The Mali Empire (Manding: Nyeni or Niani; also historically referred to as the Manden Kurufaba, sometimes shortened to Manden) was an empire in West Africa from c. 1230 to 1670. The empire was founded by Sundiata Keita and became renowned for the wealth of its rulers, especially Musa Keita. The Manding languages were spoken in the empire. It was the largest empire in West Africa and profoundly influenced the culture of West Africa through the spread of its language, laws and customs. Much of the recorded information about the Mali Empire comes from 14th century North African Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, 14th century Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta and 16th century Moroccan traveller Leo Africanus. The other major source of information is Mandinka oral tradition, through storytellers known as griots.
The empire began as a small Mandinka kingdom at the upper reaches of the Niger River, centred around the town of Niani (the empire's namesake in Manding). During the 11th and 12th centuries, it began to develop as an empire following the decline of the Ghana Empire to the north. During this period, trade routes shifted southward to the savanna, stimulating the growth of states. The early history of the Mali Empire (before the 13th century) is unclear, as there are conflicting and imprecise accounts by both Arab chroniclers and oral traditionalists. Sundiata Keita (c. 1214–c. 1255) is the first ruler about whom there is accurate written information (from Ibn Khaldun). Sundiata Keita was a warrior-prince of the Keita dynasty who was called upon to free the Mali people from the rule of the king of the Sosso Empire, Soumaoro Kanté. The conquest of Sosso in c. 1235 gave the Mali Empire access to the trans-Saharan trade routes. Following the death of Sundiata Keita in c. 1255, the kings of Mali were referred to by the title mansa.
Sundiata's nephew Mansa Musa made a Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca during the reign of the Mamluk Sultan Baibars (r. 1260–1277). Following a series of usurpations of the throne of Mali, in c. 1285 Sakoura, a former royal court slave, became emperor and was one of its most powerful rulers, greatly expanding the territories of Mali. He made a pilgrimage to Mecca during the reign of Mamluk Sultan An-Nasir Muhammad (r. 1298–1308). Dying on his return, the throne reverted to the descendants of Sundiata Keita. After the reigns of three more emperors, Musa Keita became emperor in c. 1312. Musa made a famous pilgrimage to Mecca from 1324 to 1326. His generous gifts to Mamluk Egypt and his expenditure of gold caused gold to be greatly devalued, which gave rise to his fame outside of Mali. In 1337, he was succeeded by his son Maghan I, who in 1341 was deposed by his uncle Suleyman. It was during Suleyman's reign that Ibn Battuta visited Mali.
Following this period, a period of weak emperors, conflicts and disunity began in Mali. Ibn Khaldun died in 1406, and following his death there was no continuous record of events in the Mali Empire. It is known from the Tarikh al-Sudan that Mali was still a sizeable state in the 15th century. The Venetian explorer Alvise Cadamosto and Portuguese traders confirmed that the peoples of the Gambia were still subject to the mansa of Mali. Upon Leo Africanus's visit at the beginning of the 16th century, his descriptions of the territorial domains of Mali showed that it was still a kingdom of considerable size. However, from 1507 neighbouring states such as Diara, Great Fulo and the Songhay Empire were eroding the extreme territories of Mali. In 1542, the Songhay invaded the capital city of Niani but were unsuccessful in conquering the empire. During the 17th century, the Mali empire faced incursions from the Bamana Empire. After unsuccessful attempts by Mansa Mama Maghan to conquer Bamana, in 1670 Bamana sacked and burned Niani, and the Mali Empire rapidly disintegrated and ceased to exist, being replaced by independent chiefdoms. The Keitas retreated to the town of Kangaba, where they became provincial chiefs.
The Rock art in the Sahara suggests that northern Mali has been inhabited since 10,000 BC, when the Sahara was fertile and rich in wildlife. By 300 BC, large organised settlements had developed, most notable near Djenné, one of West Africa's oldest cities. By the 6th century AD, the lucrative trans-Saharan trade in gold, salt and slaves had begun, facilitating the rise of West Africa's great empires.
There are a few references to Mali in early written literature. Among these are references to "Pene" and "Malal" in the work of al-Bakri in 1068, the story of the conversion of an early ruler, known to Ibn Khaldun (by 1397) as Barmandana, and a few geographical details in the work of al-Idrisi.
In the 1960s, archaeological work at Niani village, reputed to be the capital of the Mali Empire, by Polish and Guinean archaeologists revealed the remains of a substantial town dating back as far as the 6th century.
Modern oral traditions also related that the Mandinka kingdoms of Mali or Manden had already existed several centuries before Sundiata's unification as a small state just to the south of the Soninké empire of Wagadou, better known as the Ghana Empire. This area was composed of mountains, savannah and forest providing ideal protection and resources for the population of hunters. Those not living in the mountains formed small city-states such as Toron, Ka-Ba and Niani. Through the oral tradition of griots, the Keita dynasty, from which nearly every Mali emperor came, traces its lineage back to Lawalo, one of the sons of Bilal, the faithful muezzin of Islam's prophet Muhammad, who was said to have migrated into Mali and his descendants established the ruling Keita dynasty through Maghan Kon Fatta, father of Sundiata Keita.
It was common practice during the Middle Ages for both Christian and Muslim rulers to tie their bloodline back to a pivotal figure in their faith's history, so the lineage of the Keita dynasty may be dubious at best, yet African Muslim scholars like the London-based Nigerian-British cleric Sheikh Abu-Abdullah Adelabu have laid claim of divine attainments to the reign of Mansa Mousa: "in Islamic history and its science stories of Shihab al-Umari and similar legendaries of Mansa Kankan Musa existed in early Arabic sources for West African history by the author of Subh al-a 'sha one of the final expressions of the genre of Arabic administrative literature, Ahmad al-Qalqashandi Egyptian writer, mathematician and scribe of the scroll (katib al-darj) in the Mamluk chancery in Cairo as well as by the author of Kitab al-Masalik wa al-Mamalik (Book of Highways and Kingdoms) Abū ʿUbayd Al-Bakri, an Arab Andalusian Muslim geographer and historian emboldened Keita Dynasty", wrote Adelabu.[incomprehensible][relevant? ]
Adelabu, the head of Awqaf Africa in London, coined the Arabic derivatives ك – و – ي K(a)-W(e)-Y(a) of the word Keita which in (in what he called) Arabicised Mandingo language Allah(u) Ka(w)eia meaning "Allah Creates All" as a favourable motto of reflection for Bilal Ibn Rabah, one of the most trusted and loyal Sahabah (companions) of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, whom he described (quoting William Muir's book The Life of Muhammad) as 'a tall, dark, and with African feature and bushy hair' pious man who overcame slavery, racism and socio-political obstacles in Arabia to achieve a lofty status in this world and in the Hereafter.[incomprehensible][relevant? ]
During the height of Sundiata's power, the land of Manden (the area populated by the Mandinka people) became one of its provinces. The Manden city-state of Ka-ba (present-day Kangaba) served as the capital and name of this province. From at least the beginning of the 11th century, Mandinka kings known as faamas ruled Manden from Ka-ba in the name of the Ghanas.
