Mansa Musa

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Catalan Atlas BNF Sheet 6 Mansa Musa (cropped).jpg
Musa depicted holding an Imperial Golden Globe in the 1375 Catalan Atlas
Mansa of Mali
Reignc.1312– c.1337 (c. 25 years)
PredecessorMuhammad ibn Qu[1]
SuccessorMaghan Musa
Bornc. 1280
Mali Empire
Mali Empire
SpouseInari Kunate
Mansa Musa
HouseKeita dynasty

Musa I (c. 1280[citation needed] – c. 1337), or Mansa Musa, was the ninth[2] Mansa of the Mali Empire, one of the most powerful Islamic West African states. He has sometimes been called the wealthiest person in history, though his wealth is impossible to accurately quantify and it is difficult to meaningfully compare the wealth of historical figures.

At the time of Musa's ascension to the throne, Mali in large part consisted of the territory of the former Ghana Empire, which Mali had conquered. The Mali Empire consisted of land that is now part of Guinea, Senegal, Mauritania, The Gambia and the modern state of Mali.

Musa went on hajj to Mecca in 1324, and traveled with an enormous entourage and a vast supply of gold. En route, he spent time in Cairo, where his lavish gift-giving caused a noticeable drop in the price of gold for over a decade and garnered the attention of the wider Muslim world.

Musa expanded the borders of the Mali Empire, in particular incorporating the cities of Gao and Timbuktu into its territory. He sought closer ties with the rest of the Muslim world, particularly the Mamluk Sultanate and Marinid Sultanate. He recruited scholars from the wider Muslim world to travel to Mali, such as the Andalusian poet Abu Ishaq al-Sahili, and helped establish Timbuktu as a center of Islamic learning. His reign is associated with numerous construction projects, including part of Djinguereber Mosque in Timbuktu. Musa's reign is often regarded as the zenith of Mali's power and prestige.

Name and titles[edit]

Mansa Musa's personal name was Musa (Arabic: موسى, romanizedMūsā), the Arabic form of Moses. Mansa, 'ruler'[3] or 'king'[4] in Mandé, was the title of the ruler of the Mali Empire. It has also been translated as "conqueror" and "priest-king".[5][6] In oral tradition and the Timbuktu Chronicles, Musa is known as Kanku Musa.[7][a] In Mandé tradition, it was common for one's name to be prefixed by their mother's name, so the name Kanku Musa means "Musa, son of Kanku", although it is unclear if the genealogy implied is literal.[11] He is also called Hidji Mansa Musa in oral tradition in reference to his hajj.[12] As he was a member of the Keita dynasty, he is also called Musa Keita.

In the Songhai language, rulers of Mali such as Musa were known as the Mali-koi, koi being a title that conveyed authority over a region: in other words, the "ruler of Mali".[13]

Historical sources[edit]

Much of what is known about Musa comes from Arabic sources written after his hajj, especially the writings of Al-Umari and Ibn Khaldun. While in Cairo during his hajj, Musa befriended officials such as Ibn Amir Hajib, who learned about him and his country from him and later passed on that information to historians such as Al-Umari.[14] Additional information comes from two 17th-century manuscripts written in Timbuktu, the Tarikh as-Sudan and the Tarikh al-fattash.[15] Oral tradition, as performed by the jeliw (sg. jeli), also known as griots, includes relatively little information about Musa compared to some other parts of the history of Mali.[15]

Lineage and accession to the throne[edit]

Genealogy of the kings of the Mali Empire based on the chronicle of Ibn Khaldun[16]

Musa's father was named Faga Leye[17] and his mother may have been named Kanku.[b] Faga Leye was the son of Abu Bakr, a brother of Sunjata, the first mansa of the Mali Empire.[19][c] Ibn Battuta, who visited Mali during the reign of Musa's brother Sulayman, said that Musa's grandfather was named Sariq Jata.[21] Sariq Jata may be another name for Sunjata, who was actually Musa's great-uncle.[22] The date of Musa's birth is unknown, but he still appeared to be a young man in 1324.[23] The Tarikh al-fattash claims that Musa accidentally killed Kanku at some point prior to his hajj.[24]

