Mansa Musa: Facts and Accomplishments

Mansa Musa

A Catalan Atlas showing Mansa Musa, Emperor of the Mali Empire, and his vast networks of trading routes

For centuries, Mansa Musa has been considered by many historians and economists as the richest man to ever live. Reigning over an empire that spanned about 9 present-day African countries, Mansa Musa used the empire’s vast wealth and resources to elevate  Mali Empire to its peak in the early 14th century.

There was certainly more to this ruler than the famed stories of his vast wealth and generosity. Therefore, who really was Mansa Musa? And how did he become such a famous and wealthy African monarch?

World History Edu presents 10 major facts and accomplishments about the life and reign of Mansa Musa:

History remembers him as the tenth ruler of Mali

Before becoming a “mansa” (king) in 1312, Musa was Emperor Abu Bakr II’s deputy. As tradition dictated, the emperor of Mali often appointed a deputy to rule in their stead whenever they were on a foreign trip. On one such occasion, Emperor Abu Bakr II gathered a team of officials and the best seamen all throughout the empire. Their destination was to get to the edges of the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, neither the emperor nor his captains returned. Subsequently, Musa was crowned king of Mali- the 10th Mansa of Mali. Today, Mansa Musa continues to be venerated by Africans, and even Europeans alike, as one of the greatest and wealthiest rulers of all time.

Mansa Musa had different titles and adulation

Mansa Musa’s 25-year reign (from 1312 to 1337) saw him acquire several titles and veneration from his subjects. For starters, the name “Mansa” translates into “King of kings” or “emperor”. And the “Musa” refers to “Moses” in the biblical context.

Other titles that Mansa Musa had were Lord of Mines of Wangara, Fouta Djallon, Lion of Mali, Emir of Melle, Conqueror of Ghanata, and Kankan Musa. Prior to his ascension to the throne, he was known as Musa Keita or Kankou Musa or Kankan Musa. Kankou Musa in Mali Empire meant “Musa whose mother was Kankou”.

His empire was the second largest in the world at the time

Mansa Musa

The Mali Empire under the reign of Mansa Musa covered huge portions of West Africa. Image source.

The Mali Empire that Mansa Musa reigned over was considered the second largest in the world at the time. No other empire, except the Mongol Empire, could boast of such immense land mass. It is estimated that the empire stretched from the coast of the Atlantic Ocean to the desserts in Chad.   At the peak of Mansa Musa’s reign, the emperor had dominions over places in present-day Mauritania, Chad, Niger, Mali, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, the Gambia, Senegal, and Guinea. Such was the sheer size and might of the Mali Empire.

In order to ensure smooth administration of those places, Mansa Musa would appoint very trustworthy governors. These governors were called Farba. They were in charge of records keeping, tax collection and general enforcement of the Emperor’s directives. Mansa Musa had a tradition of honoring the best performing or most admired governor with a white pair of trousers. The wider or bigger the pair of trousers the more favored the governor was to Mansa Musa.

Mansa Musa was one of the first Muslim rulers in West Africa (perhaps sub-Saharan Africa) to visit Mecca

As part of one of the five cardinal principles in Islam, Muslims must at least once in their lifetime journey to the holy city, Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. Mansa Musa, a devout Muslim, embarked on this journey in a manner that had never been witnessed before (perhaps will never be seen again).

Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca cost an absolute fortune

Mansa Musa

Facts and Accomplishments of Mansa Musa

On his way to Mecca, it is believed that Mansa Musa went in a caravan. His caravan, one of the longest caravans ever, comprised several tens of thousands of officials, advisors, slaves and courtiers. All of these people wore the finest Persian-made silk at the time.  The exact year this journey of his took place was in 1324- seven years after his coronation.

His pilgrimage inadvertently caused many economies to go bust

The interesting thing about Mansa Musa’s legendary pilgrimage to Mecca is that the king spent a real fortune along the way. There were about 80 to 100 camels; and atop the backs of these camels were several pounds of gold- around 300-400 pounds of gold dust. Every place that King Musa stopped, he would hand out vast amounts of gold to the locals.

Mansa Musa’s spending was so lavish that in some places like Egypt, the local economy actually collapsed because of the influx of vast amounts of gold. Inflation in those places soared up. Historians believe that it took a couple of years for those economies to get back on track. It is also believed that Mansa Musa, in an attempt to fix the situation, opted to buy back the gold that he had originally dished out. By so doing, he briefly dictated the gold prices of that region, perhaps of the word in general.