Wagadou's control over Manden came to a halt after internal instability lead to its decline. The Kangaba province, free of Soninké influence, splintered into twelve kingdoms with their own maghan (meaning prince) or faama. Manden was split in half with the Dodougou territory to the northeast and the Kri territory to the southwest. The tiny kingdom of Niani was one of several in the Kri area of Manden.
In approximately 1140 the Sosso kingdom of Kaniaga, a former vassal of Wagadou, began conquering the lands of its old masters. By 1180 it had even subjugated Wagadou forcing the Soninké to pay tribute. In 1203, the Sosso king Soumaoro of the Kanté clan came to power and reportedly terrorised much of Manden stealing women and goods from both Dodougou and Kri.
According to Niane's version of the epic, during the rise of Kaniaga, Sundiata of the Keita clan was born in the early 13th century. He was the son of Niani's faama, Nare Fa (also known as Maghan Kon Fatta meaning the handsome prince). Sundiata's mother was Maghan Kon Fatta's second wife, Sogolon Kédjou. She was a hunchback from the land of Do, south of Mali. The child of this marriage received the first name of his mother (Sogolon) and the surname of his father (Djata). Combined in the rapidly spoken language of the Mandinka, the names formed Sondjata, Sundjata or Sundiata Keita. The anglicised version of this name, Sunjata, is also popular. In Ibn Khaldun's account, Sundjata is recorded as Mari Djata with "Mari" meaning "Amir" or "Prince". He also states that Djata or "Jatah" means "lion".
Prince Sundjata was prophesied to become a great conqueror. To his parent's dread, the prince did not have a promising start. Sundiata, according to the oral traditions, did not walk until he was seven years old. However, once Sundiata did gain use of his legs he grew strong and very respected. Sadly for Sundjata, this did not occur before his father died. Despite the faama of Niani's wishes to respect the prophecy and put Sundiata on the throne, the son from his first wife Sassouma Bérété was crowned instead. As soon as Sassouma's son Dankaran Touman took the throne, he and his mother forced the increasingly popular Sundjata into exile along with his mother and two sisters. Before Dankaran Touman and his mother could enjoy their unimpeded power, King Soumaoro set his sights on Niani forcing Dankaran to flee to Kissidougou.
After many years in exile, first at the court of Wagadou and then at Mema, Sundiata was sought out by a Niani delegation and begged to combat the Sosso and free the kingdoms of Manden forever.
Returning with the combined armies of Mema, Wagadou and all the rebellious Mandinka city-states, Maghan Sundiata or Sumanguru led a revolt against the Kaniaga Kingdom around 1234. The combined forces of northern and southern Manden defeated the Sosso army at the Battle of Kirina (then known as Krina) in approximately 1235. This victory resulted in the fall of the Kaniaga kingdom and the rise of the Mali Empire. After the victory, King Soumaoro disappeared, and the Mandinka stormed the last of the Sosso cities. Maghan Sundiata was declared "faama of faamas" and received the title "mansa", which translates roughly to emperor. At the age of 18, he gained authority over all the 12 kingdoms in an alliance known as the Manden Kurufaba. He was crowned under the throne name Sunidata Keita becoming the first Mandinka emperor. And so the name Keita became a clan/family and began its reign.
The Manden Kurufaba founded by Mari Djata it was composed of the "three freely allied states" of Mali, Mema and Wagadou plus the Twelve Doors of Mali. It is important to remember that Mali, in this sense, strictly refers to the city-state of Niani.
The Twelve Doors of Mali were a coalition of conquered or allied territories, mostly within Manden, with sworn allegiance to Sundiata and his descendants. Upon stabbing their spears into the ground before Sundiata's throne, each of the twelve kings relinquished their kingdom to the Keita dynasty. In return for their submission, they became "farbas", a combination of the Mandinka words "farin" and "ba" (great farin). Farin was a general term for northern commander at the time. These farbas would rule their old kingdoms in the name of the mansa with most of the authority they held prior to joining the Manden Kurufaba.
The Gbara or Great Assembly would serve as the Mandinka deliberative body until the collapse of the Manden Kurufa in 1645. Its first meeting, at the famous Kouroukan Fouga (Division of the World), had 29 clan delegates presided over by a belen-tigui (master of ceremony). The final incarnation of the Gbara, according to the surviving traditions of northern Guinea, held 32 positions occupied by 28 clans.
The Kouroukan Fouga also put in place social and economic reforms including prohibitions on the maltreatment of prisoners and slaves, installing documents between clans which clearly stated who could say what about whom. Also, Sundiata divided the lands amongst the people assuring everyone had a place in the empire and fixed exchange rates for common products.
Mansa Mari Djata, later named Sundiata Keita, saw the conquest of several key locals in the Mali Empire. He never took the field again after Kirina, but his generals continued to expand the frontier, especially in the west where they reached the Gambia River and the marches of Tekrur. This enabled him to rule over a realm larger than even the Ghana Empire in its apex. When the campaigning was done, his empire extended 1,000 miles (1,600 km) east to west with those borders being the bends of the Senegal and Niger rivers respectively. After unifying Manden, he added the Wangara goldfields, making them the southern border. The northern commercial towns of Oualata and Audaghost were also conquered and became part of the new state's northern border. Wagadou and Mema became junior partners in the realm and part of the imperial nucleus. The lands of Bambougou, Jalo (Fouta Djallon), and Kaabu were added into Mali by Fakoli Koroma (Nkurumah in Ghana, Kurumah in the Gambia, Colley in Casamance, Senegal), Fran Kamara (Camara) and Tiramakhan Traore (Tarawelley in the Gambia), respectively Among the many different ethnic groups surrounding Manden were Pulaar speaking groups in Macina, Tekrur and Fouta Djallon.