Musa ascended to power in the early 1300s[d] under unclear circumstances. According to Musa's own account, his predecessor as mansa of Mali, presumably Muhammad ibn Qu,[27] launched two expeditions to explore the Atlantic Ocean (200 ships for the first exploratory mission and 2,000 ships for the second). The mansa led the second expedition himself, and appointed Musa as his deputy to rule the empire until he returned.[28] When he did not return, Musa was crowned as mansa himself, marking a transfer of the line of succession from the descendants of Sunjata to the descendants of his brother Abu Bakr.[29] Some modern historians have cast doubt on Musa's version of events, suggesting he may have deposed his predecessor and devised the story about the voyage to explain how he took power.[30][31] Nonetheless, the possibility of such a voyage has been taken seriously by several historians.[32][33][34]

According to the Tarikh al-Fattash, Musa had a wife named Inari Konte.[35]

Islam and pilgrimage to Mecca[edit]

From the far reaches of the Mediterranean Sea to the Indus River, the faithful approached the city of Mecca. All had the same objective to worship together at the most sacred shrine of Islam, the Kaaba in Mecca. One such traveler was Mansa Musa, Sultan of Mali in Western Africa. Mansa Musa had prepared carefully for the long journey he and his attendants would take. He was determined to travel not only for his own religious fulfillment but also for recruiting teachers and leaders so that his realms could learn more of the Prophet's teachings.

–Mahmud Kati, Chronicle of the Seeker

Musa was a devout Muslim, and his pilgrimage to Mecca, also known as hajj, made him well known across Northern Africa and the Middle East. To Musa, Islam was "an entry into the cultured world of the Eastern Mediterranean".[36] He would have spent much time fostering the growth of the religion within his empire.

Musa made his pilgrimage between 1324 and 1325 spanning 2,700 miles.[37][38][39] His procession reportedly included 60,000 men, all wearing brocade and Persian silk, including 12,000 slaves,[40] who each carried 1.8 kg (4 lb) of gold bars, and heralds dressed in silks, who bore gold staffs, organized horses, and handled bags. Musa provided all necessities for the procession, feeding the entire company of men and animals.[36] Those animals included 80 camels which each carried 23–136 kg (50–300 lb) of gold dust. Musa gave the gold to the poor he met along his route. Musa not only gave to the cities he passed on the way to Mecca, including Cairo and Medina, but also traded gold for souvenirs. It was reported that he built a mosque every Friday.[41]

Musa's journey was documented by several eyewitnesses along his route, who were in awe of his wealth and extensive procession, and records exist in a variety of sources, including journals, oral accounts, and histories. Musa is known to have visited the Mamluk sultan of Egypt, Al-Nasir Muhammad, in July 1324.[42] Because of his nature of giving, Musa's massive spending and generous donations created a massive ten year gold recession. In the cities of Cairo, Medina, and Mecca, the sudden influx of gold devalued the metal significantly. Prices of goods and wares became greatly inflated. This mistake became apparent to Musa and on his way back from Mecca, he borrowed all of the gold he could carry from money-lenders in Cairo at high interest. This is the only time recorded in history that one man directly controlled the price of gold in the Mediterranean.[36] Some historians[who?] believe the Hajj was less out of religious devotion than to garner international attention to the flourishing state of Mali. Al-Umari who visited Cairo shortly after Musa's pilgrimage to Mecca, noted that it was "a lavish display of power, wealth, and unprecedented by its size and pageantry".[43] The creation of a recession of that magnitude could have been purposeful. After all, Cairo was the leading gold market at the time (where people went to purchase large amounts of gold). In order to relocate these markets to Timbuktu or Gao, Musa would have to first affect Cairo's gold economy. Musa made a major point of showing off his nation's wealth. His goal was to create a ripple and he succeeded greatly in this, so much so that he landed himself and Mali on the Catalan Atlas of 1375.[citation needed]

Later reign[edit]

Whenever a hero adds to the list of his exploits, the king gives him a pair of wide trousers, and the greater the number of a knight's exploits, the bigger the size of his trousers.

