Like many heirs to great wealth, Mansa Kankan Musa [c. 1280 CE – c. 1337 CE] is more remembered for squandering much of what he inherited than he is for his accomplishments, which included conquests, the founding and endowment of educational institutions, and the construction of religious buildings.
Musa ruled the Mali Empire c. 1312 – c. 1337. He was the grandnephew of Sundiata Keita, founder of the dynasty. Sundiata and his three sons built up the gold reserves that Musa spent.
The Mali Empire, one in a succession of medieval West African great powers, was remarkably rich at its height. Principal exports of West Africa at the time included gold, ivory, slaves, and from the 13th century on, kola nuts, which were a stimulant highly prized among abstemious Muslims. Imports included salt, horses, textiles, books, paper, swords, and knives.
Musa was a pious Muslim. He rebuilt and endowed the University of Sankore in Timbuktu, re-staffing it with jurists, astronomers, and mathematicians. The madrasah became a center of learning and culture, drawing Muslim scholars from around Africa and the Middle East to Timbuktu. After a raid on Timbuktu by the Kingdom of Mossi in 1330, Musa ordered the construction of defensive fortifications and sent troops to protect the city. He was reportedly capable of calling up an army of 100,000, including 10,000 cavalry.
Musa is also credited with revolutionizing the architecture of the Western Sudan by bringing back from his pilgrimage to Mecca the Spanish Muslim scholar and architect As-Sahili, who introduced to Mali brick for the building of mosques and palaces. As-Sahili also insisted on stricter observances of Islam than were generally practiced before his time in Mali.
But it was Musa’s spending on his spectacular pilgrimage to Mecca [1324 – 1325] that won him notoriety throughout the Mediterranean world. He set out to make the haj accompanied by a retinue of approximately 60,000 people, including some 12,000 slaves each carrying 4 pounds of gold bars [1.81 kg] and 80 camels which each carried between 50 and 300 pounds of gold dust [23 kg – 136 kg].
Musa paid for the procession’s requirements, including food for all the men and animals. He gave gold as alms to the poor he met along his route. He was credited with building a mosque every Friday. Musa made donations to the cities of Cairo and Medina, and he and his retinue overpaid egregiously for souvenirs, especially in the markets of Cairo, where the expedition was skillfully fleeced by market savvy Egyptians.
The reckless distribution of gold by Musa and his retinue devalued the worth of the precious metal in Cairo, Medina, and Mecca for a decade. It also sparked a general inflation of prices. Musa borrowed gold in Cairo at high interest rates on his way back from Mecca. Some say he did this to reestablish the worth of gold there; others say he did this because he needed to finance his return to Mali.
Another consequence of Musa’s pilgrimage was the siphoning off of considerable quantities of West African gold to Italy, which did a brisk business with Egypt. Before Musa’s pilgrimage, both Europe and the Muslim world had been suffering a gold shortage. The profligate spending of the pilgrims from West Africa helped alleviate this situation in Egypt directly. The Italians received large quantities of this gold in their trade with Egypt. In Italy this West African gold contributed considerably to the liquidity of Italian finance and to Renaissance patronage of the arts in the 14th century.
Ibn Battuta visited Mali about 20 years after Musa’s pilgrimage: he described it as a poor country. The gold reserves built up by Sundiata Keita and his sons did not long survive Mansu Musa’s extravagant haj and the wasteful spending of Musa’s son, who followed him as emperor.
Musa’s brother Souleyman Keita succeeded Musa’s son. He tried desperately to reestablish the Empire’s finances. Mali never fully recovered, shorn of territory by rivals in a series of wars that diminished Mali’s territory, power, and imperial pretensions long before the Songhay Empire sacked Mali’s capital.
- Mansa Musa and the Empire of Mali by P. James Oliver provides a clear narrative and useful context.
- Larry Gonick’s The Cartoon History of the Universe covers events and cultures from The Big Bang to 2008 CE in five lively volumes. The tale of Mansa Musa is presented in The Cartoon History of the Universe III: From the Rise of Arabia to the Renaissance. The series represents a too little appreciated accomplishment by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who championed The Cartoon History of the Universe at Doubleday.