The Mali empire (1240-1645) that West Africa was founded by Sundiata Keita (r. 1230-1255) complying with his win over the kingdom of Sosso (c. 1180-1235). Sundiata"s centralised government, diplomacy and also well-trained military permitted a massive military expansion which would pave the method for a flourishing of the Mali Empire, making it the biggest yet checked out in Africa.

The power of Mansa Musa i (1312-1337) experienced the empire reach brand-new heights in regards to territory controlled, cultural florescence, and also the staggering wealth carried through Mali"s regulate of local trade routes. Acting as a middle-trader in between North Africa via the Sahara desert and also the Niger river to the south, Mali exploited the web traffic in gold, salt, copper, ivory, and slaves the crisscrossed West Africa. Muslim sellers were attractive to every this advertising activity, and they converted Mali rulers who subsequently spread Islam via such listed centres of finding out as Timbuktu. In contrast to cities choose Niani (the capital), Djenne, and also Gao, many of the landscape Mali population remained farmers who clung to their traditional animist beliefs. The Mali Empire broke down in the 1460s complying with civil wars, the opened up the trade routes elsewhere, and also the climb of the neighbouring Songhai Empire, but it did proceed to regulate a small component of the western realm into the 17th century.

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West Africa & the Sudan Region

The Sudan an ar of West Africa whereby the Mali empire would build had to be inhabited due to the fact that the Neolithic duration as evidenced by Iron age tumuli, megaliths, and also remains of abandoned villages. The Niger River routinely flooded components of this dried grassland and savannah, which detailed fertile floor for agriculture beginning at the very least 3,500 year ago, an endeavour substantially helped by the region"s adequate yearly rainfall. Cereals such as red-skinned african rice and also millet were grown v success, together were pulses, tuber and also root crops, oil and fibre plants, and also fruits. Fishing and also cattle herding to be other necessary sources the food, while regional deposits the copper were exploited and also used because that trade. Similarly, gold to be probably in your ar mined or panned and also then traded, but concrete proof from this duration is lacking.

When the Sosso king Sumanguru applied trade limitations on the Mali region, the indigenous Malinke tribe rose in rebellion.

The Ghana empire (6th come 13th century) was the an initial major political strength in West Africa come create an empire based on army might and also the wealth acquired from regional trade. Not geographically associated to contemporary Ghana yet located to the northwest, the empire was in serious decrease by the end of the 12th century. Beset by civil wars, rebellions of put down chiefdoms, and also poor harvests, the empire started to disintegrate with a large part the its territory taken over by the kingdom the Sosso (aka Susu). As soon as the Sosso king Sumanguru (aka Sumaoro Kante, r. Indigenous c. 1200), applied trade constraints on the Mali region, the native Malinke (Mandingo) tribe climbed in rebellion.

Sundiata Keita & Government

Sundiata Keita (aka Sunjaata or Sundjata, r. 1230-1255) was a Malinke prince, whose name method "lion prince", and also he waged war versus the kingdom that Sosso native the 1230s. Sundiata formed a an effective alliance of various other disgruntled chiefs worn down of Sumanguru"s harsh rule and defeated the Sosso in a decisive battle at Krina (aka Kirina) in 1235. In 1240 Sundiata caught the old Ghana capital. Forming a centralised federal government of lack leaders and also a number of influential Arab merchants, this assembly (gbara) asserted Sundiata the can be fried monarch and gave him together honorary titles as Mari Diata (Lord Lion). The name Sundiata offered to his empire, Africa"s biggest up to that point, to be Mali, definition "the place where the king lives". That was additionally decreed that all future kings would it is in selected native the Keita clan, back the title was not necessarily given to the eldest boy of a ruler, which sometimes brought about fierce disputes among candidates.


The Mansa, or king, would be assisted by one assembly that elders and also local chiefs throughout the Mali Empire"s history, through audiences held in the royal royal residence or under a big tree. The king was also the supreme source of justice, however he did exploit legal advisors. In addition, the king was assisted by a number of key ministers such together the cook of the army and master of the granaries (later treasury), and also other officials like the master of ceremonies and also leader of the royal orchestra. Nevertheless, the Mansa acted together a can be fried monarch and also monopolised an essential trade goods, because that example, only he was permitted to possess gold nuggets, traders had actually to make perform with yellow dust. The king had specific mystical qualities attributed come him, and also all slaves were solely loyal to him. No person had the ideal to be in the king"s presence once he ate, because that example, and all visitors before him had to be barefoot and bow down and pour dust over their heads. Such was this cult that leadership and the extreme centralisation of government in a solitary figure the the fortunes of the realm rose and also fell depending on the talents or lack of them own by a specific king.

Mali had actually a triple income: taxes on trade, goods were bought & marketed on in ~ much higher prices, & it had its own natural resources.