–Al-Umari describing the Honor of the Trousers[44]

During his long return journey from Mecca in 1325, Musa heard news that his army had recaptured Gao. Sagmandia, one of his generals, led the endeavor. The city of Gao had been within the empire since before Sakura's reign and was an important − though often rebellious − trading center. Musa made a detour and visited the city where he received, as hostages, the two sons of the Gao king, Ali Kolon and Suleiman Nar. He returned to Niani with the two boys and later educated them at his court. When Mansa Musa returned, he brought back many Arabian scholars and architects.[citation needed]

Construction in Mali[edit]

Musa embarked on a large building program, raising mosques and madrasas in Timbuktu and Gao. Most notably, the ancient center of learning Sankore Madrasah (or University of Sankore) was constructed during his reign.

In Niani, Musa built the Hall of Audience, a building communicating by an interior door to the royal palace. It was "an admirable Monument", surmounted by a dome and adorned with arabesques of striking colours. The wooden window frames of an upper storey were plated with silver foil; those of a lower storey with gold. Like the Great Mosque, a contemporaneous and grandiose structure in Timbuktu, the Hall was built of cut stone.

During this period, there was an advanced level of urban living in the major centers of Mali. Sergio Domian, an Italian scholar of art and architecture, wrote of this period: "Thus was laid the foundation of an urban civilization. At the height of its power, Mali had at least 400 cities, and the interior of the Niger Delta was very densely populated."[45]

The Djinguereber Mosque, commissioned by Mansa Musa in 1327

Economy and education[edit]

It is recorded that Mansa Musa traveled through the cities of Timbuktu and Gao on his way to Mecca, and made them a part of his empire when he returned around 1325. He brought architects from Andalusia, a region in Spain, and Cairo to build his grand palace in Timbuktu and the great Djinguereber Mosque that still stands today.[46]

Timbuktu soon became the center of trade, culture, and Islam; markets brought in merchants from Hausaland, Egypt, and other African kingdoms, a university was founded in the city (as well as in the Malian cities of Djenné and Ségou), and Islam was spread through the markets and university, making Timbuktu a new area for Islamic scholarship.[47] News of the Malian empire's city of wealth even traveled across the Mediterranean to southern Europe, where traders from Venice, Granada, and Genoa soon added Timbuktu to their maps to trade manufactured goods for gold.[48]

The University of Sankore in Timbuktu was restaffed under Musa's reign with jurists, astronomers, and mathematicians.[49] The university became a center of learning and culture, drawing Muslim scholars from around Africa and the Middle East to Timbuktu.

In 1330, the kingdom of Mossi invaded and conquered the city of Timbuktu. Gao had already been captured by Musa's general, and Musa quickly regained Timbuktu, built a rampart and stone fort, and placed a standing army to protect the city from future invaders.[50]

While Musa's palace has since vanished, the university and mosque still stand in Timbuktu today.

By the end of Mansa Musa's reign, the Sankoré University had been converted into a fully staffed University with the largest collections of books in Africa since the Library of Alexandria. The Sankoré University was capable of housing 25,000 students and had one of the largest libraries in the world with roughly 1,000,000 manuscripts.[51][52]


The Mali Empire at the time of Mansa Musa's death

The date of Mansa Musa's death is not certain. Using the reign lengths reported by Ibn Khaldun to calculate back from the death of Mansa Suleyman in 1360, Musa would have died in 1332.[53] However, Ibn Khaldun also reports that Musa sent an envoy to congratulate Abu al-Hasan Ali for his conquest of Tlemcen, which took place in May 1337, but by the time Abu al-Hasan sent an envoy in response, Musa had died and Suleyman was on the throne, suggesting Musa died in 1337.[54] In contrast, al-Umari, writing twelve years after Musa's hajj, in approximately 1337,[55] claimed that Musa returned to Mali intending to abdicate and return to live in Mecca but died before he could do so,[56] suggesting he died even earlier than 1332.[57] It is possible that it was actually Musa's son Maghan who congratulated Abu al-Hasan, or Maghan who received Abu al-Hasan's envoy after Musa's death.[58] The latter possibility is corroborated by Ibn Khaldun calling Suleyman Musa's son in that passage, suggesting he may have confused Musa's brother Suleyman with Musa's son Maghan.[59] Alternatively, it is possible that the four-year reign Ibn Khaldun credits Maghan with actually referred to his ruling Mali while Musa was away on the hajj, and he only reigned briefly in his own right.[60] Nehemia Levtzion regarded 1337 as the most likely date,[54] which has been accepted by other scholars.[61][62]


