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Mansa Musa is said to be one of the richest kings to have ever lived and his kingdom of Mali was a grand empire. But what made both Mansa Musa and Mali so prosperous and grand? And why if that was the case is it not held in the same regards as say Egypt? Using primary sources I plan to investigate and discuss Mali’s economic and social background, the history of Mali and why it isn’t considered to be on the same scale as Egypt is held to. The goal is for the reader to get an idea of what circumstances and actions allowed for Mali to prosper. To do this I will first go over the agricultural and environmental makeup of the Empire of Mali, then discuss briefly its history before and after Mansa Musa including the fall of Mali. After that I will provide my own opinion as to why Mali is not held in the same regards as Egypt, which will conclude this paper.
Firstly it is important to understand the environmental and agricultural state of the ancient empire of Mali. The empire itself was massive, encompassing parts of modern day Burkina, Niger, Senegal, Guinea. The fact that that Mali was so expansive is one of the reasons Mali was so prosperous. In the book The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800 Christopher Ehret described the kingdom of Mali as having good amount of diversity when it came to its landscapes and environments. This included the desert Sahara to the north and the wild rich jungles to the south. (Ehret, 2002.) Because of this environmental diversity they had a number of different goods that they could trade not only within their own empire, but with other states as well. These goods included agricultural items such as kola nuts and shea butter. But they also traded manufactured goods such as textiles and metal goods, especially gold which was found in numerous amounts in Mali. (Ehret, 2002.)
This would not have been possible though if it weren’t for the merchants running these trades. Mali absorbed several of its neighboring states and its people into the empire, mostly thanks to Sundiata and his desperados who I will discuss later, and this massive number of people led to consequences that would later make Mali a prime trader center in Africa, and this was only helped later by Mansa Musa. For example there were several different people leaving within Mali, these include the Soninke and Jakhanke, just to name a few. Merchants from these respective people would create juulas, which were trading firms set up throughout Mali. And things were made easy when they took certain portions of Mali to trade in. For example the Soninke focused more on north on the fringes of the Sahara for their trading and then expanded eastward towards the Sahel Valley at a later point in time. The Jakhanke meanwhile spread commercially west towards what are now the regions of Gambia and Senegal. (Ehret, 2002.)
As I stated before this economic boom that took place in Mali could not have happened if it was not for both Sundiata and Mansa Musa. Sundiata made it so Mali existed and Mansa Musa brought in more trade thanks to his pilgrimage which attracted merchants from all over to Mali. And while Mansa Musa is considered to be on the richest and greatest kings of history, I believe it is important to look at who came before him, and made it so both Mansa Musa and Ancient Mali could prosper for years to come. What were the conditions or beginnings of Mali’s greatness? That all starts with Sundiata, who paved the way for Mali’s greatness and his own grandson’s greatness as well.
Sundiata was the youngest of 12 children and he came from the Mandingo people of the time. (Bovill, 1995.). While his family was killed he was allowed to live because he was very ill and the attackers believed he would not survive. But he did, and he grew to become the Mari Jata and national hero of the Mandingo people. He became the first king or Mansa of Mali, and was a driving force in expanding its borders. Ibn Khaldun, a great historian was there when all of this was occurring and he himself stated “Their greatest king who overcame the Soso, conquered their country and seized power from the hands was the Mari Dhata…He ruled for twenty five years.” (Levtzion, pg. 66. 1973) Yet while hailed as the greatest king and national hero, he was not well liked by his people and so to keep the peace he hired desperados to aid him. With the help of said desperados, he quieted his people and took to expanding Mali’s boarders. Sundiata was a great warrior and tactician never having lost a battle if he was in one. (Bovill, 1995.)
With his actions and what would seem to be tireless effort, he expanded Mali’s borders which allowed for a diversity of environments and agricultural items that could also be traded as discussed above. These agricultural goods could also be used to make manufactured goods. With help from his grandson, Mansa Musa, nearly 100 years later it lead Mali to a sort of economic and trading boom. (Levtzion, 1973). These two hand in hand basically made Mali what it was, even though they were so far apart.
