Mansa Musa

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Mansa Musa
Catalan Atlas BNF Sheet 6 Mansa Musa.jpg
Musa depicted holding an Imperial Golden Globe in the 1375 Catalan Atlas.
Mansa of Mali
Reignc.1312– c.1337 (c. 25 years)
PredecessorAbubakari II
SuccessorMaghan Musa
Bornc. 1280
Mali Empire
Diedc. 1337 (aged 56–57)
Mali Empire
SpouseInari Kunate
IssueMaghan Musa
HouseKeita Dynasty
FatherFaga Laye[1]
ReligionSunni Islam (Maliki)

Musa I (c. 1280 – c. 1337 ), or Mansa Musa, was the tenth Mansa (a military title meaning "conqueror"[2] or "emperor"[3][4][5][6][7]) of the Mali Empire, an Islamic West African state.

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, Gambia and the modern state of Mali. During his reign, Musa held many titles, such as "Emir of Melle", "Lord of the Mines of Wangara", and "Conqueror of Ghanata".[8]

Musa conquered 24 cities, along with their surrounding districts.[9] During Musa's reign, Mali may have been the largest producer of gold in the world, and Musa has been considered one of the wealthiest historical figures.[10] However, some modern commentators have concluded that there is no accurate way to quantify Musa's wealth.[11]

Musa is generally referred to as "Mansa Musa" in Western manuscripts and literature. His name also appears as "Kankou Musa", "Kankan Musa", and "Kanku Musa". Other names used for Musa include "Mali-Koy Kankan Musa", "Gonga Musa", and "the Lion of Mali".[12][13]

Lineage and accession to the throne[edit]

Genealogy of the kings of the Mali Empire based on the chronicle of Ibn Khaldun[14]

What is known about the kings of the Malian Empire is taken from the writings of Arab scholars, including Al-Umari, Abu-sa'id Uthman ad-Dukkali, Ibn Khaldun, and Ibn Battuta. According to Ibn-Khaldun's comprehensive history of the Malian kings, Mansa Musa's grandfather was Abu-Bakr Keita (the Arabic equivalent to Bakari or Bogari, original name, is a Fulani tribe or fula in French (sahabiyy (Abu Bakr)), a nephew of Sundiata Keita, the founder of the Malian Empire as recorded through oral histories. Abu-Bakr did not ascend the throne, and his son, Musa's father, Faga Laye, has no significance in the History of Mali.[15]

Mansa Musa came to the throne through a practice of appointing a deputy when a king goes on his pilgrimage to Mecca or some other endeavor, and later naming the deputy as heir. According to primary sources, Musa was appointed deputy of Abubakari Keita II, the king before him, who had reportedly embarked on an expedition to explore the limits of the Atlantic Ocean, and never returned. The Arab-Egyptian scholar Al-Umari[16] quotes Mansa Musa as follows:

The ruler who preceded me did not believe that it was impossible to reach the extremity of the ocean that encircles the earth (meaning Atlantic), and wanted to reach that (end) and obstinately persisted in the design. So he equipped two hundred boats full of men, as many others full of gold, water and victuals sufficient enough for several years. He ordered the chief (admiral) not to return until they had reached the extremity of the ocean, or if they had exhausted the provisions and the water. They set out. Their absence extended over a long period, and, at last, only one boat returned. On our questioning, the captain said: 'Prince, we have navigated for a long time, until we saw in the midst of the ocean as if a big river was flowing violently. My boat was the last one; others were ahead of me. As soon as any of them reached this place, it drowned in the whirlpool and never came out. I sailed backwards to escape this current.' But the Sultan would not believe him. He ordered two thousand boats to be equipped for him and for his men, and one thousand more for water and victuals. Then he conferred on me the regency during his absence, and departed with his men on the ocean trip, never to return nor to give a sign of life.[17]

Musa's son and successor, Mansa Magha Keita, was also appointed deputy during Musa's pilgrimage.[18]

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 Makkah, 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".[19] 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.[20][21][22] His procession reportedly included 60,000 men, all wearing brocade and Persian silk, including 12,000 slaves,[23] 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.[19] 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.[24]

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.[25] 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.[19] 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".[26] 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 from conquest, Mansa Musa gives them a pair of wide trousers...The greater the number of a Dogari's exploits, the bigger the size of his trousers.

–Al-Dukhari, observation of the court of Mansa Musa in Timbuktu[27]

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.[28]

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."[29]

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.[30]

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.[31] 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.[32]

The University of Sankore in Timbuktu was restaffed under Musa's reign with jurists, astronomers, and mathematicians.[33] 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.[34]

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.[35][36]


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

The death date of Mansa Musa is highly debated among modern historians and the Arab scholars who recorded the history of Mali. When compared to the reigns of his successors, son Mansa Maghan (recorded rule from 1337 to 1341) and older brother Mansa Suleyman (recorded rule from 1341 to 1360), and Musa's recorded 25 years of rule, the calculated date of death is 1337.[37] Other records declare Musa planned to abdicate the throne to his son Maghan, but he died soon after he returned from Mecca in 1325.[25] According to an account by Ibn-Khaldun, Mansa Musa was alive when the city of Tlemcen in Algeria was conquered in 1337, as he sent a representative to Algeria to congratulate the conquerors on their victory.[37][13]

In popular culture[edit]