Musa's hajj has been regarded as the most illustrious moment in the history of West Africa.[63] Musa's reign is commonly regarded as Mali's golden age, but this perception may be the result of his reign being the best recorded by Arabic sources, rather than him necessarily being the wealthiest and most powerful mansa of Mali.[64]

Musa is less renowned in Mandé oral tradition as performed by the jeliw.[65] He is criticized for being unfaithful to tradition, and some of the jeliw regard Musa as having wasted Mali's wealth.[66][67] However, some aspects of Musa appear to have been incorporated into a figure in Mandé oral tradition known as Fajigi, which translates as "father of hope".[68] Fajigi is remembered as having traveled to Mecca to retrieve ceremonial objects known as boliw, which feature in Mandé traditional religion.[68] As Fajigi, Musa is sometimes conflated with a figure in oral tradition named Fakoli, who is best-known as Sunjata's top general.[69] The figure of Fajigi combines both Islam and traditional beliefs.[68]

The name "Musa" has become virtually synonymous with pilgrimage in Mandé tradition, such that other figures who are remembered as going on a pilgrimage, such as Fakoli, are also called Musa.[70]


Musa has been considered the wealthiest human ever.[71] Though some sources have estimated his wealth as equivalent to US$400 billion, his actual wealth is impossible to accurately calculate. Contemporary Arabic sources may have been trying to express that Musa had more gold than they thought possible, rather than trying to give an exact number.[72] Furthermore, it is difficult to meaningfully compare the wealth of historical figures such as Mansa Musa, due to the difficulty of separating the personal wealth of a monarch from the wealth of the state and the difficulty of comparing wealth in highly different societies.[73] Musa may have brought as much as 18 tons of gold on his hajj.[74] Musa himself further promoted the appearance of having vast, inexhaustible wealth by spreading rumors that gold grew like a plant in his kingdom.[75]

In popular culture[edit]


  1. ^ Several alternate spellings exist, such as Congo Musa, Gongo Musa, and Kankan Musa, but they are regarded as incorrect.[8][9][10]
  2. ^ Musa's name Kanku Musa means "Musa son of Kanku", but the genealogy may not be literal.[18]
  3. ^ Arabic sources omit Faga Leye, referring to Musa as Musa ibn Abi Bakr. This can be interpreted as meaning either "Musa son of Abu Bakr" or "Musa descendant of Abu Bakr." It is implausible that Abu Bakr was Musa's father, due to the amount of time between Sunjata's reign and Musa's.[20]
  4. ^ The exact date of Musa's accession is debated. Ibn Khaldun claims Musa reigned for 25 years, so his accession is dated to 25 years before his death. Musa's death may have occurred in 1337, 1332, or possibly even earlier, giving 1307 or 1312 as plausible approximate years of accession. 1312 is the most widely accepted by modern historians.[25][26]


