Mali was the cradle of one of the greatest empires in precolonial Africa. It was built on gold and flourished during the Middle Ages of Europe. This great state, which evolved in the savanna zone, originated from a Mande (Mandingo) cultural core, from where it extended its sway over a large number of states and societies. Mali arose as a successor state to the Old Ghana Empire, which had collapsed in 1235 after the onslaught of the ruthless Susu king, Sumanguru. His power was challenged by the Keita, a Mande group. This group, originally traders, had endeavored to develop political control over a number of kingdoms in the adjacent territories. After prolonged warfare, the Keita group produced a king, Sundiata (1230-1255), who overthrew Sumanguru and went on to capture the capital of Ghana. From the remnants of Ghana he laid the foundations for the new Mande empire, which from 1240 became the major political and commercial power for the whole of western Sudan.
Mali was the product of a southerly Mande group. They possessed fertile land, which afforded better conditions for agriculture and gave them more direct control over the alluvial gold fields. The group aimed to control the whole Sudan, as far as the Niger bend, where the new southern termini for the trans-Saharan trade, Timbuktu and Gao, were situated.
In this, Sundiata and his successors achieved remarkable feats. By the fourteenth century, they controlled an empire that reached some 1250 miles from the Atlantic in the west to the borders of northern Nigeria in the east, from the southern Saharan caravan centers of Audaghost, Walata, and Tadmakka in the north, to the borders of the Guinea forests in the southwest.
The expansion of the Mande from the thirteenth century, however, often had important political and economic consequences. The victory of Mali over the Susu opened the way for expansion northward, which enabled the empire to gain control over the end destinations of the trans-Saharan trails. Its controls extended over the Sahara desert, which included the valuable salt mines of Taghaza and the copper mines of Takedda. The movements of Mali westward over the upper valley of the Senegal and toward (present day) Gambia enabled it to hold sway over all the internal trade routes. The pattern of their movement to the east and southeast appears to have been determined to some extent by the existence of largely agricultural communities. This no doubt enhanced the vitality of Mali, as by the fifteenth century there was a considerable trade in millet, rice, cotton, and livestock within the empire. Mali had created an empire whose main artery was the river Niger and the commercial cities of the Niger bend.
The gold deposits in Mali made the empire great. The extent of the wealth of the empire was brought into bold relief by the famous pilgrimage of Mansa Musa (1312-1337) the ruler of Mali to Mecca in 1324. His splendid passage through Cairo, according to Al-Omari (an Arab scholar), had an unsettling effect on exchange rates: “the people of Cairo earned incalculable sums from him whether by buying and selling or by gifts. So much gold was current in Cairo that it ruined the value of money. . . .” Such profligacy nearly ruined Mansa Musa, who experienced serious political troubles on his return to West Africa. Nevertheless, the visit succeeded in advertising the wealth of the empire, thus attracting more traders and Muslim scholars who contributed immensely to the economic and cultural development of the empire. Apart from his visit to Mecca, Mansa Musa also strengthened the links of his empire with the Muslim community in the outside world. He initiated diplomatic relations with the sultans of Morocco. Mansa Musa’s contact with North Africa brought important development in architecture. On his return from Mecca, he was accompanied by an Andalusian architect, Es-Saheli, who went on to build an impressive palace in Timbuktu and Gao. The materials and architectural style were new to Mali, since he adopted the flat roof of north Africa, the pyramidal minaret, and burnt bricks.
Mali at its peak was not only a center of civilization, scholarship, and custodian of an orderly system of law and government but a remarkable economic success. The whole atmosphere of the empire was one of peace and prosperity. Law and order was maintained so well that people laden with goods could travel the length and breadth of the empire without fear of harassment. The semidivine status of the king of Mali projected the aura of a ruler of a very wealthy state. For instance, Ibn Battuta, a Berber of Tangier who visited Mali in 1532, was immensely impressed by the majesty that surrounded the king. He marveled at his exalted status and the wealth at his disposal. Whenever the king gave a public address, he did so on a three-tiered dais covered with silks and cushions and with a ceiling supported by elephant tusks. Before the king advanced a throng of dancers, praise-singers, and slaves, and behind him were his three hundred bodyguards.
The glittering courts of Mali were, however, maintained at a considerable cost to human lives. Both by inheritance and conquest, the king acquired a number of slave villages. The peoples of these villages were forced to provide the king with annual fixed quantities of produce or service so that all the needs of his court were satisfied. Another set of slave villagers, the arbi, acted as domestic servants, personal bodyguards, and royal messengers to the king.
The regeneration of the empire was ensured by a succession of dynamic rulers until the end of the fourteenth century, when it disintegrated due to dynastic struggles, several weak rulers, revolts, and secessions in the outlying provinces.
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