He built several mosques and houses in foreign lands

Due to the vast wealth and resources at his disposal, Mansa Musa could afford building mosques at all the places that he stopped during his journey to Mecca. Never had the locals in those places ever seen such generosity from one person.

The idea of constructing such places of worship was to encourage future generations to go on pilgrimage to Mecca. Additionally, the emperor built houses and residential facilities that accommodated the Muslim pilgrims from all across the continent. He hoped that by providing well established camps and worship places along the route to Mecca, pilgrims’ journeys would be cheaper and less hectic.

Mansa Musa helped spread Islam and Islamic Scholarship all across West Africa

Although Islam had taken roots in West Africa during the reign of previous “mansas”, it was Mansa Musa that contributed heavily to the spread of Islam in those West Africa.

After his legendary pilgrimage to Mecca, Mansa Musa poached several renowned Islamic scholars and teachers. His goal was to turn the Mali Empire into a hub of intellectual reasoning and scientific progress based on the Islamic faith.

In order to make those foreign scholars feel at home, Mansa Musa gifted them large acres of lands, as well as a host of other properties. He built numerous mosques in places like Gao and Timbuktu. These mosques were expertly designed by some of the best architects from the Mediterranean and the Middle East. The most famous of those places of worship was the Djinguereber Mosque. The mosque’s minarets back then was adorned with gold and several foreign materials from all across the world. Today, the mosque receives several thousands of tourists every year. It is considered one of the most visited places in present-day Mali.

He was a heavy builder of infrastructure

Mansa Musa- The Sankore Madrasah

The Sankore Madrasah (a university-like institution) was revived by Mansa Musah in the 14th century to  became one of the world’s leading knowledge and cultural centers in the Middle Ages

The enormous wealth that the Mali Empire possessed meant that they could afford to put up magnificent buildings and social centers. Majority of these infrastructures were centered in places like Gao and Timbuktu. And at the helm of those construction projects were none other than the architects Mansa Musa brought from Spain and other places along the Mediterranean. These architects were paid very handsomely. And the buildings that they put up were nothing short of spectacular. The fact that these buildings were made of burnt sand and bricks made them even more unique and splendid.

Examples of such buildings were educational institutions, palaces, mosques, markets, and a plethora of other community centers. These places helped to transform the socio-economic livelihoods of the people in the Mali Empire.

And even after more than 8 centuries since his departure, there exist well-preserved and partially-functioning places that Mansa Musa himself built. For instance, the Sankore Madrasah (also called the Sankore Masjid or Mosque) located in Timbuktu, Mali, was converted into a full-fledged university during Mansa Musa’s reign. The university could boast of the largest collection of books and scrolls in the world at the time. In terms of the number of manuscripts and books (close to 1,000,000 in total), the Sankore University was second only to the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. As a hub for learning, the school could accommodate more than 25,000 students. Mansa Musa invited scholars from all over the world to tutor students on a range of subjects such as Koranic studies, astronomy, mathematics and legal affairs.

All in all, these monumental construction works by Mansa Musa helped turn the cities of Timbuktu and Gao into thriving commercial and knowledge hubs. In addition to those two cities, the Mali Empire had about 400 urbanized cities during the peak of Mansa Musa’s reign.

Mansa Musa sits atop the list of richest people in history

Even after centuries since his death, Mansa Musa continues to hold the title of world’s richest man to ever live. If you were to factor in for inflation, the total amount of wealth that this West African emperor accumulated would amount to over 400 billion U.S. Dollars. That figure is about 3-4 times more than the current wealth possessed by Jeff Bezos or say Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

It is believed that most of Mansa Musa’s wealth came from the highly rich gold and copper deposits that were littered across his kingdom. The emperor also raked in a lot of money from salt mining. At some point in time, salt was the most traded commodity across the African continent- most of that salt came from Mansa Musa’s territory.

Another very interesting thing about Mansa Musa’s source of wealth is that he made sure that his tax collection system was very effective. He placed trustworthy people at the helm of his tax collection program. What this meant was that, Mansa Musa could effectively build up massive wealth from the lucrative trading routes that stretched from his domain to Arabia.

Finally, and typical of most empires in Medieval times, Mansa Musa collected tributes from cities that fell under the might of the Mali Empire. For example, after he recaptured Timbuktu from the Kingdom of Mossi, he levied tributes of all sorts  on the city.

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