Imperial Mali is best known through three primary sources: the first is the account of Shihab al-'Umari, written in about 1340 by a geographer-administrator in Mamluk Egypt. His information about the empire came from visiting Malians taking the hajj, or pilgrim's voyage to Mecca. He had first-hand information from several sources, and from a second-hand source, he learned of the visit of Mansa Musa. The second account is that of the traveller Ibn Battuta, who visited Mali in 1352. This is the first account of a West African kingdom made directly by an eyewitness; the others are usually second-hand. The third great account is that of Ibn Khaldun, who wrote in the early 15th century. While the accounts are of limited length, they provide a fairly good picture of the empire at its height.
The Mali Empire covered a larger area for a longer period of time than any other West African state before or since. What made this possible was the decentralised nature of administration throughout the state. According to Burkinabé writer Joseph Ki-Zerbo, the farther a person travelled from Niani, the more decentralised the mansa's power became. Nevertheless, the mansa managed to keep tax money and nominal control over the area without agitating his subjects into revolt. At the local level (village, town and city), kun-tiguis elected a dougou-tigui (village-master) from a bloodline descended from that locality's semi-mythical founder. The county level administrators called kafo-tigui (county-master) were appointed by the governor of the province from within his own circle. Only at the state or province level was there any palpable interference from the central authority in Niani. Provinces picked their own governors via their own custom (election, inheritance, etc.). Regardless of their title in the province, they were recognised as dyamani-tigui (province master) by the mansa. Dyamani-tiguis had to be approved by the mansa and were subject to his oversight. If the mansa didn’t believe the dyamani-tigui was capable or trustworthy, a farba might be installed to oversee the province or administer it outright.
Manuscript of Nasir al-Din Abu al-Abbas Ahmad ibn al-Hajj al-Amin al-Tawathi al-Ghalawi's Kashf al-Ghummah fi Nafa al-Ummah. From the Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library, Timbuktu.
Territories in Mali came into the empire via conquest or annexation. In the event of conquest, farins took control of the area until a suitable native ruler could be found. After the loyalty or at least the capitulation of an area was assured, it was allowed to select its own dyamani-tigui. This process was essential to keep non-Manding subjects loyal to the Manding elites that ruled them.
Barring any other difficulties, the dyamani-tigui would run the province by himself collecting taxes and procuring armies from the tribes under his command. However, territories that were crucial to trade or subject to revolt would receive a farba. Farbas were picked by the mansa from the conquering farin or family members. The only real requirement was that the mansa knew he could trust this individual to safeguard imperial interests.
Duties of the farba included reporting on the activities of the territory, collecting taxes and ensuring the native administration didn’t contradict orders from Niani. The farba could also take power away from the native administration if required and raise an army in the area for defence or putting down rebellions.
The post of a farba was very prestigious, and his descendants could inherit it with the mansa's approval. The mansa could also replace a farba if he got out of control, as in the case of Diafunu.
The Mali Empire reached its largest size under the Laye Keita mansas. Al-Umari, who wrote down a description of Mali based on information given to him by Abu Sa’id ‘Otman ed Dukkali (who had lived 35 years in Niani), reported the realm as being square and an eight-month journey from its coast at Tura (at the mouth of the Senegal River) to Muli (also known as Tuhfat). Umari also describes the empire as being south of Marrakesh and almost entirely inhabited except for few places. Mali's domain also extended into the desert. He describes it as being north of Mali but under its domination implying some sort of vassalage for the Antasar, Yantar'ras, Medussa and Lemtuna Berber tribes. The empire's total area included nearly all the land between the Sahara Desert and coastal forests. It spanned the modern-day countries of Senegal, southern Mauritania, Mali, northern Burkina Faso, western Niger, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, the Ivory Coast and northern Ghana. By 1350, the empire covered approximately 439,400 square miles (1,138,000 km2). The empire also reached its highest population during the Laye period ruling over 400 cities, towns and villages of various religions and elasticities. During this period only the Mongol Empire was larger.
The dramatic increase in the empire's size demanded a shift from the Manden Kurufaba's organisation of three states with twelve dependencies. This model was scrapped by the time of Mansa Musa's hajj to Egypt. According to al'Umari, who interviewed a Berber that had lived in Niani for 35 years, there were fourteen provinces (or, more accurately, tributary kingdoms). In al-'Umari's record, he only records the following thirteen provinces and five states.
In 1307 Mansa Musa came to the throne after a series of civil wars and ruled for thirty years. During the peak of the kingdom, Mali was extremely wealthy. This was due to the tax on trade in and out of the empire, along with all the gold Mansa Musa had. He had so much gold that during his hajj to Mecca, the Mansa passed out gold to all the poor along the way. This led to inflation throughout the kingdom. Mansa Musa also ran out of gold on the hajj to Mecca but was not concerned because he knew he had enough gold back in Mali to pay back everything he owed money to. Trade was a significant factor to the rise and success of Mali. Mali flourished especially when Timbuktu came under Mansa Musa’s control. Timbuktu was a place of trade, entertainment, and education. The city’s water supply was a leading cause to its successes in trade. Mansa Musa placed a heavy tax on all objects that went through Timbuktu. Although this time in the kingdom was prosperous, Mali’s wealth and power soon declined. Mali was thriving for a long time, but like other western pre-colonial kingdom, Mali began to fall. Constant civil war between leaders led to a weakened state. These conflicts also interrupted trade. This is one of the main factors to the fall of the kingdom. Trade was Mali’s form of income, and wealth. With trade being disrupted by wars, there was no way for the economy to continue to prosper. As a result of this the empire fell. 
