A Day in the Court of the Emperor of Mali

Ibn Battuta_1
An illustration from Jules Verne’s book “Découverte de la terre” (“Discovery of the Earth”) drawn by Léon Benett. Ibn Battuta (1304-68/69) was a Moroccan Berber scholar and traveler

The Berber scholar and historian Abu Abdullah Ibn Battuta (commonly known in English as Ibn Battuta) is known as the most prolific and famous traveler of the middle ages. Born in Morocco in 1304, descending from a family of Islamic legal scholars (qadis) in Tangier, Ibn Battuta covered over 73,000 miles in 3 decades spanning 3 continents, Africa, Europe, and Asia. On one such travel, he visited the great Empire of Mali, and through his notes, we know what an audience with the Emperor Mansa Sulayman of Mali looked like. Travel to 1351 and enjoy a day in the court of the Emperor of one of the greatest empires in Africa, the Mali Empire, through the eyes of Ibn Battuta!

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MALI_empire
Mali Empire (Wikipedia)

On certain days the sultan holds audiences in the palace yard, where there is a platform under a tree, with three steps; this they call the “pempi.” It is carpeted with silk and has cushions placed on it. [Over it] is raised the umbrella, which is a sort of pavilion made of silk, surmounted by a bird in gold, about the size of a falcon. The sultan comes out of a door in a corner of the palace, carrying a bow in his hand and a quiver on his back. On his head he has a golden skull-cap, bound with a gold band which has narrow ends shaped like knives, more than a span in length. His usual dress is a velvety red tunic, made of the European fabrics called “mut’anfas.” The sultan is preceded by his musicians, who carry gold and silver guimbris [two-stringed guitars], and behind him come three hundred armed slaves [possibly servants]. He walks in a leisurely fashion, affecting a very slow movement, and even stops from time to time. On reaching the pempi he stops and looks round the assembly, then ascends it in the sedate manner of a preacher ascending a mosque-pulpit. As he takes his seat the drums, trumpets, and bugles are sounded. Three slaves go out at a run to summon the sovereign’s deputy and the military commanders, who enter and sit down. Two saddled and bridled horses are brought, along with two goats, which they hold to serve as a protection against the evil eye. Dugha stands at the gate and the rest of the people remain in the street, under the trees.

Sometimes one of them stands up before him and recalls his deeds in the sultan’s service, saying, “I did so-and-so on such a day,” or, “I killed so-and-so on such a day.” Those who have knowledge of this confirm his words, which they do by plucking the cord of the bow and releasing it [with a twang], just as an archer does when shooting an arrow. If the sultan says, “Truly spoken,” or thanks him, he removes his clothes and “dusts.” That is their idea of good manners.

Kankan Musa: The Richest Man in World History

Kankan Musa (Source: Atlas Catalan, 1375)
Kankan Musa (Source: Atlas Catalan, 1375)

Today, I would like to talk about the richest man planet earth has ever seen… yes, you heard me right, the richest man whose fortune was estimated to be over 400 billion dollars, or 310 billion euros. Did you guess who that was ? If you thought Bill Gates, I am sorry to disappoint you. It is the great Emperor of Mali, Kankan Musa, also written Kankan Moussa, or Mansa Musa, or Mansa Moussa, or Kankou Moussa.

Kankan Musa was the tenth Mansa, King of Kings, or Emperor of the great Empire of Mali from 1312 to 1337. At the time of Musa’s accession to the throne, the Empire of Mali consisted of territories which had belonged to the Empire of Ghana and Melle, and surrounding areas.

Emperor Kankan Musa
Emperor Kankan Musa

His name, Kankan Musa or Kanga Musa meant « Musa, son of Kankou Hamidou », in reference to his mother (In those days, the Mandinka people were a matriarcal society). Kankan Musa is often referred to, in literature, as Mali-koy Kankan Musa, Gonga Musa, and Lion of Mali. He had lots of titles, including Emir of Melle, Lord of the Mines of Wangara, Conqueror of Ghanata, Fouta Djallon (also written Futa Jallon), and at least a dozen other areas.

Empire of Mali (Wikipedia)
Empire of Mali (Wikipedia)

He took the Empire of Mali to its peak, from the Fouta Djallon to Agadez (in northern Niger), including the ancient Ghana, and Songhai Empires. He established diplomatic relationships with Portugal, Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt. His reign corresponds to the golden era of the Malian Empire.

Assemblée constitutive de l'empire du Mandé (Source: Wikipedia.fr)
Assemblée constitutive de l’empire du Mandé (Source: Wikipedia.fr)

Kankan Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca made him popular in North Africa, and in the Middle East. Musa made his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, with a procession of 60,000 men, 12,000 servants who each carried four pounds of gold bars, heralds dressed in silks who bore gold staffs, organized horses and handled bags. Also in the train, were 80 camels, which carried between 50 and 300 pounds of gold dust each (Gold was the currency in Mali). He gave away gold to the poor along his route. Musa not only gave gold to the cities he passed on his way to Mecca, including Cairo and Medina, but he also traded gold for souvenirs. Moreover, he would also build a new mosque every Friday in any city he so happened to pass by. Musa’s journey was documented by several eyewitnesses along his route, who were in awe of his wealth and extensive procession, and records exist in a variety of sources, including journals, oral accounts and histories. Musa’s visit with the Mamluk sultan Al-Nasir Muhammad of Egypt in July 1324 is well-recorded.

Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu
Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu

Musa’s generosity, however, inadvertently devastated the economy of the region. In the cities of Cairo, Medina and Mecca, the sudden influx of gold devalued the metal for the next decade. Prices on goods and wares greatly inflated. To rectify the gold market, Musa borrowed all the gold he could carry from money-lenders in Cairo, at high interest. This is the only time recorded in history that one man directly controlled the price of gold in the Mediterranean. Imagine a single man controlling the economy of not only one country, but of an entire region!

Sankore University in Timbuktu
Sankore University in Timbuktu

Mansa Musa was a great builder. He had several mosques and madrasas built in Timbuktu and Gao. The most important of its constructions is the University of Sankore. In Niani, his capital, he built an Audience Hall, a building communicating directly with the royal palace through an interior door.  It was “an admirable Monument” surmounted by a dome, adorned with arabesques of striking colours. The windows of the upper floor were plated with wood and framed with silver, while those of a lower floor were plated with wood, framed in gold. This palace no longer exists. Like the Great Mosque, the Hall was built in cut stone. The Italian art and architecture scholar Sergio Domian said: “At the height of its power, Mali had at least 400 cities, and the interior of the Niger Delta was very densely populated.” Can you imagine that? In this day and age, how many countries in this world can boast 400 densely populated cities? Yet, the Mali of Kankan Musa claimed it all.

Manuscripts a Tombouctou (Mali) montrant de l'astronomie et mathematique
Manuscripts a Tombouctou (Mali) montrant de l’astronomie et mathematique

At the end of his life, in 1332 or 1337, the Empire of Mali limits were from the Atlantic Ocean to the Eastern shores of the Niger River, and to the forests of Taghaza in the middle of the Sahara. Kankan Musa was not only a rich man who gave to all, built mosques, and great places of worship, he was also a just conqueror, and a great builder. He took the Empire Mali to its peak, and made it the talk of places as far as the Middle East and Europe. Many Europeans and Middle Easterns would send delegations of architects, merchants, writers, astronomers, mathematicians and teachers, to study in his great university at Timbuktu. So next time someone asks you who was the richest man on planet earth, remember to tell them that before Bill Gates, there was Kankan Musa!