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Makzan

May 2012

The Lion of Mali


The Hajj of Mansa Musa
David W. Tschanz
Cairos residents heard the noise and felt the rumblings in the ground long before the men on
horseback arrived, breathlessly warning of its arrival. From miles sway the steady tromping of feet mixed
in with the bray of camels straining under their loads and the buzz of men moving, talking, and
encouraging the beasts, while music played to keep time, shattered the desert quiet.
Leading the host were 500 heralds, clad in Persian silk and bearing four-foot-long golden staffs
glistening in the sun and nearly blinding anyone who looked at them. Next came the royal guards some
bearing spears and sword, others the flags of their empire. In their midst Mansa Musa, the ruler of Mali,
dressed in fine robes, rode his richly caparisoned horse in regal dignity. Trudging solemnly behind him
were 80 camels, each bearing 300 pounds (140 kg) of gold the modern equivalent of $576,000,000
extracted from the mines of West Africa.
Behind this vanguard stretched a vast array. There were 60,000 porters, and a retinue of 12,000 of
the kings personal slaves. The king's senior wife herself brought 500 maids. In a move to discourage any
ideas of insurrection, Mansa Musa ordered the leading citizens and officials of each province journey with
him and they brought their slaves and retainers. A vast array of soldiers, doctors, teachers, and griots
(storytellers) also marched along. Ordinary people walked behind the caravan following it as they
traveled just to see so much wealth.
It was 1324 and Mansa Musa was on his way to perform Hajj. No ruler, no caliph, no man had ever
journeyed to Makkah and Madinah in this style and no one ever would again.
Mali
Mali (Arabic, Mallel) is a West African country inhabited by the Mandinka who claim their descent
from Bilal ibn Rabah, companion of the Prophet and the first Muezzin of Islam. Bilali Banuma is the
name given to Bilal in the Mandinka language. Islamic influence in Mali from the 7th century onwards is
confirmed by the oral traditions, which were the basis for much of the historical evidence in Africa, until
present day scholars discovered the great libraries in Timbaktu and Jenne. Muslim historians like Ibn
Hisham and Al Yaqubi (9th century), Al Bakri (11th century) and Ibn Khaldun (14th century) have
recorded the penetration of Islam in the
Mali region.
Embracing an area more than half a
million square miles, the Empire of Mali
was undoubtedly one of the richest and
most prosperous on earth in the 14th
century. Its territory touched the Atlantic
Ocean to the west and extended as far as
the bend in the Niger River to the east.
From north to south, it embraced the entire
swath of land south of the Sahara to the
thick tropical forests of equatorial Africa.
The kingdom was richly endowed with
gold, salt, cola nuts and ivory, which were
in great demand in the markets of the
Mediterranean.

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The empire was founded by the great warrior-diplomat, Sundiata, who reigned from 1230-55, on the
Mandinka plateau between the Niger and Senegal Rivers. In his childhood, Sundiata had been crippled
and was forced into exile for fear of assassination by his brother who had become Mansa (king).
Following Sundiata's magical healing and his brother's deaths by the foreign king of Soso, Sundiata
returned to claim the throne. He conquered the king of Soso and the Ghana empire, and establish the
empire of Mali.
Here, in the original home of the Mandingo people, Sundiata built his capital, Niani, at the
confluence of the Niger and Sankarani Rivers. A man of foresight, he extended the country's boundaries
and enforced law and order throughout the realm. More than any other ruler in his time, he encouraged
agriculture, especially the cultivation of cotton and the mining of gold. His policies were to make him one
of the most heroic and constructive rulers in African history.
After Sundiata's death in 1255, there was a period of confusion that lasted fifty years. At least six
different rulers took power, but the only concrete achievements attributed to these sovereigns was the
extension of Mali's boundaries west to the Atlantic Ocean, south deep into the forest, east beyond the
Niger River, and north to the salt and copper mines of the Sahara.
Mansa Musa came to the throne through a practice of appointing a deputy when a king goes on his
pilgrimage or some other endeavor, and later naming the deputy as heir. According to primary sources,
Musa was appointed deputy of his predecessor, Mansa Abu Bakar II. Abu Bakar had reportedly
embarked on an expedition to explore the limits of the Atlantic ocean, and never returned. The ArabEgyptian scholar Al-Umari quotes Mansa Musa:
The ruler who preceded me believed it was possible to reach the extremity of the ocean
that encircles the earth (meaning the Atlantic). He wanted to reach that (end) and was
determined to pursue his plan. So he equipped two hundred boats full of men, and many
others full of gold, water and provisions sufficient for several years. He ordered the captain
not to return until they had reached the other end of the ocean, or until he had exhausted the
provisions and water. So they set out on their journey. They were absent for a long period,
and, at last just one boat returned. When questioned the captain replied: 'O Prince, we
navigated for a long period, until we saw in the midst of the ocean a great river which
flowing massively. My boat was the last one; others were ahead of me, and they were
drowned in the great whirlpool and never came out again. I sailed back to escape this
current.' But the Sultan would not believe him. He ordered two thousand boats to be
equipped for him and his men, and one thousand more for water and provisions. Then he
conferred the regency on me for the term of his absence, and departed with his men, never to
return nor to give a sign of life.
The Reign of Mansa Musa
After Mansa Musa took over the helm of state, he worked to
consolidate of the foundation laid by Sundiata. Subsequently, Musa's
name and that of Sundiata were to dominate the history of the empire.
Known as the country's architect, Mansa Musa welded a nation,
out of a huge mosaic of peoples, whose leaders for 150 years would
dominate West Africa. Establishing Islam as the base for uniting the
wide diversity of tribes, he championed this religion with extraordinary
zeal. Mali had been nominally Muslim before his time but under his
rule Islam became well established in the Royal Court and was
installed as the official state religion. Thereafter, the urban centers
throughout the country took on an Islamic character. It is said that the
historic greatness of Mali was due to the fact that Musa placed his
country firmly in the Muslim world.
He encouraged learning by his generous patronage of schools and