The Mali Empire flourished because of its trade above all else. It contained three immense gold mines within its borders unlike the Ghana Empire, which was only a transit point for gold. The empire taxed every ounce of gold, copper and salt that entered its borders. By the beginning of the 14th century, Mali was the source of almost half the Old World's gold exported from mines in Bambuk, Boure and Galam. Gold mines in Boure, which is located in present-day Guinea, were discovered sometime near the end of 12th century
There was no standard currency throughout the realm, but several forms were prominent by region. The Sahelian and Saharan towns of the Mali Empire were organised as both staging posts in the long-distance caravan trade and trading centres for the various West African products. At Taghaza, for example, salt was exchanged; at Takedda, copper. Ibn Battuta observed the employment of servants in both towns. During most of his journey, Ibn Battuta travelled with a retinue that included servants, most of whom carried goods for trade. On the return from Takedda to Morocco, his caravan transported 600 female servants, suggesting that indentured servitude was a substantial part of the commercial activity of the empire.
Gold nuggets were the exclusive property of the mansa, and were illegal to trade within his borders. All gold was immediately handed over to the imperial treasury in return for an equal value of gold dust. Gold dust had been weighed and bagged for use at least since the time of the Ghana Empire. Mali borrowed the practice to stem inflation of the substance, since it was so prominent in the region. The most common measure for gold within the realm was the ambiguous mithqal (4.5 grams of gold). This term was used interchangeably with dinar, though it is unclear if coined currency was used in the empire. Gold dust was used all over the empire, but was not valued equally in all regions.
The next great unit of exchange in the Mali Empire was salt. Salt was as valuable, if not more valuable, than gold in sub-Saharan Africa. It was cut into pieces and spent on goods with close to equal buying power throughout the empire. While it was as good as gold in the north, it was even better in the south. The people of the south needed salt for their diet, but it was extremely rare. The northern region on the other hand had no shortage of salt. Every year merchants entered Mali via Oualata with camel loads of salt to sell in Niani. According to Ibn Battuta who visited Mali in the mid-14th century, one camel load of salt sold at Walata for 8–10 mithqals of gold, but in Mali proper it realised 20–30 ducats and sometimes even 40. One particular source of salt in the Mali Empire was salt-mining sites located in Taghaza. Ibn Battuta had written that in Taghaza there were no trees and there is only sand and the salt mines. Nobody lived in the area except the Musafa servants who worked to dig the salts and lived on dates imported from Sijilmasa and the Dar'a valley, camel meat and millet imported from the Sudan. The buildings were constructed from slabs of salt and roofed with camel skins. The salt was dug from the ground and cut into thick slabs, two of which were loaded onto each camel where they would be taken south across the desert to Oualata and sold. The value of the salt was chiefly determined by the transport costs. Ibn Battuta mentions that the value of salt increased fourfold when transported between Oualata and the Malian capital.
Copper was also a valued commodity in imperial Mali. According to the records of Ibn Battuta, copper which traded in bars was mined from Takedda in the north and traded in the south for gold. Contemporary sources claim 60 copper bars traded for 100 dinars of gold.
The number and frequency of conquests in the late 13th century and throughout the 14th century indicate the Kolonkan mansas inherited and or developed a capable military. Sundjata is credited with at least the initial organisation of the Manding military. However, it went through radical changes before reaching the legendary proportions proclaimed by its subjects. As a result of steady tax revenue and stable government beginning in the last quarter of the 13th century, the Mali Empire was able to project its power throughout its own extensive domain and beyond.
The Mali Empire maintained a semi-professional, full-time army in order to defend its borders. The entire nation was mobilised, with each clan obligated to provide a quota of fighting-age men. These men had to be of the horon (freemen) caste and appear with their own arms. Historians who lived during the height and decline of the Mali Empire consistently record its army at 100,000, with 10,000 of that number being made up of cavalry. With the help of the river clans, this army could be deployed throughout the realm on short notice. Numerous sources attest that the inland waterways of West Africa saw extensive use of war canoes and vessels used for war transport where permitted by the environment. Most West African canoes were of single-log construction, carved and dug out from one massive tree trunk.
The army of the Mali Empire during the 14th century was divided into northern and southern commands led by the Farim-Soura and Sankar-Zouma, respectively. Both of these men were part of Mali's warrior elite known as the ton-ta-jon-ta-ni-woro ("sixteen slave carriers of quiver"). Each representative or ton-tigi ("quiver-master") provided council to the mansa at the Gbara, but only these two ton-tigi held such wide-ranging power.
The ton-tigi belonged to an elite force of cavalry commanders called the farari ("brave men"). Each individual farariya ("brave") had a number of infantry officers beneath them called kèlè-koun or dùùkùnàsi. A kèlè-koun led free troops into battle alongside a farima ("brave man") during campaign. A dùùkùnàsi performed the same function except with slave troops called sofa ("guardian of the horse") and under the command of a farimba ("great brave man"). The farimba operated from a garrison with an almost entirely slave force, while a farima functioned on field with virtually all freemen.
The army of the Mali Empire used of a wide variety of weapons depending largely on where the troops originated. Only sofa were equipped by the state, using bows and poisoned arrows. Free warriors from the north (Mandekalu or otherwise) were usually equipped with large reed or animal hide shields and a stabbing spear that was called a tamba. Free warriors from the south came armed with bows and poisonous arrows. The bow figured prominently in Mandinka warfare and was a symbol of military force throughout the culture. Bowmen formed a large portion of the field army as well as the garrison. Three bowmen supporting one spearman was the ratio in Kaabu and the Gambia by the mid-16th century. Equipped with two quivers and a knife fastened to the back of their arm, Mandinka bowmen used barbed, iron-tipped arrows that were usually poisoned. They also used flaming arrows for siege warfare. While spears and bows were the mainstay of the infantry, swords and lances of local or foreign manufacture were the choice weapons of the cavalry. Ibn Battuta comments on festival demonstrations of swordplay before the mansa by his retainers including the royal interpreter. Another common weapon of Mandekalu warriors was the poison javelin used in skirmishes. Imperial Mali's horsemen also used mail armour for defence and shields similar to those of the infantry.
Imperial Malian architecture was characterised by Sudano-Sahelian architecture with a Malian substyle, which is exemplified by the Great Mosque of Djenne. This style is characterised by the use of mudbricks and an adobe plaster, with large wooden-log support beams that jut out from the wall face for large buildings such as mosques or palaces.
