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A Short History of the Mali Empire

A Short History of the Mali Empire

Last week, we looked at children's books about Mali. In this blog post, we are still on the topic of Mali, but we are looking at the ancient Mali empire.

The Empire of Mali was one of the greatest empires in West African history and African history. Historians suggest that at the empire's height, it spread from the Atlantic Coast to parts of the Sahara desert. 

Let's delve into the empire's history, shall we?


Formation of the Empire

The Mali empire was founded by the legendary King Sunjata (also spelt as Sundjata or Sundiata) in 1240 CE. 

Illustration of a young Sunjata from our children's book, Sunjata of the Mande Empire.


King Soumaoro Kanté, the ruler of the kingdom of Sosso, was defeated by Sunjata under his command in the Battle of Kirina. At that time, Soumaoro had seized control of numerous African nations. Sunjata had organized a powerful army with the help to win the battle. 

After the battle, Sunjata united towns and formed the Mali Empire. Sunjata became the first mansa or emperor of the Mali kingdom. 


Leadership in the Empire

Leaders in the empire were known as Mansa. Sunjata was the first Mansa of the Mali empire. He formed a government to make laws for the kingdom. Under Sunjata's reign, Mali experienced peace, prosperity, and freedom. One notable aspect of his leadership was that there was a proclamation of the Manden Charter, which was a humans right charter. He ruled from 1240 CE to 1255 CE. 

Sunjata's son, Wali, then took over the kingdom. Wali was one of the most powerful rulers in the kingdom's history. 

Wali's brother, Wati took over the empire. Kahlifa succeeded Wati. Abu Bakr took over from Kahlifa. Abu Bakr's successor, Musa, is arguably one of the most famous emperors of the Mali empire. 

Mansa Musa I is the richest person to have ever lived in modern history. He reigned from 1312 CE to 1337 CE. When he took over the kingdom, Mali was still relatively unknown outside of West Africa.

It all changed when Mansa Musa made his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 CE. He had carried 136 kilograms of gold with him for the journey. Mansa Musa generously gave out the gold to different countries he visited. His generosity ended up crippling the countries' economies. Egypt was particularly affected because it took 12 years to recover.

People learnt of Mansa Musa's wealth and the Mali empire. 

A 1375 CE illustration of Mansa Musa by Abraham Cresques.


Spread of Islam across the Empire

Islam was a part of the Mande people long before Sunjata's reign; however, Islam took off under the rule of Mansa Musa I. 

After he visited Mecca, Mansa Musa brought back Muslim architects, scholars, and books. In 1327 CE, the Great Mosque in Timbuktu, also known as Djingareyber Mosque, was constructed. 

The Djingareyber Mosque


Towards the end of his reign, Mansa Musa constructed the Sankara Madrassa, which became one of the finest educational institutions in the Islamic world and housed the biggest library in all of Africa at the time.

Timbuktu quickly became known as the centre of learning in the world. 


Trade in the Empire

The Mali Empire prospered due to its strategic location and trade. The kingdom's location was ideal because it was between West Africa and North Africa. 

The emperors taxed the passage of trade goods through the kingdom. In addition, they also bought goods and sold them at higher prices. 

The empire was rich in gold. At the time, gold was in high demand from European powers such as Spain and Italy. Mali traded gold and slaves for salt from Europe and North Africa.  


The decline of the Mali Empire

The decline of the Mali kingdom was brought about by a weakened economy and poor leadership. 

In the 1400s, the royal succession led to civil wars, as the royal family members turned on each other for the throne. This resulted in a weakened kingdom. 

In addition, the kingdom faced stiff competition as trade routes opened up in neighbouring rival kingdoms. Lastly, North Africans and Europeans turned to other empires for gold. All this combined crippled Mali's economy. 

The last Mansa was Mahmud IV, who passed away in 1610. The once great Mali Empire collapsed. 

The Songhai Empire conquered the territory that was the Mali Empire. 


If you enjoyed rediscovering the Mali empire, you might enjoy reading our post on the  Benin Kingdom.




African History Workbook


Imhotep of Ancient Kemet


Our Ancestories - Mali Country Profile - Free Worksheets


Sunjata of the Mande Empire


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