  1. ^ Levtzion 1963, p. 346
  2. ^ Levtzion 1963, p. 353
  3. ^ Gomez 2018, p. 87
  4. ^ MacBrair 1873, p. 40
  5. ^ Lapidus, Ira M. A History of Islamic Societies. 3rd edn. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2014, p. 455.
  6. ^ Jansen 1998, p. 256
  7. ^ Bell 1972, p. 230
  8. ^ Niane 1959
  9. ^ Hunwick 1999, p. 9
  10. ^ Cissoko 1969
  11. ^ Gomez 2018, p. 109
  12. ^ Niane 1959.
  13. ^ Gomez 2018, pp. 109, 129
  14. ^ Al-Umari, Chapter 10.
  15. ^ a b Gomez 2018, pp. 92–93.
  16. ^ Levtzion 1963, p. 353.
  17. ^ Niane 1959
  18. ^ Gomez 2018, pp. 109–110
  19. ^ Niane 1959
  20. ^ Levtzion 1963, p. 347
  21. ^ Levtzion & Hopkins 2000, p. 295.
  22. ^ Levtzion & Hopkins 2000, p. 416.
  23. ^ Gomez 2018, p. 104
  24. ^ Gomez 2018, p. 109
  25. ^ Bell 1972
  26. ^ Levtzion 1963, pp. 349–350
  27. ^ Fauvelle 2018
  28. ^ Al-Umari, Chapter 10
  29. ^ Ibn Khaldun
  30. ^ Gomez 2018
  31. ^ Thornton 2012, pp. 9, 11
  32. ^ Gomez 2018, p. 101.
  33. ^ Devisse & Labib 1984, p. 666.
  34. ^ Thornton 2012, p. 13.
  35. ^ Bühnen 1994, p. 12.
  36. ^ a b c Goodwin 1957, p. 110.
  37. ^ Gomez 2018, p. 4.
  38. ^ Pollard, Elizabeth (2015). Worlds Together Worlds Apart. New York: W.W. Norton Company Inc. p. 362. ISBN 978-0-393-91847-2.
  39. ^ Wilks, Ivor (1997). "Wangara, Akan, and Portuguese in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries". In Bakewell, Peter John (ed.). Mines of Silver and Gold in the Americas. Aldershot: Variorum, Ashgate Publishing Limited. p. 7. ISBN 9780860785132.
  40. ^ de Graft-Johnson, John Coleman, "Mūsā I of Mali" Archived 2017-04-21 at the Wayback Machine, Encyclopædia Britannica, 15 November 2017.
  41. ^ Bell 1972
  42. ^ Bell 1972, p. 224
  43. ^ The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa By Patricia McKissack, Fredrick McKissack Page 60
  44. ^ Mendoza 2001, p. 293.
  45. ^ Mansa Musa, African History Restored, 2008, archived from the original on 2 October 2008, retrieved 29 September 2008
  46. ^ De Villiers and Hirtle, p. 70.
  47. ^ De Villiers and Hirtle, p. 74.
  48. ^ De Villiers and Hirtle, pp. 87–88.
  49. ^ Goodwin 1957, p. 111.
  50. ^ De Villiers and Hirtle, pp. 80–81.
  51. ^ See: Said Hamdun & Noël King (edds.), Ibn Battuta in Black Africa. London, 1975, pp. 52–53.
  52. ^ "Lessons from Timbuktu: What Mali's Manuscripts Teach About Peace | World Policy Institute". Archived from the original on 29 October 2013. Retrieved 24 October 2013.
  53. ^ Levtzion 1963, p. 349.
  54. ^ a b Levtzion 1963, p. 350.
  55. ^ Levtzion & Hopkins 2000, pp. 252, 413.
  56. ^ Levtzion & Hopkins 2000, p. 268.
  57. ^ Bell 1972, p. 224.
  58. ^ Bell 1972, p. 225–226.
  59. ^ Bell 1972, p. 225.
  60. ^ Bell 1972, p. 226–227.
  61. ^ Sapong 2016, p. 2.
  62. ^ Gomez 2018, p. 145.
  63. ^ Gomez 2018, p. 4
  64. ^ Canós-Donnay 2019.
  65. ^ Gomez 2018, pp. 92–93
  66. ^ Niane 1984.
  67. ^ Mohamud 2019.
  68. ^ a b c Conrad 1992, p. 152.
  69. ^ Conrad 1992, p. 153.
  70. ^ Conrad 1992, pp. 153–154.
  71. ^ Mohamud 2019
  72. ^ Davidson 2015b.
  73. ^ Davidson 2015a.
  74. ^ Gomez 2018, p. 106.
  75. ^ Gomez 2018, p. 121.
  76. ^ "Civilization® VI – the Official Site | News | Civilization VI: Gathering Storm – Mansa Musa Leads Mali".
  77. ^ Jeff Bezos vs Mansa Musa. Epic Rap Battles Of History, retrieved 2021-12-02

Primary Sources[edit]

Other Sources[edit]

External links[edit]

Regnal titles
Preceded by Mansa of the Mali Empire
Succeeded by