I believe it is important to pause and discuss these factors. Thanks to Sundiata not only did Mali have a great army and a powerful one at that, but thanks to him Mali’s prosperous future had already begun to take shape. The army was there to not only protect Mali’s numerous citizens, but also what the land had to offer as a whole. I believe it is safe to infer that without Sundiata doing what he did and being so successful at it, who knows how Mali would have worked. His conquest allowed for a backbone in which Mali could grow and thrive. But it would also seem to give Mali this sort of air that they indeed an empire to be reckoned with. It is also important to note the idea of image and keep in mind both Sundiata and Mali’s image which I will discuss later in this paper.
Nearly a 100 years passed between when Sundiata ruled and when Mansa Musa took to the throne. And in those 100 years no king was able to reach the godlike status Sundiata had held. Mansa Musa though considered to be a great king did not reach this status either. But he is a favorite of Muslim, Oriental and Sudanese writers. (Levtzion, 1973.) That did not happen until Mansa Musa took the throne. He is famously known for his pilgrimage to Mecca and the spectacle that surrounded him. Bovill discussed the very spectacle in his book, “The spectacular scale on which it was conducted caused such a sensation in Cairo and other places which witnessed the passage of his splendid caravan, that the name of the Mandingo monarch quickly became familiar throughout a large part of the civilized world.” (Bovill, pg. 86, para 3) His fame even stretched as far as Europe and the Middle East as well. He alone showed Mali’s opulence to the world around him, and it was quite impressive.
Mansa Musa began his Hadj sometime in 1324, which was the seventh year of his reign, after taking the throne in 1307. It is known that he passed through Walata and Tuat, but it is unknown which way he took to get to Cairo. (Bovill, 1995.) Though Bovill states a theory as to which way he’d gone, saying “It was probably through Wargla and thence to the coast of the Syrtes which would have given merchants from many parts of Europe trading with Africa an opportunity to witness his splendor…” (Bovill, pg. 87, 1995.) While on his travels, he and his entourage apparently were a sight to behold. He rode on horseback, and had 500 slaves walking in front of him and each of them carried a staff of hold that weighed 1/8th of gold. (Bovill, 1995.)
Mansa Musa is also described as being of “pale complexion, variously described as red or yellow.” (Bovill, pg. 87. 1995.) This contributed to his notoriety, since he was considered to be a Negro king, and yet he did not look like one considering he did not have dark skin, which was typical of Negro kings. He was known for his piety and generosity, and seemed to hand out gold every chance he had. (Bovill, 1995.) In fact so much gold was handed out that in Cairo years after Mansa Musa had passed through and completed his travels gold had become devalued in Cairo. (Bovill, 1995.) This is a good example of just how kind Mansa Musa to everyone, even if they were not from Mali or Muslim.
A good example of Mansa Musa’s generosity is when a merchant from Alexandria joined his caravan and traveled with him back to Sudan, though unfortunately the merchant died. Mansa Musa, being the generous and noble king who keeps his promises, paid the man’s heirs in full. (Bovill, 1995.). His kindness in returned allowed for others to take care of him when running low on funds and Mansa Musa promised to pay back his loan once he returned to his kingdom. (Bovill, 1995.)
In fact it was due to Mansa Musa’s hadj that trade increased and boomed within Mali. (Bovill, 1995.) The world now knew that Mali was a hub for an important item and that was gold. So simply by traveling and showering people with gold enough interest was drummed up to increase Mali’s trade, which in itself is quite an amazing feat, but really that nothing less should be expected from Mali’s greatest king.