These difficulties of administration were yet to come, though, and Sundiata would proceed to broaden his are to encompass the old kingdoms the Ghana, Walata, Tadmekka, and Songhai. Niani, now no longer in existence but probably situated on a plain close to the all-year-round navigable Sankarani River, was selected together the empire"s capital. The was defended by mountains and was close to the two crucial sources of trade goods: forests and also waterways.

Tribute was obtained from conquered chiefdoms, although countless local chiefs were allowed to proceed to dominion their own people but with a Mali-appointed branch to help them, regularly backed through a garrison. Additional guarantees of loyalty contained taking imperial hostages and keeping them in ~ the capital. This federation prospered, arising over the next century into one that Africa"s wealthiest ever realms whose wide range would astound both Europe and Arabia. Further, and also perhaps much more important because that the ordinary world of Mali, international visitors detailed the high degree of justice they saw, the safety and security with i beg your pardon one could travel from location to place, and also the diversity of food in every villages.

Trade & Timbuktu

Like its politics predecessors, the Mali empire prospered many thanks to trade and also its prime location, situated in between the rain woodlands of southerly West Africa and the an effective Muslim caliphates of north Africa. The Niger River noted ready access to Africa"s interior and Atlantic coast, when the Berber-controlled camel caravans the crossed the Sahara desert ensured an important commodities come from the north. The Mali rulers had a triple income: they taxed the i of trade goods, bought goods and also sold castle on at much greater prices, and had accessibility to your own an useful natural resources. Significantly, the Mali Empire controlled the affluent gold-bearing regions of Galam, Bambuk, and Bure. One of the key trade exchanges was gold dust for salt native the Sahara. Gold to be in specific demand from europe powers prefer Castille in Spain and Venice and Genoa in Italy, whereby coinage was currently being produced in the priceless metal.


Timbuktu, founded c. 1100 by the nomadic Tuaregs, was a semi-independent trade port which had actually the dual advantage of being on the Niger river bend and the starting point because that the trans-Saharan caravans. The city would be monopolised and then taken over by the Mali monarchs who made it right into one of the many important and most cosmopolitan trade centres in Africa. V Timbuktu there passed such lucrative goods together ivory, textiles, horses (important for armed forces use), glassware, weapons, sugar, kola nuts (a soft stimulant), cereals (e.g. Sorghum and millet), spices, stone beads, craft products, and slaves. Goods were bartered because that or paid using an agreed top top commodity such as copper or yellow ingots, collection quantities of salt or ivory, or also cowry shells (which came from Persia).

Mansa Musa I

After a string of seemingly lacklustre rulers, the Mali realm enjoyed that is second golden era throughout the reign of Mansa Musa i in the an initial half of the 13th century. With an army numbering approximately 100,000 men, including an armoured cavalry corps that 10,000 horses, and also with the talented basic Saran Mandian, Mansa Musa was able to maintain and also extend Mali"s empire, copy its territory. He controlled lands as much as the Gambia and also lower Senegal in the west; in the north, tribes were subdued along the whole length the the west Sahara border region; in the east, regulate spread up to Gao top top the Niger flow and, to the south, the Bure an ar and the forests of what ended up being known together the Gold shore came under Mali oversight. The Mali realm thus pertained to include plenty of different religious, ethnic, and linguistic groups.

To govern these diverse peoples, Mansa Musa divided his realm into districts with each one rule by a branch (farba) appointed personally by him and also responsible for local taxes, justice, and settling defect disputes. The administration was additional improved with higher records kept and also sent come the centralised federal government offices at Niani. With an ext tribute from an ext conquered chiefs, much more trade routes under Mali control, and even more natural resources to exploit, Mansa Musa and the Mali elite became immensely rich. When the Mali king visited Cairo in 1324, he spent or simply provided away so much gold that the price that bullion crashed by 20%. Together riches set off a never-ending ring of rumours that Mali to be a kingdom led with gold. In Spain c. 1375, a mapmaker was motivated to develop Europe"s an initial detailed map of West Africa, part of the Catalan Atlas. The map has Mansa Musa wearing an superior gold crown and also triumphantly brandishing a vast lump of gold in his hand. European explorers would spend the next 5 centuries do the efforts to find the source of this gold and also the fabled trading city of Timbuktu.


Spread the Islam

Islam spread out through components of West Africa via the Arab merchants who traded there. Detailed Muslim travellers and also chroniclers prefer Ibn Battuta (1304 - c. 1369) and Ibn Khaldin (1332-1406) taped that also Mali"s very first ruler Sundiata convert to Islam. However, the Malinke oral tradition, i beg your pardon was kept up over the generations by specialised bards (griots), presents a various story. Although recognising Islam was existing in Mali long prior to Sundiata"s reign, the oral legacy maintains that the an initial ruler that the Mali empire did not refuse the native animist religion. We do recognize that Sundiata"s son, Mansa Uli (aka Mansa Wali or Yerelenku), go on a expedition to Mecca in the 1260s or 1270s, and also this would be a continuing trend among many that Mali"s rulers.

