The Mali Empire was one of the three great empires of Western Africa, and at its peak it rivaled the Mongol Empire for size. The Mali Empire emerged from the political instability following the collapse of the Ghana Empire in 1235. The empire accumulated wealth and prestige through the international trade of gold and salt in its cities of Timbuktu, Djenne, and Gao. Mali’s golden age lasted until 1350, but it endured a century and a half of decline. By 1502, Mali’s famed mines had been seized by the next great Western African Empire, the Songhai. Although Mali’s day in the sun was relatively brief it enjoyed an out-sized influence on African history.
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Sundiata Keita is a mythical figure in the oral traditions of Western Africa griots, who are essentially combinations of storyteller and oral historian. One story claims that as a child he bent an iron rod into a bow while using it to help himself stand upright. A prince of the Malinke people, Keita led them to independence from the Sosso, the people who had inherited the remnants of the Ghana Empire. Keita established a code of government for his people and ruled the burgeoning Mali empire from the city of Niani. Keita also converted to Islam, the religion his empire would spread throughout Western Africa.
BATTLE OF KIRINA
The 1235 Battle of Kirina was instrumental in establishing the Mali Empire’s preeminence in Western Africa. Sundiata Keita trounced the Sosso forces commanded by Sumanguru Kanté. The Epic of Sundiata, a poem describing the founding of the Mali Empire, relates how Sundiata Keita’s sister Nana Triban stole Sumanguru’s totem prior to the battle. According to legend, Keita used this totem, a white cockspur, to wound Kanté and drive his forces from the field.
Mansa Musa was Sundiata Keita’s grand-nephew and ruled the Mali Empire from 1312-1337. He expanded the empire to its greatest size thanks to capable military commanders like Sagmandia. Mansa Musa embarked on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324. He gained a reputation for generosity during the pilgrimage, allegedly dispensing so much gold in the city of Cairo that he devalued bullion there by 20%. Shortly following his death, however, the empire would begin to decline.
The governmental structure of the Mali Empire was unique due to the existence of the Gbara, or Great Assembly, a deliberative body of clan delegates. Created by the Kouroukan Fouga, the code of government established by Sundiata Keita, the Gbara met until the empire’s demise.
Although Niani was the capital of the Mali Empire, Timbuktu was its cultural center. After his famous Meccan pilgrimage, Mansa Musa initiated a series of construction projects in Timbuktu. These projects included a great mosque known as the Djinguereber and the Sankore madrassa. The Andalusian architect who oversaw these projects, Abu Ishaq-al Sahili, journeyed from Cairo to Timbuktu at Mansa Musa’s request. It is thanks to his skill that these buildings still stand.
Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:
Mansa Musa was rich. But just how rich was he? This article tries to estimate Mansa Musa’s net worth and speculates how he would stack up against the Bezos and Gates of our century.
Although it’s nearly 700 years old, the Djinguereber Mosque is still a vital part of everyday life for the citizens of Timbuktu. Read this to learn more about the building’s construction and the role of Timbuktu citizens in its maintenance.
The Kouroukan Fouga is one of the oldest constitutions in world history. Established shortly after the Battle of Kirina, it existed in primarily oral form for much of its history. However, in 1998 a written form was compiled with the assistance of knowledgeable local griots. It can be viewed here!
More of a music specialist? For a live performance of the Epic of Sundiata, complete with traditional Malinke griot instruments, watch below:
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