It’s 1312. As Abubakari II’s great fleet sails west into the Atlantic, one man watches them Disappear into the sunset. This vizier will serve as regent for the great explorer king managing the state while his master sails the ocean that encircles the earth and when the great king fails to return, this regent will take the throne the next year under the name Musa Keita. History will remember him as Mansa Musa.
Mansa Musa, is often remembered for being the richest person in history And he was. By a wide margin. In fact, his wealth was so inconceivably vast that there is no accurate way of comparing it to modern standards. Jeff Bezos has like a fraction of the wealth Mansa Musa possessed.
Europe at the time was not doing so great. The whole region was reeling from an economic crisis driven by plummeting gold and silver production. Meanwhile, Mali was drowning in the stuff. But Mansa Musa wanted Mali to be more than an economic superpower. He wanted it to be a great state recognized the world over. He spent the early years of his reign further consolidating the administration of the kingdom and developing the Empire’s trade routes. He greenlit a military campaign to expand the empire east with an eye toward capturing the trade cities of Timbuktu and Gao. Then, he turned his attention toward international matters, which also meant religion.
Musa was a devout Muslim. In fact, probably more devout than his predecessors. But he was not above using religion as a political tool. Islam had made inroads with royalty in Sub-Saharan Africa specifically because it gave them access to things that made the state more efficient, like Arabic writing, religious law, and Middle Eastern administrative practices, and of course, Mali’s lucrative trans-Saharan trade was only possible because it was a Muslim nation like its trade partners. But despite economic might and religious prestige, Mali was something of a second-class power treated as lesser than the kingdoms of its trade partners in North Africa. And that is something Mansa Musa could not abide by.
It was time Mali took its rightful place among the Muslim kingdoms. So, 17 years into his rule in 1324, Mansa Musa set off on the most extravagant Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, in the history of humanity. It was a trip calculated to attract the world’s attention and put Mali on the map. Two other Mansas had made the Hajj before but that was during a more chaotic time when the resources and ambitions of rulers were diverted to surviving war and famine.
Musa’s pilgrimage would be a part religious journey, a part publicity stunt. It was a statement to the Islamic world that the Mali Empire was thriving, devout and powerful. It was said that his glittering procession put even the Sun to shame. Wealth beyond dreams. Riches beyond imagination. Camels for days. Literally. Some accounts claim it took over a day for his opulent Caravan to pass. One account claims his retinue included over 60,000 people at its head were 500 heralds carrying gold staffs and a personal retinue of 12,000 servants dressed in silk and carrying gold bars. A baggage train of 600 camels followed each one carrying 300 pounds of gold dust. Musa brought along his wife and her 500 servants. And that was just the showy part. They took a baggage train with enough pack animals to carry provisions for the entire crew. At every step of the way, the well-dressed, generous and pious group made a favorable impression. Too favorable impression, in fact.
To fulfill his religious duty to share his wealth for the poor, Musa gave handfuls of gold dust to beggars and passers-by. Some accounts claimed he built a mosque every Friday, and he spent months in the Cairo bazaars buying souvenirs at absurdly inflated prices. In fact, the emperor spent and gave away so much gold in Cairo, Medina, and Mecca that he flooded the market crashing the value of the metal. Although Musa attempted to rectify this by a quote: “borrowing gold from money lenders in Cairo” at an astronomical Interest, the value of gold still took over a decade to recover in the Middle East.
Just think about that for a second. Mansa Musa was so rich that he caused a financial crisis by buying too many souvenirs on his religious road trip. But he had come all this way to make an impression and boy oh boy, did he achieve that.
Centuries later, residents of Cairo were still telling stories of his pilgrimage train, and their reports filtered to Europe through the traders of Venice. By 1375, European cartographers were producing world maps that featured Mali represented by Mansa Musa inspecting a gold nugget. But this gratuitous display wasn’t just to show off. It was also to attract talent. On his return trip from Mecca, Mansa Musa brought Arab scholars, bureaucrats, and architects with him in hopes of building Mali into an Islamic cultural and religious center.
On his way back home, Mansa Musa took a different route. Through Timbuktu and Gow, which his armies had invaded and conquered while he had been away. And, let’s just stop to think about that too Mansa Musa was so powerful that he could traipse off on a sweet pilgrimage party leaving the kingdom in the hands of his son with armies in the field for over a year and not get deposed. Historically speaking, that is pretty incredible. So, on his way back, he stopped at these new trading centers not just to bask in his new conquests, but to assess his new assets.
Now, in addition to his Saharan trade centers in the west, he had two in the east that also sat on the Niger River. It was a good position for trade. But he wanted more. Timbuktu in particular would become a project of his and there he would put all of those new architects and scholars to work. Together they designed numerous buildings for the emperor including a new palace, mosques, libraries, universities, and the Great Djinguereber Mosque at Timbuktu, which still stands today.
This resulted in a boom of Islamic education in Mali and the influx of trained minds, artists and artisans brought increased commerce and made Timbuktu a leading City in the Islamic world And this was at a time when the most advanced nations in the world were Muslim from Spain to central India. Mali became the center for Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa missionizing its neighbors.
It was said that while gold came from the south and salt from the north, knowledge came from Timbuktu. Because of its unique location near the Sahara Desert and on the Niger River, it was a melting pot and a hub of intellectual and cultural exchange. Books were not only written in Timbuktu but also imported from all over. There was an advanced book-copying industry there. And at a time when books were luxury goods, that was difficult and expensive to produce. And all of this was sparked by Mansa Musa’s leadership in growing his empire.
But while the Islamic accounts tell of Mansa Musa’s great wealth and prestige, there was another perspective. local storytellers, the griots, who kept the oral history of Mali spoke of a different king: a foolish one who wasted the imperial treasury and coveted Islamic things abandoning the traditions of his people. So, perhaps, it’s no accident that shortly after his death, the Mali Empire began its slow collapse.