threat.
Another of Sundiata's brothers, Dankaran-Tuma, made a bargain to become king of the Kangaba under the domination of the Soso. Meanwhile, Sundiata, who miraculously recovered the use of his limbs, devoted himself to hunting and gained fame and favor with his people. The king became passionately jealous of his brother's popularity and forced him to flee the kingdom. Sundiata took refuge in the court of the king of Mema. When the Kangaba rose up spontaneously against the taxation and harsh conditions imposed on them by the Soso, Dankaran-Tuma ran away, abandoning his people.
Informed of the situation in Kangaba, Sundiata raised a large cavalry force (soldiers on horseback) and joined together with other discontented states that were being controlled by the Soso. This army stormed Kangaba and took power in 1234. Sundiata challenged the Soso; each side mobilized for battle. Legend has it that in 1235 the opposing columns fought a terrible battle, so vicious that "blood poured out of a thousand wounds," according to an eyewitness. Sundiata won the battle and ended Soso control over the Kangaba.
Sundiata then built a new capital at Niani. Niani attracted Muslim traders and scholars from North Africa and became not only a political capital but a thriving commercial center. Encouraged by his military victory, Sundiata grew ambitious. He conquered territories "in all directions": the gold-bearing fields to the South, the eastern territories extending to the Upper Niger, the western state up to the Atlantic Ocean, and the northern lands well into the Sahara Desert. He transformed the small kingdom of Kangaba into the vast and formidable empire of Mali, which reached its peak of power in the fourteenth century under Mansa Musa.
Mansa Musa expands his empire
On Musa's way through Cairo, Egypt, the lavish spending and distribution of alms (goods given to help the poor) by his massive group of followers flooded the city with gold. The Egyptian financial market, then one of the world's most important, plunged. It required more than 10 years for the price of gold to recover. With his gold Musa also persuaded the leading Islamic scholars and builders living in Cairo to follow him back home across the vast Sahara Desert to Timbuktu on the crucial bend of the fertile Niger River.
These scholars and architects built Timbuktu into one of the world's foremost Islamic academic and financial centers. Trade in gold, salt, slaves, and kola nuts made Timbuktu the Wall Street of Africa. By the fifteenth century Timbuktu rivaled the leading European cities of Venice, Paris, and Milan in population and economic and intellectual activity. Since then, however, the golden age of the old Mali kingdom has faded into obscurity. Today's Mali is a landlocked African country, one of the world's poorest.
Musa's fourteenth-century empire spread eastward from the Atlantic coasts of today's Senegal and Gambia along the agriculturally rich Niger River delta to beyond Timbuktu. The hot, dry Sahara Desert extending into today's Mauritania formed the empire's northern border. To the south lay tropical jungle stretching down to the steaming Guinea coast.
According to oral tradition, Musa's predecessor, known as Muhammad, expanded his power over territories that included or had access to the plentiful gold deposits of western Africa. Rulers of the Mali kingdom were extremely ambitious. Unverifiable reports indicate that Muhammad may have sent fleets of ships numbering in the thousands to explore the other side of the Atlantic Ocean nearly 200 years before Christopher Columbus discovered the New World.
Region's resources are important
The Niger River was key to the success of the Mali kingdom. The 2,600-mile river rises in southwest Guinea and follows a circuitous, eastward course through West Africa down into Nigeria before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. Much like the Nile that gave birth to Egypt's early civilization, the Niger floods each year, leaving behind deep layers of fertile soil along its banks. Centuries before the Christian era, major cities rose along the Niger delta (the deposit at the river's mouth).
Good economic prospects and the domestication of camels opened the way for Muslim traders from northern Africa, Arabia, and the Orient. These traders transported goods across the broad Sahara Desert to trade with people along the Niger River. Musa and other Malian leaders denied non-Muslims access to the Niger River markets. Christian "infidels" (or nonbelievers in Islam) gained access to the region only in the nineteenth century.
Timbuktu became a natural trading crossroad. Camels stopped at the northern bank of the river because blood-sucking tsetse flies carrying fatal diseases made the southern bank dangerous. From the central bend in the river where Timbuktu was located, goods were moved by boats east and west along the Niger. A natural exchange of goods between the North and South developed. Trade boomed. From the tropical South came gold, slaves, and kola nuts. The gold paid for trade along the Silk Road to the Far East and financed much of the European Renaissance (a rebirth of art and literature that began in fourteenth-century Italy). Slaves provided labor to dig salt out of the northern Sahara Desert mines. Slaves also became servants for Arabian and European households. Nuts from the kola tree supplied relief from thirst in the desert.