  1. ^ Earthen magic and the Empire of Mali = Magia en tierra y el imperio de Mali. FISA. 2005. ISBN 9788493112417.
  2. ^ Lapidus, Ira M. A History of Islamic Societies. 3rd edn. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2014, p. 455.
  3. ^ Knoblock, Kathleen, "An Interview with Ibn Battuta" Archived 2017-02-15 at the Wayback Machine, Primary Source Fluency Activities: World Cultures (In Sub-Saharan Africa), Shell Education, 2007. ISBN 978-1-4258-0102-1.
  4. ^ Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325–1354 Archived 2017-02-15 at the Wayback Machine, by Ibn Battuta, London 2005, p. 324, ISBN 0-415-34473-5.
  5. ^ Jansen, Jan (1998). "Hot Issues: The 1997 Kamabolon Ceremony in Kangaba (Mali)". The International Journal of African Historical Studies. 31 (2): 253–278. doi:10.2307/221083. hdl:1887/2774. JSTOR 221083. On page 256, Jan Jansen writes: "Mansa is generally translated as 'king,' 'ruler' or 'ancestor.' The Griaulians, however, often translate mansa as 'God,' 'the divine principle' or 'priest king,' although they never argue the choice for this translation, which has an enormous impact on their analysis of the Kamabolon ceremony."
  6. ^ Macbrair, Robert Maxwell, A Grammar of the Mandingo Language: With Vocabularies Archived 2017-02-15 at the Wayback Machine, London, 1873, p. 5.
  7. ^ Berkin, Carol, Christopher Miller, Robert Cherny, James Gormly & Douglas Egerton, Making America – A History of the United States Archived 2017-02-15 at the Wayback Machine, 5th edition, Boston, 2011, p. 13. ISBN 978-0-618-47139-3.
  8. ^ Goodwin 1957, p. 109.
  9. ^ C. Conrad, David (1 January 2009). Empires of Medieval West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay. Infobase Publishing. p. 36. ISBN 978-1438103198. Archived from the original on 15 February 2017. Retrieved 1 November 2015.
  10. ^ Thad Morgan, "This 14th-Century African Emperor Remains the Richest Person in History" Archived 2019-05-01 at the Wayback Machine,, March 19, 2018
  11. ^ Davidson, Jacob (July 30, 2015). "The 10 Richest People of All Time". Time. Archived from the original on August 24, 2015. Retrieved January 5, 2017.
  12. ^ Hunwick 1999, p. 9.
  13. ^ a b Bell 1972, pp. 224–225 harvnb error: multiple targets (2×): CITEREFBell1972 (help).
  14. ^ Levtzion 1963, p. 353.
  15. ^ Levtzion 1963, pp. 341–347.
  16. ^ Al-Umari 1927, Masalik al Absar fi Mamalik el-Amsar, French translation by Gaudefroy-Demombynes, Paris, Paul Geuthner, 1927, pp. 59, 74–75. See also Qalqashandi, Subh al-A'sha, V, 294.
  17. ^ Mohammed Hamidullah. "Echos of What Lies Behind the 'Ocean of Fogs' in Muslim Historical Narratives". Archived from the original on 20 October 2013. Retrieved 27 June 2015. (Quoting from Al-Umari 1927, q.v.)
  18. ^ Levtzion 1963, p. 347.
  19. ^ a b c Goodwin 1957, p. 110.
  20. ^ Gomez, Michael A.. African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa. United States, Princeton University Press, 2018, p. 4.
  21. ^ Pollard, Elizabeth (2015). Worlds Together Worlds Apart. New York: W.W. Norton Company Inc. p. 362. ISBN 978-0-393-91847-2.
  22. ^ 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.
  23. ^ de Graft-Johnson, John Coleman, "Mūsā I of Mali" Archived 2017-04-21 at the Wayback Machine, Encyclopædia Britannica, 15 November 2017.
  24. ^ Bell, Nawal Morcos (1972). "The Age of Mansa Musa of Mali: Problems in Succession and Chronology". The International Journal of African Historical Studies. 5 (2): 221–234. doi:10.2307/217515. ISSN 0361-7882. JSTOR 217515. The author of Tatrikh al-fattash has Mansa Musa build a new mosque every Friday on his way to Egypt
  25. ^ a b Bell 1972, p. 224 harvnb error: multiple targets (2×): CITEREFBell1972 (help)
  26. ^ The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa By Patricia McKissack, Fredrick McKissack Page 60
  27. ^ Mendoza, Ruben G. " | West African Empires, Dates: 400–1591 C. E. | Ruben G. Mendoza". Retrieved 17 October 2012.
  28. ^ Windsor, Rudolph R. (2011). From Babylon to Timbuktu: A History of Ancient Black Races Including the Black Hebrews (Windsor's golden series ed.). AuthorHouse. pp. 95–98. ISBN 978-1463411299. Archived from the original on 2017-02-16. Retrieved 2017-09-05.
  29. ^ Mansa Musa, African History Restored, 2008, archived from the original on 2 October 2008, retrieved 29 September 2008
  30. ^ De Villiers and Hirtle, p. 70.
  31. ^ De Villiers and Hirtle, p. 74.
  32. ^ De Villiers and Hirtle, pp. 87–88.
  33. ^ Goodwin 1957, p. 111.
  34. ^ De Villiers and Hirtle, pp. 80–81.
  35. ^ See: Said Hamdun & Noël King (edds.), Ibn Battuta in Black Africa. London, 1975, pp. 52–53.
  36. ^ "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.
  37. ^ a b Levtzion 1963, pp. 349–350.
  38. ^


External links[edit]

Regnal titles
Preceded by
Abubakari II
Mansa of the Mali Empire
Succeeded by