Unfortunately after Mansa Musa’s death, things once again fell into a sort of disarray, the same which occurred after Sundiata’s death. Mansa Musa’s son Maghan took the throne, though he was only there for four years. During his reign the city of Timbuktu was seized and burned to the ground, and the two princes who had been captured by his father were released and moved to recapture their city from Mali’s grip. Maghan died after only four years, and it is suspected that he was disposed of by his uncle Sulymon, who is also Mansa Musa’s brother. He was the one originally entitled to the throne after Mansa Musa’s death, but he was denied that when Maghan took the throne. (Levtzion, 1973.)
Unlike his brother Sulymon was not well liked, in fact he was hated, “because of his parsimony in contrast to the generosity of his brother Mansa Musa.” (Levtzion, pg. 66. 1973.) After his death the two kings after him had short reigns, his son lasting for only four months and the one after that lasting for a considerable longer time of 14 years. (Levtzion, 1973) But during this time civil war broke out and this troubled period marked the decline of Mali. The throne was often bickered over by descents of Sundiata and Mansa Musa, where it switched off periodically. Finally one of the last kings was simply known as Mari Djata, son of Maghan and grandson to Mansa Musa. But he was considered to be “the wicked ruler they had, because of the punishment, tyranny and corruption he imposed upon them…” (Levtzion, pg. 68. 1973.), them referring to his people. After him Mali went through a few more kings, but it was no longer the great empire that it had once been and was left in a state of disrepair.
Now that I have laid out all the information, I will now discuss my own theory as to why Mali is not held in as high regards as Egypt, and I will do this by discussing Mali’s image, race, leaders and history. First Mali’s image, became well known in ancient times. This by itself is by the image that its leaders managed to show. Here we have Sundiata who is a great general and furious fighter. He protected his country and insured that not only his family, but his people had something that they could build and grow on. Then we have Mansa Musa, who in many ways is Sundiata’s exact opposite, and he brought the necessary people to build up Mali’s trade and economics.
In Mali’s defense of image it had to great leaders. And if we are to compare that our own time that is a very important part of a country or empire’s image. Think of Egypt and the first pharaoh that comes to mind is either Radames or King Tut. One is known for being a truly great and powerful pharaoh of his time. And the other is known for the tomb that was discovered well after his death. But the idea of image can easily constitute how people view a place and how it is upheld. So in this regard I feel like Egypt and Mali are very similar. And yet its kings don’t seem to be held at the same regard as say the kings of Egypt. And one must ask why that is the case. For me, after researching and reading comes down to one thing and that is race.
Mali is considered to be a Negro or Black kingdom, unlike Egypt which often isn’t considered one. The fact that Mali is a Negro empire is why it isn’t held in higher regard. Even the past Negro kingdoms were looked down by quite a few people The fact that Mansa Musa was black was a surprise to everyone who saw him even. Here was a man with great wealth and power and he was black. But we also have firsthand accounts of how some viewed blacks, for example Ibn Battuta who was not impressed by Blacks and in fact refused to write about them or visit their kingdom. (Bovill, 1973.) Race still plays a big part in who tells what stories as far as history is concerned. Even till this day it is grudgingly admitted that Mansa Musa was one of the richest and most well-known kings of history. And that is because he is considered to be Negro or black.
This is of course in great contrast to say Egypt, where we don’t exactly know how the Egyptians looked. Though it is theorized and even I believe that Egypt itself was racially diverse not everyone thinks along these same lines and ideals. All we need to do is look at Black Athena Writes Back, a book that suggests that Blacks were the ones who had influence on Greeks and Phoenicians, and many sought a way to discredit said idea. (Bernal, 2001.) But throughout history Europe and other countries have wanted to grab Egypt for its opulence, history and what they left behind. And many people did not want to think the rulers of Egypt were black or people of color. There are whole arguments that try and prove that. I think a great example of how prevailing this thought is, of Egypt not being a part of Africa but more a part of the western and European world is the movie Gods of Egypt which has recently come out, which showed Egyptian pharaohs, gods and people as being of all European descent, which I don’t think is all that accurate to how Egypt was in the past. Now yes, this is a fantasy movie, but I think it’s still important to bring up the fact that is still a sort of prevailing issue.
