Africa's History

Mali’s Empire Part I

A man stands outside the city walls, looking into the desert. For the last two decades, he has traveled across the Islamic world from China to Andalusia, Spain. Along the way, he had been shipwrecked, kidnapped by rebels, and detained by a mad sultan. The year before, he had crossed Arabia at the height of the Black Plague. But this would be his greatest adventure a land so remote that few had seen it. But those who did tell of its magnificent wealth. Ibn Battuta mounted his camel and prepared to cross the Sahara.

It was 1352. And though Mansa Musa had been dead for 50 years, stories of the king’s golden pilgrimage train were still drawing scholars to the Islamic world’s richest empire. We know this because Ibn Battuta began his trip that year with the simple hope of securing the judicial appointment. It would be a hard journey, but in accomplishing it, Ibn Battuta would end up seeing almost the entirety of Mali’s trans-Saharan trade routes, a network that had made Mansa Musa so rich that he could give handfuls of gold to passers-by without a thought.

Ibn Battuta would later record this adventure in his epic book, the Travels producing the only eye-witness account of the Mali Empire. So, today we’re going to follow him letting his journey teach us about how trade built the realm.

Ibn Battuta’s first stop was an oasis city on the northern edge of the Sahara. Like all oasis towns, it was a riot of merchants and cargo shipments. Its square was crammed with the trade goods of North Africa and the Mediterranean, all going south to exchange for gold. There were textiles, books, jewelry, perfume, and the cowry shells Malians exchanged as currency. Herds of Arabian horses waited outside the walls.

Among the goods and caravans, Ibn Battuta found some Berber traders, the ethnic group that had controlled the trans-Saharan trade, and he arranged to join their expedition. They traveled in the early morning and late afternoon, resting during the noonday heat. It took them 25 days to reach their first stop.

“It was a village”, he wrote, “with nothing good about it”. It was a labor camp, an open-pit mine in the middle of the sand where enslaved people carved blocks of rock salt out of the earth. The water was brackish and both houses and mosques were built from salt with stretched camel skin for a roof.

All food was imported on camelback. But despite this desolation, he saw vast amounts of gold change hands. Traders from Mali were buying salt in order to take it south to sell. Ultimately, this salt would go deep into the rainforests where no naturally occurring salt existed to help people retain water. Without it, the gold miners would dehydrate and die.

After the caravan took on water and salt, they headed south. The next stretch was 500 miles with only one oasis. But the winter rain had been kind, and small pools sustained them. Even so, death awaited. One man from the caravan quarreled with his cousin and lagged behind to sulk. They never saw him again. When at last they arrived at the oasis, they hired a scout for the final and most dangerous part of the journey. See, no caravan could carry enough water to cross this last stretch of desert before Oualata. So, they would hire a scout to go ahead of them and contract a party to carry water 4 days north from the city in order to meet them on the route.

“But this stretch of waste”, Ibn Battuta writes, “was haunted by demons that disordered men’s minds”. If the scout was disoriented or killed, there would be no resupply and the entire caravan would perish. Yet the scout did not die and the party met them with the water. Two long months after leaving the northern edge of the Sahara, Ibn Battuta’s caravan entered Oualata, the first oasis city of the Mali Empire. the Berbers declare their goods to the tax officials and paid what was due. Ibn Battuta was thrilled.

As an Islamic scholar, he loved to visit pious communities across the world to gauge the spiritual health of the Muslim periphery and exchange ideas with scholars. It had been towns like Oualata where Islam first appeared in Mali centuries before carried on camelback via the Barber caravans. Though Oualata was only a mud-brick town of a few thousand people, Ibn Battuta would finally meet his first local scholar there. And that is when his enthusiasm crashed against the reality of religion in the Mali Empire.

Mali was actually only partially converted. Islam was the religion of merchants and the ruling class, people with cultural, political or economic links to North Africa. But the working people who farmed and mined the all-important gold still practiced traditional African religion.