The dating of the Great Mosque's construction is obscure. The earliest document mentioning the mosque is Abd al-Sadi's Tarikh al-Sudan, which gives the early history, presumably from the oral tradition as it existed in the mid seventeenth century. The tarikh states that a Sultan Kunburu became a Muslim and had his palace pulled down and the site turned into a mosque; he then built another palace for himself near the mosque on the east side.
The Sudano-Sahelian influence was particularly widely incorporated during the rule of Mansa Musa I, who constructed many architectural projects, including the Great Mosque of Gao and Royal Palace in Timbuktu, which was built with the assistance of Ishaak al-Tuedjin, an architect brought by Musa from his pilgrimage to Mecca.
There were 21 known mansas of the Mali Empire after Mari Djata I, and probably about two or three more yet to be revealed. The names of these rulers come down through history via the djelis and modern descendants of the Keita dynasty residing in Kangaba. What separates these rulers from the founder, other than the latter's historic role in establishing the state, is their transformation of the Manden Kurufaba into a Manden Empire. Not content to rule fellow Manding subjects unified by the victory of Mari Djata I, these mansas would conquer and annex Fula, Wolof, Bamana, Songhai, Tuareg and countless other peoples into an immense empire.
The first three successors to Mari Djata/Sundiata Keita all claimed it by blood right or something similar. This twenty-five year period saw large gains for the mansa and the beginning of fierce internal rivalries that nearly ended the burgeoning empire.
After Sundiata's death in 1255, custom dictated that his son ascend the throne, assuming he was of age. However, Yérélinkon was a minor following his father's death. Manding Bory Keita, Sundiata's half-brother and kankoro-sigui (vizier), should have been crowned according to the Kouroukan Fouga. Instead, Mari Djata's son seized the throne and was crowned Mansa Ouali Keita (also spelt "Wali" or "Ali").
Mansa Ouali Keita proved to be an efficient emperor, adding more lands to the empire, including the Gambian provinces of Bati and Casa. He also conquered the gold producing provinces of Bambuk and Bondou. The central province of Konkodougou was established. The Songhai kingdom of Gao also seems to have been subjugated for the first of many times around this period.
Aside from military conquest, Ouali is also credited with agricultural reforms throughout the empire putting many soldiers to work as farmers in the newly acquired Gambian provinces. Just prior to his death in 1270, Ouali went on the hajj to Mecca during the reign of Mamluk Sultan Baibars, according to Ibn Khaldun. This helped in strengthening ties with North Africa and Muslim merchants.
As a policy of controlling and rewarding his generals, Mari Djata adopted their sons. These children were raised at the mansa's court and became Keitas upon reaching maturity. Seeing the throne as their right, two adopted sons of Mari Djata waged a devastating war against one another that threatened to destroy what the first two mansas had built. The first son to gain the throne was Mansa Ouati Keita (also spelt Wati) in 1270. He reigned for four years, spending lavishly and ruling cruelly, according to the djelis. Upon his death in 1274, the other adopted son seized the throne. Mansa Khalifa Keita is remembered as even worse than Ouati Keita. According to the djelis, he governed just as badly, was insane and fired arrows from the roof of his palace at passers by. Ibn Khaldun recounts that the people rushed upon him and killed him during a popular revolt. The Gbara replaced him with Manding Bory Keita in 1275.
After the chaos of Ouati Keita and Khalifa Keita's reigns, a number of court officials with close ties to Sundiata Keita ruled. They began the empire's return to stability, setting it up for a golden age of rulers.
Manding Bory was crowned under the throne name Mansa Abubakari (a Manding corruption of the Muslim name Abu Bakr). Mansa Abubakari's mother was Namandjé, the third wife of Maghan Kon Fatta. Prior to becoming mansa, Abubakari had been one of his brother's generals and later his kankoro-sigui. Little else is known about the reign of Abubakari I, but it seems he was successful in stopping the hemorrhaging of wealth in the empire.
In 1285, a court slave freed by Sundiata Keita, and who had also served as a general, usurped the throne of Mali. The reign of Mansa Sakoura (also spelt Sakura) appears to have been beneficial, despite the political shake-up. He added the first conquests to Mali since the reign of Ouali, including the former Wagadou provinces of Tekrour and Diara. His conquests did not stop at the boundaries of Wagadou, however. He campaigned into Senegal and conquered the Wolof province of Dyolof (Jolof), then took the army east to subjugate the copper-producing area of Takedda. He also conquered Macina and raided into Gao to suppress its first rebellion against Mali. More than just a mere warrior, Mansa Sakoura went on the hajj during the reign of Al-Nasir Muhammad. Mansa Sakura also opened direct trade negotiations with Tripoli and Morocco.
According to one account, Sakoura was murdered on his return trip from Mecca in or near present-day Djibouti by a Danakil warrior attempting to rob him. The emperor's attendants rushed his body home through the Ouaddai region and into Kanem where one of that empire's messengers was sent to Mali with news of Sakoura's death. When the body arrived in Niani, it was given a regal burial despite the usurper's slave roots.
The Gbara selected Ko Mamadi Keita as the next mansa in 1300. He was the first of a new line of rulers directly descending from Sundiata Keita's sister, Kolonkan Keita. But, seeing as how these rulers all shared the blood of Maghan Kon Fatta, they are considered legitimate Keitas. Even Sakoura, with his history of being a slave in the Keita family, was considered a Keita; so the line of Bilal had yet to be broken.
It is during the Kolonkan Keita lineage that the defining characteristics of golden age Mali begin to appear. By maintaining the developments of Sakoura and Abubakari Keita I, the Kolonkan Keita mansas steered Mali safely into its apex.
Ko Mamadi Keita was crowned Mansa Gao Keita and ruled over a successful empire without any recorded crises. His son, Mansa Mohammed ibn Gao Keita, ascended the throne five years later and continued the stability of the Kolonkan Keita line.
