Mansa Musa I may not be the most well-known ruler today, but he made a large impression on the world during his reign. He ruled the Mali Empire, which was located in West Africa. We’re not quite sure how long his reign lasted, as it started in 1312 and ended with his death. There’s been a bit of debate about when exactly he died, so the reign could be from 20 to 25 years or somewhere in between. ‘Mansa’ is actually a title for the ruler and not a first name–similar to titles such as ‘Pharaoh’ or ‘Caesar’.
Mansa Musa was the ninth mansa of his empire. During his reign, the Mali empire reached the peak of its territorial reach. He was known for many things, but especially his penchant for giving gifts as well as his wealth. Some even say that he was among the wealthiest people ever.
Today, the countries we know as Guinea, Mauritania, and Senegal were all parts of the Mali Empire. Of course, the Mali state is also present on the modern map.
Musa managed to expand the Mali Empire to include Timbuktu and Gao. He was also interested in fostering close ties with other areas of the Muslim world, especially the Marinid and Mamluk Sultanates. He would recruit scholars, poets, and other learned people to help achieve his goal of making Timbuktu a hub of Islamic learning. He also took on a lot of construction projects, including mosques. When we study the history of the Mali Empire, it was Mansa Musa’s rule that stands out as the empire’s height of prestige, power, and growth. In fact, the expansion of the empire during that time made its size second only to the Mongol Empire led by Genghis Khan.
Ascension to the Throne and the Mali Empire
Mansa Kanku Musa was crowned as the ruler in 1312, though the circumstances of his rising to power are a bit unclear. According to his own version of events, the precious Mansa (Mohammad Ibn Qu) left on an Atlantic voyage and appointed him deputy ruler of the empire. When the travelers never returned, Musa was eventually given the title of ‘Mansa’. He would then become one of the greatest rulers in the history of Africa and perhaps the world as well.
Expansion of the Empire
The Mali Empire’s army during Mansa Musa’s reign consisted of about 100,000 men and 10,000 horses. It was led by Saran Mandian, who was a talented and experienced general. With these assets, Musa managed to almost double the empire he ruled. In the west, the Mali Empire spread to lower Senegal and the Gambia. In the north, the empire included the whole border region of the Western Sahara. In the South, the Gold Coast forests and the Bure region were also in Mali’s control. Finally, the eastern spread of the empire included the city of Gao, which was located by the Niger River. However, the Gold Coast areas were left a bit independent in the interests of higher gold production.
With such a large expanse of land under his control, Mansa Musa had to take steps to ensure effective governance. Not only was the land a lot to handle, but he also had to take into account the various ethnic groups and tribes that inhabited the empire. To this end, Musa divided the Mali empire into different provinces. Each province would have a farba, a governor, who was personally appointed by the Mansa himself.
Over time, this sort of administration got better due to sending proper records to the central Niani government offices. Through this system, the state’s wealth increased due to trade taxes, gold mines, copper mines, and the tributes taken from various conquered groups.
The Hajj Pilgrimage of Mansa Musa
The royal lineage of the Mali Empire at the time was Muslim, and so was Mansa Musa. In 1324, Musa set out to perform the Hajj pilgrimage like many Mali rulers had done before him. He had a large camel caravan with him, and reached Cairo in July after crossing the Sahara desert. This was where he displayed such a great show of his wealth that even the Sultan of Egypt was astonished.
The accounts of this event can differ from each other, with some stating that there were 100 camels each carrying gold dust weighing 300 pounds. There were also accounts stating that the caravan include no less than 500 slaves, each with a gold staff weighing around 6 pounds each. In addition to this, the caravan also had several hundred other campers carrying all kinds of textiles, foodstuffs, and other items. There were riders on horses carrying the banners of the Mansa, which were gold and red in color. Finally, there were several thousand officials and servants as well.
The actual event that astounded everyone was that Mansa Musa was spending and gifting very large amounts of gold. His entourage would also spend a lot in the Cairo markets. These factors led to the Cairo gold dinar crashing in value by about 20 percent against the silver dirham. The gold market in the region was flooded and would only fully recover around 12 years later.
Just one example of the Mansa’s gift-giving was the 50,000 dinars he presented to the Sultan. This was just a gesture of goodwill on their first meeting. However, the sultan, Al-Nasir, did not respond very warmly and insisted upon the Mansa bowing down before him as was the custom in those days. Some accounts say that this was the very reason why Musa did not initially want to meet the sultan–he was a devout Muslim and would only bow before his God Allah. While he did end up bowing, Musa insisted that the bow was only for Allah. This event did create some awkwardness between the two rulers, but history says that they got on quite well afterwards. Mansa Musa was then given the proper royal treatment, with a whole palace to stay in for three months and was greeted enthusiastically by the people when he was out in public. According to Al-Makrizi, an Arab historian, Mansa Musa was then ‘He was a young man with a brown skin, a pleasant face and good figure…His gifts amazed the eye with their beauty and splendor’. The ruler was also known for his deviation to his religion; another religious figure worth exploring is Buddha.
The Egyptian merchants were ecstatic at the thousands of rich but inexperienced tourists shopping in their markets. They took a lot of advantage of the situations, setting their prices as high as possible.
On the way back from Mecca, though, Musa’s entourage was struck with many calamities. Most of the pilgrims died in the bandit raids, due to the cold, or outright starvation. When they finally reached Cairo again, they had to re-sell a lot of the items they had bought on the first visit. At this point, Sultan Al-Nasir returned Musa’s generosity and gave gifts to the indebted ruler.
The Effects of Mansa Musa’s Actions
There’s no doubt that Musa made a deep impression on the people of Cairo and their ruler at the time. The news of his wealth spread to other continents, with various effects. For instance, one Spanish mapmaker was so inspired that he became the first European to create a detailed map depicting West Africa. This was displayed in the Catalan Atlas, with Mansa Musa depicted as sitting on a throne with a large gold crown on his head and a golden staff in his hand. The figure was also holding a large gold orb. The depiction of such riches would also eventually inspire European explorers to set out and find the riches of Africa, especially Timbuktu.
Mansa Musa’s Inspiration
After he left Cairo in October, Mansa Musa headed on to Mecca to perform his pilgrimage. In Arabia, he bought houses and land for the benefits of future Mali pilgrims.
During his pilgrimage, Musa was impressed by the holy mosques and other sites. When he returned to his empire, he started construction for mosques and a large audience chamber in Timbuktu and Gao. Ishak al-Tuedjin, the well-known architect, was also commissioned to design structures such as the Djinguereber mosque. Musa met him in Cairo and offered land, gold (440 pounds), and slaves for the artist to come to Mali.
Musa also brought back books and scholars from his travels. He was impressed by the universities he had seen and greatly encouraged all kinds of Islamic learning. Timbuktu would eventually become an international center with universities, Quranic schools, mosques, and several institutes of cultural plus religious studies.
The death of Mansa Musa is a topic of debate, with some scholars claiming it to be in 1332, while others claim that he died in 1337. There are even some opinions that state he died before 1332.
Mansa Musa was definitely a capable and impressive figure, with his hajj being among the most illustrious events in Islamic history. Some might say that he wasted a lot of wealth, while others may opine that he used a lot of it for the establishment of learning, the arts, and the development of the Mali Empire. Scholars such as Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Batuta have talked of his virtue, justice, and generosity. There are even instances in pop culture where Mansa Musa was depicted as a character in a video game and web series. All in all, the history and legacy of this ruler is quite intriguing and inspiring.