Furthermore, many tenets of Islamic law were incompatible with Mali’s culture, so most Muslims ignored them. The rulers of Mali had to walk a fine line fusing Islamic practice with their native traditions in order to keep society together. And, here’s the thing about Ibn Battuta. He was kind of the 14th-century version of an obnoxious tourist. No matter where he went, he expected people to behave like they were Islamic scholars from Tangier. And if they didn’t, he got judgemental real quick. And unfortunately, this trip to Mali shows Ibn Battuta at his worst.

The first problem occurred when he met the local governor. As the representative of the sacred Mansa, the man spoke to Ibn Battuta through a herald rather than directly, which the traveler took as an insult. And though the meal of yogurt and millet the governor served was standard for welcoming guests to Mali, Ibn Battuta considered it insufficient for a man of his rank. He had expected a monetary welcome gift like scholars received in much of the Islamic world. But here, yogurt and honey? REALLY?

And the culture clash only got worse when he visited the local scholars and judges and discovered that even the Islamic upper class didn’t abide by Muslim laws about gender relations. Here, even pious women went unveiled and women had a high degree of autonomy. On one occasion, Ibn Battuta informed a scholar that he’d seen the man’s wife chatting with another man in the courtyard. When the scholar patiently explained that friendship between men and women was considered good conduct and engendered no suspicion, The traveler was so horrified that he fled the house.

What troubled Ibn Battuta about these deviations was that he admired the empire’s piety. The people observed prayer times, kept scrupulously clean for mosques, and in a society where books were rare and expensive, insisted that children memorize the Quran. Admittedly, they used methods that would be frowned upon today, but still. And as he traveled toward the capital, he marveled at the country’s security. Once within the boundaries of the empire, he could travel alone without fear of bandits. This was by design.

Mali possessed a strong capable military, which existed mostly to enforce taxes and ensure the banditry didn’t endanger the all-important trade routes. According to Ibn Battuta, their justice system was fair and disciplined. If a foreigner died in Mali, instead of pillaging the man’s trade goods, the government turned everything over to a trustee until the man’s relatives claimed it. However, upon reaching the capital, Ibn Battuta was disturbed to find how deeply African religion and culture influenced the court.

Young women like the Mansa’s daughters walked about topless in the palace. Festivals included folk dances and masked performances that he considered absurd and pagan. It rankled him that courtiers washed with dust when the Mansa spoke to them. And that soldier stood in front of the emperor to tell their service in battle while others twanged their bows to confirm that they had witnessed the heroic deed.

But he did finally get a welcome gift from the emperor. Three bread cakes, a piece of beef, and a calabash of sour curds. At this, he burst out laughing. But, even Battuta’s touristy reactions do tell us something interesting about Mali. Due to its geographic separation, Mali had assimilated Islam rather than been absorbed by it, creating a religiously tolerant, pluralistic society. It was a proudly West African empire with its own identity. And it wasn’t going to just leave its traditions behind to adopt this new religion.

Indeed, Mali seems to have intentionally kept foreign influence at arm’s length. Ibn Battuta never got to visit the gold mines and that was intentional. The Malian government kept foreigners away from its most precious resource bringing gold to be exchanged at trading hubs rather than exposing the location of their mines. It was state security. Mali’s economy ran on gold producing around two-thirds of the world’s supply with its economy supported entirely by demand from Islamic states and Christian Europe, which had recently abandoned silver in favor of this fancy new metal.

before he left, Ibn Battuta would have one more journey along the trade routes east along the Niger River to the city of Timbuktu. A developing hub between the desert caravans and river traffic. He likely spent this trip amid a whole lot of exports Mali sent north along with its gold: ivory, kola nuts, ostrich feathers, raisins, and enslaved people. And of course, the gold Ibn Battuta had finally received after complaining to the Mansa’s face. As he watched the river slid by, he no doubt thought back on the stories he heard in Cairo about Mansa Musa’s generosity and piety. The unimaginable wealth of his pilgrimage train. Had those just been tales this whole time? Find out here.