From the North came salt, high-grade textiles, and metal instruments. So important was salt in the tropical South that at one time it traded equally with gold on Timbuktu markets—an ounce of salt for an ounce of gold. Manufactured clothing from the North was of higher quality than the handmade clothes of the South. And a boom in weapons and ammunition occurred in the tropics as Africans began using guns to defend themselves and capture slaves.
Returns from pilgrimage with an architect
Reveling in all his kingdom's glory and surplus gold, Musa set off in 1324 on one of the five essential Muslim duties: to make a pilgrimage to Mecca (the Holy Land). Reports vary according to scholars and others about the extent of the expedition through Sudan, Egypt, and across the Red Sea to Mecca. Some sources say Musa's entourage (attendants and associates) numbered as many as 80,000, including 500 slaves bearing golden staffs and 100 camels each transporting 300 pounds of gold—an incredible total of 30,000 pounds.
During his trip Musa encountered a brilliant Spanish architect living in Cairo, Egypt. The emperor lured the architect, El Saheli, to Timbuktu, where he built five exquisite mosques (a building used for public worship by Muslims) and became a rich man. One of the five—Djinguereber mosque, completed in 1327—remains the religious center of Timbuktu and is regarded as its greatest treasure. Muslims continue to use the mosque for daily prayers. Timbuktu's imam, the city's main religious leader, still conducts special Friday prayers from the mosque.
El Saheli—An Uncommon Talent, an Uncommon Building
El Saheli grew up in Andalusia, a region in southern Spain. Almost certainly the Grand Mosque in the Andalusian city of Cordova influenced his architectural training. The mosque, the most magnificent Islamic structure in the Western world, was built between the eight and ninth centuries by the Moors (North African Muslims who ruled part of Spain from A.D. 711 to 1492).
The interior of Timbuktu's Djinguereber mosque bears a striking similarity to that of the Grand Mosque of Cordova. The Timbuktu mosque has nine rows of square pillars, 95 in all, providing prayer space for 2,000. Cordova's mosque is supported by rows of pillars supporting graceful Moorish arches. But El Saheli had less building material to work with than the plentiful stone at Cordova. In fact, all he really had available to him was mud, so the Djinguereber mosque's exterior resembles the Islamic architectural style common in the Sahara Desert and Niger River valley. Musa was apparently pleased with the mosque: he gave the architect 132 pounds of gold upon the building's completion.
Kingdom emerges as multicultural commercial center
While much of Europe fell victim to wars and plagues, Timbuktu emerged under Musa's guidance as an urban center of commerce and learning with the second largest imperial court in the world. According to Arabic geographers and historians, Musa claimed that his own rise to power stemmed from the actions of Muhammad, his predecessor, who sailed into the Atlantic Ocean to explore the water's limits. Arabic author Shihab al-Din Ibn Fadi al-'Umari quoted a version of Musa's story as told by a man named Abu'l Hasan Ali ibn Amir Hajib. Muhammad is said to have equipped 200 ships and filled them with men. He filled another 200 with enough gold, water, food, and other supplies to last the men for years. He instructed the ships' commanders to return only after they had explored the other side of the sea or had run out of food and water. Years later, as the story goes, a single ship returned. The commander told Muhammad that the other ships had disappeared in a violent, mid-ocean current. Muhammad then set out to survey the situation himself, taking 2,000 vessels along on the journey. He he left Musa in charge of the kingdom and set out with his companions. "This was the last time that I saw him and the others," Musa said, "and I remained absolute master of the empire."
In recent years, the report by al-'Umari has formed the basis of controversial claims by some U.S. Africanists—claims that Africans arrived in the New World long before the Europeans and therefore played a key role in the development of the Americas. But other scholars caution against believing any of Musa's grandiose claims. Musa was well known for his tall tales, and his story about Muhammad may well have been fabricated. (After all, he often boasted that he owned a gold plant—a plant that grew the precious metal in the ground just like a carrot.) Whatever the circumstances of Musa's ascent to power—whether true, false, or just slightly exaggerated—there is no denying that under his leadership Timbuktu became a multicultural trading hub and a center of learning in western Africa.
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