Did you know that the kingdom of Mali was once one of the most successful empires in the world?

The Mali Empire controlled all of the salt trade along the trade routes and was the second largest and most successful empire between 1230 and 1600.

The Niger River

The Niger River played an important part in Mali’s success, providing a method of transporting heavy goods and accessing more trade. The river also made the soil more fertile, which led to better crops and better feed to raise livestock.

Some of the most commonly grown crops included beans, cotton, gourds, millet, papaya, peanuts, rice and sorghum. Livestock included cattle, goats, poultry and sheep.


All goods had to be heavily taxed and all gold nuggets were declared property of the king, leaving only gold dust to be traded. The Empire also offered protection against conflict that started along the trade routes. As the Empire expanded, salt, cotton cloth, gold and later cowrie shells were used as currency.

Mansa Musa

Known as the King of Kings, Mansa Musa was one of the most successful and wealthy leaders of the Kingdom of Mali. He ruled in the early 1300’s until his death in 1337. Many of the palaces and Mosques built during his reign can still be seen today. He had an estimated worth of 400 billion US dollars and even though he lived so long ago, he is still said to be the wealthiest man of all time.

The Rule of Mansa Musa

Musa was regarded as an intelligent and generous leader. He was able to exploit Mali’s gold and salt production, making a fortune and allowing his empire to thrive. When the Mali Empire grew too large for his control, he divided the Empire into provinces and elected governors to manage them. He allowed his people to practice any religion they chose to follow. Despite being a devout Muslim himself, he did not force his Islamic faith on them.

Pilgrimage to Mecca

Performing a pilgrimage to Mecca (referred to as “Hajj”) is one of the 5 pillars of Islam. It is believed that on his journey to Mecca, Musa took 100 camel loads of gold, 500 enslaved people, each carrying a gold staff and his senior wife with her 500 attendants. It Is said that while passing through the Egyptian city of Cairo, he gave away so much of his gold that the price of gold in Egypt fell and the economy suffered for two decades.

It was also believed that Musa had given away so much gold that by the time he had to return home he had run out and needed to borrow money from the surrounding provinces and empires.

The Spread of Islam and the great Mosques

The great mosques were constructed as places of worship and places of learning under the reign of Musa. The three great mosques, Djingareyber, Sankore, and Sidi Yahia, which were designed by the architect Abu Ishãq al-Sãhiland were built in the 14thcentury. The materials used for constructing the mosques included burnt bricks and wooden sticks.

These materials are different to modern building materials, thus the mosques needed restoration and rebuilding over the decades.

Education and Timbuktu

From the 1300’s to the 1600’s, Timbuktu was considered the world’s centre of Islam and Education.

Timbuktu had a population of 100 000, a quarter of which were scholars, making Timbuktu a centre of learning.

The great mosque of Sankore transformed into the University of Sankore. The subjects covered included Islamic theology, mathematics, law, geography, astronomy, medicine, sciences and history.

Did you know that after salt, books were the second biggest import to Timbuktu!

Many experts and organizations have invested in preserving the surviving manuscripts that represent the history of African scholars and are critical to the country’s history.

Currently, most of the manuscripts are preserved in the Ahmed Baba Institute, named after a prestigious 15th century scholar.

In 2012 UNESCO declared heritage sites in Timbuktu, which included the great Mosques and madrassahs that are under potential threat of being destroyed by militant rebels in the region.

Deforestation also poses a threat; drying out the mud that covers the buildings and causing cracking due to a lack of moisture. This weakened the structures and caused sections to collapse.

Conflict in the area between 2012 and 2013 resulted in the Ahmed Abba Institute being set alight and over 4000 texts being destroyed.

Trade and Timbaktu: Leo Afrikanus

Leo Afrikanus played an important role in documenting the history of North Africa, specifically Timbuktu. Afrikanus travelled extensively across the region and documented what he saw in his book, ‘Decryptions of Africa’. 

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