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Muslim scholars. He also sent students to study in Fez and other famous centers of knowledge. His
encouragement of education attracted intellectuals from the other Islamic countries and later made
Timbuktu one of the foremost centers of Islamic scholarship in the world.
Musa was famed for his piety and the building of imposing mosques, yet he never fought a religious
war and applied Muslim policies with an hesitant hand. Even though he once contemplated ending his
days in Mecca, Musa was no fanatic. He did not outlaw other religions and often performed the rites and
ceremonies of the Mandinka faith. An Egyptian living in Mali during his reign wrote that he presided over
traditional courts and often settled witchcraft cases.
Much of this wealth and power directly related to the unique position of his empire along the Niger
River basin and the crossroads of many major trans-Saharan trade routes. Two of these traded
commodities were salt and gold; they were so important that in the fourteenth century they were used as
currency. The salt trade originated from the North of Mali in the mines of Taghaza. The gold mines of
Bambuk, on the other hand, laid within Mali territory. This gold was the source of half of the world's
supply.
By the 12th year of his reign, he ruled an empire that was one of the largest in the world at the time,
and now contemplated his religious faith. Other West African rulers had gone on Hajj, so when Mansa
Musa announced his decision to perform Hajj, it was neither unusual nor unexpected. It was how he did it
that boggled the mind.
Mansa Musas Hajj
It took several months for both officials and servants to prepare for this 3000-mile trip from Niani to
Makkah. They collected different animals to use as both beasts of burden and food sources: horses,
camels, cows and goats. Once assembled the caravan headed along the Niger River to Mema, then to
Walata then through Taghaza and Tuat and then traveled eastward across the Sahara Desert, a crossing
that took almost three months.
Musa's journey was documented by several eyewitnesses along his route, who were in awe of his
wealth and the size of his entourage, so records exist in a variety of sources, including journals, oral
accounts and histories.
Along the way Mansa Musa displayed his charitable and generous side. Wherever his train halted on
a Friday, he paid for the erection of a mosque. Everywhere he went, he became legendary for his
generosity and the extravagant spending of his entourage. Every city he passed through received part of
his vast largesse and he showered riches on the needy as required by a pillar of Islam. He also traded gold
for souvenirs.
After traveling for about 8 months, they
arrived in Cairo where Mansa Musa visited with
the Mamluk sultan, Al-Nasir Muhammad in July
1324 and continued to give and spend
generously. It was also in Cairo where this
largesse had the greatest immediate impact.
So much gold suddenly floated Cairo, and
later in Makkah and Madinah, that the value of
the metal collapsed. Prices on goods and wares
super inflated in an attempt to adjust to the
amount of gold spreading through local
populations. It would take 20 years for the price
of gold to recover.
Realizing what he had, and having spent
everything he had left in Makkah and Madinah, Mansa Musa artificially restored some of the value of the
metal by borrowing all he needed for the return trip from money-lenders in Cairo, at high interest.
This is the only time in recorded history that one man directly controlled the price of gold in the
Mediterranean.