Islam in West Africa yes, really took off, though, indigenous the power of Mansa Musa I. The famously visited Mecca and, impressed through what he witnessed on his travels, Mansa Musa brought back home Muslim architects, scholars, and also books. Employee were developed such as Timbuktu"s "Great mosque" (aka Djinguereber or Jingereber), and also Koranic schools and also universities were developed which quickly gained an international reputation. Research studies were in reality much broader than religion and also included history, geography, astronomy, and medicine. Great libraries were gathered with tens of countless books and also manuscripts, countless of which endure today.

As more people were converted, so more Muslim clerics were attracted from abroad and also the religious beliefs was spread further across West Africa. Many native converts learned in such locations as Fez, Morocco, and became an excellent scholars, missionaries, and even saints, and so Islam came to be seen no much longer as a foreign religion but a black color African one. Despite the spread of Islam, the is likewise true that ancient indigenous animist beliefs continued to be practised, especially in rural communities, as noted by travellers choose Ibn Battuta who checked out Mali c. 1352. In addition, Islamic research studies were carried out in Arabic not native languages, and this more impeded the popularity exterior the education clerical course of towns and also cities. Even the Islam that did take organize in Mali to be a particular variation of the practised in the Arab world, perhaps because Mali rulers can not purchased to fully dismiss the indigenous religious practices and also beliefs that the bulk of their world clung on to.


Mali Architecture

The buildings of the Mali Empire, some of which choose the Sankore mosque in Timbuktu quiet stand, are one of the most recognisable functions of the region and have end up being international symbols of Africa"s wealthy pre-colonial history. Mali architects had a distinctive disadvantage because of the rarity of stone in the region, and also for this reason, structures were commonly constructed making use of beaten earth (banco) reinforced v wood which frequently sticks out in beams native the exterior surfaces. Despite the limited materials, the mosques, in particular, room still imposing multi-storied structures with towers, large wooden doors, and also tiered minarets. Other large buildings consisted of warehouses (fondacs) i beg your pardon were provided to store goods prior to they to be transported elsewhere and which had actually up come 40 apartments for vendors to live in. Other examples of the Mali baked-mud structures which impress today, although many are at an early stage 20th-century reconstructions, include the substantial mosques in ~ Mopti and Djenne.

On a smaller scale, excavations at Niani have revealed the continues to be of houses and also their stone foundations, confirming later on sources that the richer members of culture built rock houses. Arab chroniclers explain another form of residential building, i beg your pardon was created using beaten planet bricks and also with ceilings made of wooden beams and reeds, the entirety formed right into a conical roof. Flooring to be made using planet mixed v sand.

Mali art & Culture

We have already noted that the Malinke had a rich legacy of recounting legends and also community backgrounds orally by specialised story-tellers understand as griots. These stories, passed down from generation to generation (and continuing today), were often accompanied through music. During the Mali Empire, there were even songs booked for specific people that alone had actually the right to have them sung in their honour, this was specifically so for renowned warriors and hunters. Music was also an essential part of spiritual festivals once masked dancers performed.


Pottery and sculpture to be produced, together they had actually been at detailed centres favor Djenne since the ninth century. Sculptures are generally up come 50 cm tall and made of heavy pottery however sometimes through a reinforcing iron rod interior. Wood and brass were other popular materials because that sculpture and, come a lesser degree, stone. Decoration is typically incised, painted, or achieved by including three-dimensional pieces. Subjects include human figures, specifically bearded warriors riding a steed but also many kneeling or crouching numbers with upturned faces. Numbers are often realistic portrayals of plain people, occasionally showing symptoms of tropic diseases. Although the is rare for artworks that this period to come through a particular provenance derived from professionally excavated sites, the sculptures room so many that it seems likely countless were provided as daily decorative objects as well as for routine or funeral purposes.


The Mali realm was in decline by the 15th century. The ill-defined rules because that royal succession often caused civil wars as brothers and also uncles fought each various other for the throne. Then, as profession routes opened up up elsewhere, number of rival kingdoms occurred to the west, especially the Songhai. Europe ships, particularly those belonging to the Portuguese, were now regularly sailing down the west shore of Africa and so the Saharan caravans faced stiff competition as the most efficient means to transport goods from West Africa come the Mediterranean. There were assaults on Mali by the Tuareg in 1433 and by the Mossi people, who at the time controlled the lands southern of the Niger River. About 1468, King Sunni Ali that the Songhai empire (r. 1464-1492) dominated the rump that the Mali empire which was now reduced to managing a tiny western pocket of that is once good territory. What stayed of the Mali empire would be soaked up into the Moroccan realm in the mid-17th century.

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Mark is a history writer based in Italy. His distinct interests incorporate pottery, architecture, world mythology and discovering the ideas that all civilizations share in common. The holds an MA in political Philosophy and is the posting Director at WHE.