Mansa Musa the 1st
Mansa Musa captured the attention of the Arab world when he left his home in the West African kingdom of Mali to make a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324. Unlike his grandfather Sundiata, Mansa Musa was a devout Muslim. A Muslim is a person who practices Islam. Islamic law requires that all faithful Muslims make a hajj, or holy visit, to the city on the Arabian Peninsula where Islam developed.
Mansa Musa was a very rich king. He was said to have taken more than 500 people with him on the hajj, each carrying a staff of solid gold. When Mansa Musa passed through the Egyptian city of Cairo, legends say he gave away so much gold that the price of gold fell, and the economy was affected for more than twenty years. The appearance of a wealthy king from a faraway land made a deep impression on the people he encountered, causing Mali to appear on maps throughout the Middle East and Europe. For the first time, sub-Saharan Africa became well known north of the Sahara Desert.
The kingdom of Mali eventually weakened, and the neighboring kingdom of Songhai developed into the last black empire of pre-colonial West Africa. Songhai was destroyed after a bloody war with Morocco. Morocco’s sultan wanted West African gold, so in 1590, he sent an army of 3000 men south across the Sahara Desert. The spears and lances of the Songhai warriors were no match for the cannons and muskets of the Moroccan army, but the fighting continued long after the Songhai government had been destroyed. After ten years, the Sultan lost interest and abandoned his army in Songhai. The Moroccan soldiers were either killed or absorbed into the local population. The Moroccan invasion destroyed Songhai and the trade routes that had brought prosperity to the region for hundreds of years.
Mansa Musa became known throughout Africa, Europe, and Central Asia for his wealth and generous ways. As king of the West African empire of Mali, Musa controlled the gold-producing regions of Senegal and Bouré. During his rule, both learning and the arts increased in his kingdom. Musa became best known over the centuries for his show of wealth during his pilgrimage, or religious trip, to Mecca in what is today Saudi Arabia.
Little is known about the early life of the person who became known as Mansa Musa. The term mansa means "king" or "lord." Historians do know that Musa inherited the title mansa and the kingdom of Mali from his father in about 1307. Years before, Musa's grandfather, Sundiata, founded the kingdom of Mali, after conquering the Ghana Empire around 1230. Under Musa's father, Uli, trade centers, such as Timbuktu and Djenné, became important places of culture.
Musa enlarged the kingdom of Mali into an empire. The Mali Empire included most of western Africa. These lands include the present-day countries of Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Senegal, and parts of Burkina Faso, Maureitania, and Niger.
As king, Musa encouraged agriculture, industry, and trade. The empire gained most of its wealth through its control of the trade routes that passed through its territory. Gold and salt were the most important products that moved along the routes. Because of the wealth of the Mali Empire, a large army was needed to protect the empire from attack. This army also made sure that traders and merchants were safe during their journeys through the lands of the empire.
Musa was a Muslim, or follower of Islam. During his rule, he spread the religion of Islam throughout the entire Mali Empire. Nevertheless, he did not force citizens to accept the religion.
As a religious duty of Islam, a Muslim is expected to make a pilgrimage, or hajj, to the city of Mecca. In 1324, Musa began his famous pilgrimage to Mecca. He took with him a caravan, or group of travelers. This caravan contained 60,000 people, including 12,000 slaves. All the travelers were dressed in fine clothes made of silk. Musa rode on horseback, led by a group of 500 workers. Also in the caravan were 80 camels, each carrying part of Musa's baggage and 300 pounds of gold.
Musa's show of wealth and generosity to other Muslims gained him fame during his journey. During his pilgrimage, Musa gave away gold to people in need. In Mecca, Musa asked the Muslim architect Abu Ishaq as-Sahili to design mosques, or Muslim houses of worship, in the Mali cities of Gao and Timbuktu. The Gao mosque remained an important center of worship as late as the seventeenth century. The Sakore mosque in Timbuktu became a center of learning where Muslim religion, history, and laws were studied.
Musa invited many of the finest poets, scholars, and artists from Africa and central Asia to live in Timbuktu. Under Musa's rule, Timbuktu and the Mali Empire continued to develop into an important place for trade and culture. Because of the empire's wealth and support of learning, it soon became known as one of the most powerful empires in the world.
Musa died around 1337. He had ruled over the Mali Empire for about 30 years. After Musa's death, his son Mansa Maghan I became ruler of the empire. By the late fourteenth century, weak leaders lost control of much of the Mali territory.