The last Kolonkan ruler, Bata Manding Bory Keita, was crowned Mansa Abubakari Keita II in 1310. He continued the non-militant style of rule that characterised Gao and Mohammed ibn Gao Keita, but was interested in the empire's western sea. According to an account given by Mansa Musa Keita I, who during the reign of Abubakari Keita II served as the mansa's kankoro-sigui, Mali sent two expeditions into the Atlantic Ocean. Mansa Abubakari Keita II left Musa Keita as regent of the empire, demonstrating the stability of this period in Mali, and departed with the second expedition, commanding some 2,000 ships equipped with both oars and sails in 1311. Neither the emperor nor any of the ships returned to Mali. Modern historians and scientists are sceptical about the success of either voyage, but the account of these happenings is preserved in both written North African records and the oral records of Mali's djelis.
Abubakari Keita II's 1312 abdication, the only recorded one in the empire's history, marked the beginning of a new lineage descended from Faga Laye Keita. Faga Laye Keita was the son of Abubakari Keita I. Unlike his father, Faga Laye Keita never took the throne of Mali. However, his line would produce seven mansas who reigned during the height of Mali's power and toward the beginning of its decline.
The first ruler from the Laye lineage was Kankan Musa Keita (or Moussa), also known as Mansa Musa. After an entire year without word from Abubakari Keita II, he was crowned Mansa Musa Keita. Mansa Musa Keita was one of the first truly devout Muslims to lead the Mali Empire. He attempted to make Islam the faith of the nobility, but kept to the imperial tradition of not forcing it on the populace. He also made Eid celebrations at the end of Ramadan a national ceremony. He could read and write Arabic and took an interest in the scholarly city of Timbuktu, which he peaceably annexed in 1324. Via one of the royal ladies of his court, Musa transformed Sankore from an informal madrasah into an Islamic university. Islamic studies flourished thereafter.
Mansa Musa Keita's crowning achievement was his famous pilgrimage to Mecca, which started in 1324 and concluded with his return in 1326. Accounts of how many people and how much gold he spent vary. All of them agree that he took a very large group of people; the mansa kept a personal guard of some 500 men, and he gave out so many alms and bought so many things that the value of gold in Egypt and Arabia depreciated for twelve years. When he passed through Cairo, historian al-Maqrizi noted "the members of his entourage proceeded to buy Turkish and Ethiopian slave girls, singing girls and garments, so that the rate of the gold dinar fell by six dirhams."
Another testimony from Ibn Khaldun describes the grand pilgrimage of Mansa Musa consisting of 12,000 slaves:
"He made a pilgrimage in 724/1324 [...]. At each halt, he would regale us [his entourage] rare foods and confectionery. His equipment furnishings were carried by 12.000 private slave women (Wasaif) wearing gown and brocade (dibaj) and Yemeni silk [...]. Mansa Musa came from his country with 80 loads of gold dust (tibr), each load weighing three qintars. In their own country they use only slave women and men for transport, but for long journeys such as pilgrimages they have mounts."
Contemporary sources suggest that the mounts employed by this caravan were one hundred elephants, which carried those loads of gold, and several hundred camels, carrying the food, supplies and weaponries which were brought to the rear.
Musa took out large loans from money lenders in Cairo before beginning his journey home. It is not known if this was an attempt to correct the depreciation of gold in the area due to his spending, or if he had simply run out of the funds needed for the return trip. Musa's hajj, and especially his gold, caught the attention of both the Islamic and Christian worlds. Consequently, the name of Mali and Timbuktu appeared on 14th century world maps.
While on the hajj, he met the Andalusian poet and architect es-Saheli. Mansa Musa brought the architect back to Mali to beautify some of the cities. But more reasoned analysis suggests that his role, if any, was quite limited. The architectural crafts in Granada had reached their zenith by the fourteenth century, and its extremely unlikely that a cultured and wealthy poet would have had anything more than a dilettante's knowledge of the intricacies of contemporary architectural practice. Mosques were built in Gao and Timbuktu along with impressive palaces also built in Timbuktu. By the time of his death in 1337, Mali had control over Taghazza, a salt producing area in the north, which further strengthened its treasury.
That same year, after the Mandinka general known as Sagmandir put down yet another rebellion in Gao, Mansa Musa came to Gao and accepted the capitulation of the King of Ghana and his nobles. This included Ali Killun/Kolon and his brother Selmar Nar from the Za Dynasty, whom would later be appointed as page of the court of Mali around 1335.
By the end of Mansa Musa's reign, the Sankoré University had been converted into a fully staffed university with the largest collections of books in Africa since the Library of Alexandria. The Sankoré University was capable of housing 25,000 students and had one of the largest libraries in the world with roughly 1,000,000 manuscripts.
Mansa Musa Keita was succeeded by his son, Maghan Keita I, in 1337. Mansa Maghan Keita I spent wastefully and was the first lacklustre emperor since Khalifa Keita. But the Mali Empire built by his predecessors was too strong for even his misrule and it passed intact to Musa's brother, Souleyman Keita in 1341.
Mansa Souleyman Keita (or Suleiman) took steep measures to put Mali back into financial shape, thereby developing a reputation for miserliness. However, he proved to be a good and strong ruler despite numerous challenges. It is during his reign that Fula raids on Takrur began. There was also a palace conspiracy to overthrow him hatched by the Qasa (the Manding term meaning Queen) and several army commanders. Mansa Souleyman's generals successfully fought off the military incursions, and the senior wife behind the plot was imprisoned.
The mansa also made a successful hajj, kept up correspondence with Morocco and Egypt and built an earthen platform at Kangaba called the Camanbolon where he held court with provincial governors and deposited the holy books he brought back from Hedjaz.
The only major setback to his reign was the loss of Mali's Dyolof province in Senegal. The Wolof populations of the area united into their own state known as the Jolof Empire in the 1350s. Still, when Ibn Battuta arrived at Mali in July 1352, he found a thriving civilisation on par with virtually anything in the Muslim or Christian world. Mansa Souleyman Keita died in 1360 and was succeeded by his son, Camba Keita.
The North African traveller and scholar Ibn Battuta visited the area in 1352 and, according to a 1929 English translation, said this about its inhabitants:
"The negroes possess some admirable qualities. They are seldom unjust, and have a greater abhorrence of injustice
than any other people. There is complete security in their country. Neither traveller nor inhabitant in it has anything to fear from robbers or men of violence."
