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The Mali Empire was one of the largest medieval West African states and, probably, exerted the greatest influence on the later states through its language, laws and culture.
Northern Mali has been inhabited from 10,000 BCE when the Sahara was fertile and rich in wildlife. Large settlements had developed, most notably near Djenné, one of West Africa’s oldest cities, by 300 BCE. The lucrative trans-Saharan trade had begun, thereby facilitating the rise of the three great western Sudanic states –
Ghana, Mali and Songhai – by the 6th century CE.
The Mali Empire (referred to historically as Manden Kuruowca) began as a small Mandinka kingdom in the upper reaches of the Niger River, centered on the town of Niani. It was founded by Sundiata Keita (c. 1214-c.1255) and became renowned for its rulers’ wealth. Sundiata Keita was a warrior-chieftain who was called upon to free the Mali people from Soumaoro Kanté, the ruler of the earlier Sosso Kingdom. The conquest of Sosso, c. 1235, gave Mali access to the western trans-Saharan trade routes.
The Empire’s administration was regulated from top to bottom. The Mansa (the title of Mali’s rulers following Sundiata Keita’s death in 1255) managed to retain revenue from taxation and exercised nominal control over the area without agitating his subjects to revolt. At the local level (village, town and city), for example, the kun-tigui elected a dougou-tigui (village-master); an administrator called kafo-tigui (county-master) was appointed at the county level by the governor of the province who was selected according to local custom.
The Empire expanded through annexation or conquest. In the event of conquest, a farin took control of the area until a suitable native ruler could be found. A region was allowed to select its own dyamani-tigui after its capitulation was confirmed or its loyalty was assured. Mali, in this way, governed an area of approximately 1,240,140 km² by 1350 and attained its highest polyglot population with over 400 cities, towns and villages.
The Empire’s economy was based, essentially, on its vibrant trade. It contained three immense gold mines within its borders and taxed every gramme of gold, copper and salt that entered its territory. Mali was regarded as the source of almost half the Old World’s gold exported from mines in Bambuk, Boure and Galam by the beginning of the 14th century. Copper, a valued commodity, traded in bars and was mined from Takedda in the north and traded in the south for gold. Salt, an important unit of exchange, was regarded as valuable, if not more valuable, than gold. It was cut into pieces and spent on goods with close to equal buying power throughout the Empire.
The Empire maintained a permanent army by requiring each clan to provide a quota of fighting-age men who had to be of the horon (freemen) caste and equipped with their own weapons. The standing army rose to an estimated strength of 100,000, with 10,000 of that number being made up of cavalry which could be deployed throughout the Empire at short notice with the help of the river clans. The large army was needed to project its power throughout the Empire’s extensive territories and to protect its flourishing trade. The number and frequency of conquests in the late 13th and 14th centuries are a measure of the Empire’s military power.
Mansa Musa rose to power in 1307 after a series of civil wars and ruled for thirty years. Mali flourished especially when Timbuktu – a centre of education, entertainment, and commerce – fell under Mansa Musa’s control. The city’s water supply was a leading cause to its successes in trade.
The Great Mosque of Djenné exemplified the Empire’s Sudano-Sahelian characteristic architecture using mudbricks and an adobe plaster, with large wooden-log support beams jutting out from the wall face for large buildings such as mosques or palaces.
Sankoré University had been converted into a fully-staffed university with the largest collections of books in Africa by the end of Mansa Musa’s reign. Sankoré University was reputed to be capable of housing 25,000 students and had one of the largest libraries in the world with roughly 1,000,000 manuscripts.