Mansa Musa : The Best and famous of Mali

History Zainab Sulaimon
Mansa Musa

An essayist, William Hazlitt, once said that “No man is truly great who is great only in his lifetime. The test of greatness is the pace of history”.  Mansa Musa can be described as the true definition of this quote because he is the most famous and best remembered of the kings of Mali.

Al-Umari, a contemporary writer, who visited Mali 12years after Mansa’s passing, wrote that, with over a million population in Mali at that time, they were still singing the praises of Mansa Musa. Now let’s have a look at what Mansa could have done to earn him such fame, distinction, and glory even after his death.

Life and times of Mansa Musa

Mansa Kankan Musa, who reigned from 1307-1337, was able to earn Mali an international prestige as one of the largest and wealthiest empires. For the first time, Mali appeared on the European map, and on the Catalan map drawn by Abraham Crisques for Charles V in 1375. Mansa was not only concerned about the political and material well-being of his people, but also with their spiritual well-being, and this played a considerable role in making him a great and famous man.

Politically, Mansa’s impartiality and great sense of justice were remembered and admired long after his death. During his reign, he concentrated his expansion northwards and eastwards. He and his generals captured Walata and Timbuktu. He extended the boundaries of Mali and built up a more effective system of government. Also, he was noted for the friendly relations he maintained with other African states especially with the Sultan of Morocco.

Trade and administration under the reign of Mansa Musa

Commercially, Mali had both the salt-producing and gold-producing regions under her control and this naturally attracted traders from the north and south. Traders and travelers could travel to and fro with ease and a sense of security because Mansa’s able governors and his 100,000 able strong armies were able to maintain order on the trade routes. This enabled commerce to be very brisk and traders from far off Egypt and Morocco could be found in the commercial towns of Mali.

The medium of exchange for this brisk trade was the white shells known as “cowries”, although a system of barter was also practiced. Salt was scarce in the regions to the south of Mali such that they exchanged their gold for salt in its own weight. This enabled the people of Mali to become wealthy and they enjoyed a high standard of living. They lived in good houses- their kings in palaces and the ordinary people in architectural mud houses.

Historical Hajj

Religiously, Mansa was a very pious and virtuous man. He devoted a great deal of time to purifying, strengthening, and spreading Islam in Mali, especially after his famous pilgrimage to Mecca which lasted from 1324-1325. The pilgrimage was undertaken on a scale unheard of before, leading over 72,000 people through a 6000km or more journey. This made Mansa known and famous in Egypt, Arabia, some parts of Europe and awakened the world to the astounding wealth of Mali.

Mansa left Mali with an impressive amount of 80-100 camel-loads of gold and 12,000 slaves clad in brocade and partial silk. He had a huge entourage for his personal service including 500 slaves, preceding him on horseback, each carrying a gold staff weighing 4lb. Mansa was flamboyant and generous with his spendings along the way such that he ran out of money at some point and it is said that he had to borrow before he returned home. He left no emir nor holder of a royal office without a gift of a load of gold. He gave out so much gold to an extent that led to its depreciation in the Egyptian market- which took 12 years to recover from the fall in its prices.

Building an empire devoted to Islam

This extravagant pilgrimage had an effect on Mansa in such a way that he returned to Mali filled with a determination to purify and strengthen Islam, promote education and introduce some new things he had seen on his journey. To assist him in carrying out his plan, he persuaded a Spanish scholar, poet, and architect, called As-Sahili, to return with him from Mecca to Mali. His reforms began by ordering that the five pillars of Islam be strictly observed and also the Friday prayers should be observed in the congregation. He asked As-Sahili to build a number of masjids which turned out to be elegant buildings as As-Sahili’s style of building influenced architecture in western Sudan. Mansa also started the practice of sending students to Morocco for studies and he laid the foundation of Timbuktu- the commercial and educational center of western Sudan.

Mansa was a great ruler who succeeded in establishing peace and order in Mali, in promoting trade and commerce and above all, in making the name of Mali known throughout the world. Even after his death in 1337, his name is still remembered and cherished.


(Written by Zainab Sulaimon)