After a mere nine months of rule, Mansa Camba Keita was deposed by one of Maghan Keita I's three sons. Konkodougou Kamissa Keita, named for the province he once governed, was crowned as Mansa Mari Djata Keita II in 1360. He ruled oppressively and nearly bankrupted Mali with his lavish spending. He did however, maintain contacts with Morocco, sending a giraffe to King Abu Hassan. Mansa Mari Djata Keita II became seriously ill in 1372, and power moved into the hands of his ministers until his death in 1374.
The reign of Mari Djata Keita II was ruinous and left the empire in bad financial shape, but the empire itself passed intact to the dead emperor's brother. Mansa Fadima Musa Keita, or Mansa Musa Keita II, began the process of reversing his brother's excesses. He did not, however, hold the power of previous mansas because of the influence of his kankoro-sigui.
Kankoro-sigui Mari Djata, who had no relation to the Keita clan, essentially ran the empire in Musa Keita II's stead. Ibn Khaldun recorded that in 776 A.H or 1374/1375 AD he interviewed a Sijilmasan scholar named Muhammad b. Wasul who had lived in Gao and had been employed in its judiciary. The latter told Ibn Khaldun about devastating struggle over Gao between Mali imperial forces against Berber Tuareg forces from Takedda. The text of Ibn Khaldun says "Gao, at this time is devastated". It seems quite possible that an exodus of the inhabitants took place at this juncture and the importance of the city was not revived until the rise of the Songhai empire.
The Songhai settlement effectively shook off Mali's authority in 1375. Still, by the time of Mansa Musa Keita II's death in 1387, Mali was financially solvent and in control of all of its previous conquests short of Gao and Dyolof. Forty years after the reign of Mansa Musa Keita I, the Mali Empire still controlled some 1,100,000 square kilometres (420,000 sq mi) of land throughout Western Africa.
The last son of Maghan Keita I, Tenin Maghan Keita (also known as Kita Tenin Maghan Keita for the province he once governed) was crowned Mansa Maghan Keita II in 1387. Little is known of him except that he only reigned two years. He was deposed in 1389, marking the end of the Faga Laye Keita mansas.
From 1389 onwards Mali gained a host of mansas of obscure origins. This is the least known period in Mali's imperial history. What is evident is that there is no steady lineage governing the empire. The other characteristic of this era is the gradual loss of its northern and eastern possessions to the rising Songhai Empire and the movement of the Mali's economic focus from the trans-Saharan trade routes to the burgeoning commerce along the coast.
Mansa Sandaki Keita, a descendant of kankoro-sigui Mari Djata Keita, deposed Maghan Keita II, becoming the first person without any Keita dynastic relation to officially rule Mali. Sandaki Keita should not however be taken to be this person's name but a title. Sandaki likely means High Counsellor or Supreme Counsellor, from san or sanon (meaning "high") and adegue (meaning counsellor). He would only reign a year before a descendant of Mansa Gao Keita removed him.
Mahmud Keita, possibly a grandchild or great-grandchild of Mansa Gao Keita, was crowned Mansa Maghan Keita III in 1390. During his reign, the Mossi emperor Bonga of Yatenga raided into Mali and plundered Macina. Emperor Bonga did not appear to hold the area, and it stayed within the Mali Empire after Maghan Keita III's death in 1400.
In the early 15th century, Mali was still powerful enough to conquer and settle new areas. One of these was Dioma, an area south of Niani populated by Fula Wassoulounké. Two noble brothers from Niani, of unknown lineage, went to Dioma with an army and drove out the Fula Wassoulounké. The oldest brother, Sérébandjougou Keita, was crowned Mansa Foamed or Mansa Musa Keita III. His reign saw the first in a string of many great losses to Mali. In 1430, the Tuareg seized Timbuktu. Three years later, Oualata also fell into their hands.
Following Musa Keita III's death, his brother Gbèré Keita became emperor in the mid-15th century. Gbèré Keita was crowned Mansa Ouali Keita II and ruled during the period of Mali's contact with Portugal. In the 1450s, Portugal began sending raiding parties along the Gambian coast. The Gambia was still firmly in Mali's control, and these raiding expeditions met with disastrous fates before Portugal's Diogo Gomes began formal relations with Mali via its remaining Wolof subjects. Alvise Cadamosto, a Venetian explorer, recorded that the Mali Empire was the most powerful entity on the coast in 1454.
Despite their power in the west, Mali was losing the battle for supremacy in the north and northeast. The new Songhai Empire conquered Mema, one of Mali's oldest possessions, in 1465. It then seized Timbuktu from the Tuareg in 1468 under Sunni Ali Ber.
In 1477, the Yatenga emperor Nasséré made yet another Mossi raid into Macina, this time conquering it and the old province of BaGhana (Wagadou).
Mansa Mahmud Keita II came to the throne in 1481 during Mali's downward spiral. It is unknown from whom he descended; however, another emperor, Mansa Maghan Keita III, is sometimes cited as Mansa Mahmud Keita I. Still, throne names don’t usually indicate blood relations. Mansa Mahmud Keita II's rule was characterised by more losses to Mali's old possessions and increased contact between Mali and Portuguese explorers along the coast. In 1481, Fula raids against Mali's Tekrur provinces began.
The growing trade in Mali's western provinces with Portugal witnessed the exchange of envoys between the two nations. Mansa Mahmud Keita II received the Portuguese envoys Pêro d'Évora and Gonçalo Enes in 1487. The mansa lost control of Jalo during this period. Meanwhile, Songhai seized the salt mines of Taghazza in 1493. That same year, Mahmud II sent another envoy to the Portuguese proposing alliance against the Fula. The Portuguese decided to stay out of the conflict and the talks concluded by 1495 without an alliance.
The last mansa to rule from Niani is Mansa Mahmud Keita III, also known as Mansa Mamadou Keita II. He came to power around 1496 and has the dubious honour of being the mansa under which Mali suffered the most losses to its territory.
Songhai forces under the command of Askia Muhammad I defeated the Mali general Fati Quali Keita in 1502 and seized the province of Diafunu. In 1514, the Denianke dynasty was established in Tekrour. It wasn't long before the new kingdom of Great Fulo was warring against Mali's remaining provinces. Additionally, the Songhai Empire seized the copper mines of Takedda.