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Impact
While it may have been solely intended as an expression of religious devotion, Musas hajj and the
wealth he displayed had far-reaching effects.
He started new trade routes and encouraged more trade with Muslim traders by bringing back four
sharifs (descendents of Muhammad) to live in Mali. He also established lasting relationships with other
rulers whom he had encountered during his hajj
Tales of the hajj spread Mali's renown and prestige, not only in the Islamic countries but to the far
corners of medieval Europe. Its riches fired up the imagination as El Dorado did later. In 1339, Mali
appeared on a "Map of the World". In 1367, another map of the world showed a road leading from North
Africa through the Atlas Mountains into the Western Sudan. In 1375 a third map of the world depicted
Mansa Musa seated on his throne in the area south of the Sahara, gazing at a gold nugget in his right
hand, holding a golden scepter in his left, and wearing a golden crown on his head.

Partly due to Musa's conspicuous flaunting of wealth, when the ships of Portugal's Prince Henry
captured Cuenta in 1415, Moorish prisoners told more details of the gold trade. Henry set his explorers
down the African coast to find a route across sub-Saharan Africa in order to contain Islam. Containment
failed as Constantinople fell in 1453 and after the successful reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula to push
out Islam, Europeans turned toward the Americas. However, it had been Mali gold that provided the
initial material for exploration and conquest.
Mansa Musa brought back with him an Arabic library, religious scholars, and most importantly the
Andalusian Muslim architect al-Sahili who introduced into Mali a new development in architecture,
especially in the building of mosques and palaces. He brought into Malian construction burnt bricks, the
flat roofs of North Africa and the pyramidal minaret, all which were to become the vogue throughout the
empire. The architect was paid 200kg of gold to built Jingaray Ber or, the Friday Prayers Mosque.Al
Sahilis most famous work was the chamber at Niani. Today only the foundation of the mosque he built in

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Gao exists.It is said that his style influenced architecture in the Sudan where, in the absence of stone, the
beaten earth is often reinforced with wood which bristles out of the buildings.
Ambassadors were exchanged with Arabia, Egypt, Morocco and other countries. The visit also
stimulated trade between Egypt and Mali. The inhabitants of its capital Niani were described by the
Moroccan traveller Leo Africanus as the most civilized, intelligent and respected of all the peoples of
West Africa.
While Mansa Musa was on his Hajj, one of his generals, Sagmandia (Sagaman-dir), captured the
Songai capital of Gao. A kingdom measuring several hundreds of miles across, the conquest of Songhai
greatly extended the Mali Empire. Shortly after Mansa Musas return Timbuktu fell his troops as well.
Mansa Musa strengthened Islam and promoted education, trade, and commerce in Mali. The
foundations were laid for Walata, Jenne, and Timbuktu becoming the cultural and commercial centers of
the Western Sudan, eclipsing those of North Africa and producing Arabic-language black literature in the
fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Diplomatic relations were established and ambassadors were exchanged
between Mali and Morocco, and Malinke students were sent to study in Morocco.
Timbuktu rose to become not only an important city in the trans-Saharan trade route but also the
center of Islamic scholarship. Muslims came from distant countries to receive an education at the Sankore
University that he built in Timbuktu.
Books were not only written in Timbuktu, but they were also imported and copied there. There was
an advanced local book copying industry in the city. The universities and private libraries contained
unparalleled scholarly works. The famous scholar of Timbuktu Ahmad Baba who was among those
forcibly exiled in Morocco claimed that his library of 1600 books had been plundered, and that his
library, according to him, was one of the smallest in the city.
Timbuktu became a meeting-place of the finest Quranic theologians, poets, scholars, and artists of
Africa and the Muslim world. Many of the teachers at these schools were said to be paid from the king's
own personal treasury. Timbuktus sister city of Djenne was also an important center of learning.
Ibn Batuta (1304-1377), the great world traveler, visited the region in 1354. Ibn Batuta met the ruler
of the state, stayed with the jurists and common folks alike and through his keen insight analyzed its
society and its culture. According to Ibn Batuta, the Africans were punctual in their observance of salat,
were extremely fastidious in observing rules of cleanliness and competed with each other in the giving of
zakat. Memorizing, learning and recitation of the Quran were honored and encouraged. Poetry and
culture flourished. And women enjoyed dignified freedom unequaled in the Islamic world at that time.
Mansa Musa died in 1337 after a reign of twenty five years.
Perhaps, no other writer has paid tribute to Mansa Musa, the greatest contributor to Mali's history,
better than the North African scholar Al-Omari. A few years after Musa visited Cairo, Al-Omari wrote
that in all of West Africa he was, `the most powerful, the richest, the most fortunate, the most feared by
his enemies and the most able to do good for those around him.'

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