History has a habit of shutting down anything that lifts up black people. From history blacks have always been seen as inferior in the eyes of other. And to suddenly put an African kingdom to the same opulence of Egypt would shake up the status quo that has been set up by past historians. Africa has been denied its opulence unless it is Egypt, and everyone ese tries to claim that. So it is no wonder that we don’t hear much about Mali or Mansa Musa when we are schooled. And really look at why. We have a black man who is a great and successful leader. He is kind, generous and rich. That in itself would be a great story to inspire anyone who reads about him, especially for example black youth. We live in a world where we cannot see ourselves in the media and are always being criticized for being who we are. Enslaved and discriminated against, race is still a huge issue. And if Mali were held in the same regards of Egypt, well that would mean the norm and prevalent idea and thought that Africa as a whole is not advanced or had these great kingdoms would be shattered. But that isn’t the case and it should be noted that there is more to Africa than just Egypt.
Another inference one could make as well is time. Egypt’s Kingdom lasted for almost 1,000 years. That is a long time for one kingdom in a world that is always changing and shifting, there were three major eras and three intermediate periods. Egypt had time to grow and the fact that this one kingdom lasted for so long just helps to show that Egypt is something that the world should know about and why it’s held in such high regards. Mali unfortunately does not have that. For after Mansa Musa, the empire went into decline as stated above. The empire itself lasted only about 300 years, and can be counted within four generations thanks to the likes of Ibn Khaldun. (Levtzion, 1973.)
But that is fair. Empires rise and fall. That is how they work. Even Ancient Egypt fell after nearly 1, 000 years, and this includes once it was taken over by Greece in its later years. But those 1,000 years allowed for Egypt to be put upon a pedestal that Mali simply cannot reach. Not to mention unlike Egypt where there was a rise and fall of ups and downs, Mali seemed to suffer negatively. As stated above Sundiata and Mansa Musa uplifted and improved the empire. But in-between those, the other kings did nothing to reach the status of previous kings. And more often than not there was infighting, bickering and more often death.
This in itself is a third reason. Mali to some may seem like it failed being an empire all together. Out of all of its rulers only two seemed to truly keep the empire stable and improve upon it. And I don’t think that is a fair assumption to make. Like I stated above, empires rise and fall. And just because Mali fell and had a run of inopportune leaders does not mean that it was an overall failure. Egypt can be put into this same category, since it to fell. But it does not mean it was a failure. Each kingdom was successful in its own ways. Egypt had success in trade, in building landmarks that still stand to this day. And while Mali lost Timbuktu it was there. They were a center of gold, and spread it throughout Africa with the help of Mansa Musa. They both have their fair share of success and failure. But I believe history as a whole is a little harder on Mali because once again it is a Negro kingdom, and finding fault and making it seem major is a thing that still happens till this day.
In conclusion I believe that is a mixture between race and time that holds Mali and Mansa Musa back from being held in the same regards as Egypt, when it comes to prosperity and popularity. Both are prominent and important kingdoms that had their fair share of success and failures. But the fact that one cannot pin point the exact race of Egypt’s rulers and its people allows for others to put it on a higher pedestal and look down on Mali, since it is a Negro or black kingdom. But in my eyes, it deserves to be right up there. It is an empire that if it had the right rulers and maybe had a longer time to shine would be something that would be talked about in many more class rooms like Egypt is. Or praised like Egypt is. Or fought over much like Egypt was to be begin with. I believe the only way for Mali to rise to the same height as the other kingdom is if this idea of race is changed and improved upon. I whole heartedly believe that is one of the things that keeps Mali in the shadows. While I have heard of Mali, this is the only class where I was able to learn in depth about the empire and its people. In other classes it’s always Egypt. And I hope in good time people will look at Mali and see it for what it was. A powerful, prosperous empire that should be taught and talked about, just like Egypt is.
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