In 1534, Mahmud Keita III received another Portuguese envoy to the Mali court by the name of Pero Fernandes. This envoy from the Portuguese coastal port of Elmina arrived in response to the growing trade along the coast and Mali's now urgent request for military assistance against Songhai. Still, no help came from the envoy and further possessions of Mali were lost one by one.
Mansa Mahmud Keita III's reign also saw the military outpost and province of Kaabu become independent in 1537. The Kaabu Empire appears as ambitions as Mali was in its early years and conquers Mali's remaining Gambian provinces of Cassa and Bati.
The most defining moment in Mahmud Keita III's reign is arguably the final conflict between Mali and Songhai in 1545. Songhai forces under Askia Ishaq's brother, Daoud, sack Niani and occupy the palace. Mansa Mahmud Keita III is forced to flee Niani for the mountains. Within a week, he regroups with his forces and launches a successful counter-attack forcing the Songhai out of Manden proper for good. The Songhai Empire keeps Mali's ambitions in check, but never fully conquers the empire, their former masters.
After liberating the capital, Mahmud Keita II abandons it for a new residence further north. Still, there is no end to Mali's troubles. In 1559, the kingdom of Fouta Tooro succeeds in taking Takrur. This defeat reduces Mali to Manden proper with control extending only as far as Kita in the west, Kangaba in the north, the Niger River bend in the east and Kouroussa in the south.
Mansa Mahmud III's reign ended around 1559. There seems to have been either a vacancy or unknown ruler between 1559 and the start of the last mansa's reign. A vacancy or rule by a court official seems the most likely, since the next ruler takes the name of Mahmud IV. By 1560, the once powerful empire was not much more than the core of the Manden Kurufaba. The next notable mansa, Mahmud IV, doesn’t appear in any records until the end of the 16th century. However, he seems to have the distinction of being the last ruler of a unified Manden. His descendants are blamed for the breakup of the Manden Kurufaba into north, central and southern realms.
Mansa Mahmud Keita IV (also known as Mansa Mamadou Keita II, Mali Mansa Mamadou Keita and Niani Mansa Mamadou Keita) was the last emperor of Manden according to the Tarikh al-Sudan. It states that he launched an attack on the city of Djenné in 1599 with Fulani allies, hoping to take advantage of Songhai's defeat. Moroccan fusiliers, deployed from Timbuktu, met them in battle, exposing Mali to the same technology (firearms) that had destroyed Songhai. Despite heavy losses, the mansa's army was not deterred and nearly carried the day. However, the army inside Djenné intervened, forcing Mansa Mahmud Keita IV and his army to retreat to Kangaba.
The mansa's defeat actually won Sundiata Keita the respect of Morocco, and may have saved it from Songhai's fate. It would be the Mandinka themselves that would cause the final destruction of the empire. Around 1610, Mahmud Keita IV died. Oral tradition states that he had three sons who fought over Manden's remains. No single Keita ever ruled Manden after Mahmud Keita IV's death, resulting in the end of the Mali Empire.
The old core of the empire was divided into three spheres of influence. Kangaba, the de facto capital of Manden since the time of the last emperor, became the capital of the northern sphere. The Joma area, governed from Siguiri, controlled the central region, which encompassed Niani. Hamana (or Amana), southwest of Joma, became the southern sphere, with its capital at Kouroussa in modern Guinea. Each ruler used the title of mansa, but their authority only extended as far as their own sphere of influence. Despite this disunity in the realm, the realm remained under Mandinka control into the mid-17th century. The three states warred with each other as much, if not more, than they did against outsiders, but rivalries generally stopped when faced with invasion. This trend would continue into colonial times against Tukulor enemies from the west.
Then, in 1630, the Bamana of Djenné declared their version of holy war on all Muslim powers in present-day Mali. They targeted Moroccan pashas still in Timbuktu and the mansas of Manden. In 1645, the Bamana attacked Manden, seizing both banks of the Niger right up to Niani. This campaign gutted Manden and destroyed any hope of the three mansas cooperating to free their land. The only Mandinka power spared from the campaign was Kangaba.
Mama Maghan, mansa of Kangaba, campaigned against the Bamana in 1667 and laid siege to Segou–Koro for a reported three years. Segou, defended by Biton Coulibaly, successfully defended itself and Mama Maghan was forced to withdraw. Either as a counter-attack or simply the progression of pre-planned assaults against the remnants of Mali, the Bamana sacked and burned Niani in 1670. Their forces marched as far north as Kangaba, where the mansa was obliged to make a peace with them, promising not to attack downstream of Mali. The Bamana, likewise, vowed not to advance farther upstream than Niamina. Following this disastrous set of events, Mansa Mama Maghan abandoned the capital of Niani.
The Empire of Mali was once an enormous empire that flourished from the early 13th to the late 15th century. The empire was founded by Sundiata Keita. Sundiata along with his resources, were important trade partners with the neighboring Ghana Empire. Mali was located in West Africa and was known as one of the largest and greatest empires of the west. The empire was incredibly influential, as it spread its languages (manding languages) laws, and culture through out Africa.
After Sundiata, his great nephew Mansa Musa took the throne. Mansa Musa became a powerful and influential leader, much like Sunidata. But after Mansa Musa's death, his sons could not hold power and the empire started it's downfall. It started with it's conquered states falling away from Mali and then the whole empire started to crumble. Songhai, a neighboring empire saw the downfall as an opportunity and rose. Songhai extended its reach further than Ghana or Mali ever had, and formed a government. Songhai became the largest and greatest empire in western Africa which gained the attention of many. With all of Songhai's gold and salt mines, invaders quickly came and threatened everything Songhai had built. In the late sixteenth century, a Moroccan army attacked the empire which was already weakened due to political struggles. The empire quickly declined and failed. Many historians have wondered why these great two empires ended with the same result. Mali was an important trade outlet for Ghana, when Ghana fell and Songhai was an important trade outlet for Mali, when Mali fell. Both empires had a quick rise, due to gold and other resources and an even quicker downfall. Not much is left of these 3 great empires today, as these post empire cities have struggled with the deserts that surround them. Historians are left to dream and imagine of what Ghana, Mali, and Songhai's empires were like.
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