The Mali Empire: The Rise of the Richest Civilization in West Africa

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The Mali Empire (known also as the Manding Empire or Manden Kurufa) was a state that dominated West Africa between the 13th and 17th centuries. At its height of power during the 14th century, the Empire ruled over an area larger than western Europe. Additionally, the Empire had a sophisticated military and political system, which allowed the empire to ruler over such a large area. After this period of prosperity, however, the Empire began its long decline, finally ending when it was replaced by the Bamana Empire during the 17th century.

The Birth of the Mali Empire

The Empire was founded by Sundiata Keita , known also as the ‘hungering lion’. Sundiata unified the Manding people and led a revolt against the Sosso kingdom of Kaniaga around 1234. In the following year, the Battle of Kirina was fought during which the army of the Sosso ruler, Soumaoro Kanté, was defeated. As a result of this battle, the dominance of the Sosso came to an end and the Empire was established.

Sundiata Keita founded the Mali Empire. (Vernon Barford School / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Sundiata Keita founded the Mali Empire. (Vernon Barford School / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Sundiata was not only a formidable commander on the battlefield but also a shrewd administrator. The Epic of Sundiata states that he commissioned an assembly of nobles to create the Kouroukan Fouga, the constitution of the Mali Empire. Under the constitution, the Gbara, or Great Assembly, which served as its deliberative body of the Mali Empire, was established. The various clans under the empire’s rule had representatives in this assembly and provided advice to the ruler on various matters of state. In other words, the Mali Empire was not an absolute monarchy, but may be considered to be a constitutional monarchy, long before this idea was even conceived in Europe.

The Growth of the Mali Empire

Although Sundiata founded the Mali Empire, it was not quite an empire yet. It was up to his successors to expand the empire’s boundaries. In the century or so following Sundiata’s death, the rulers of the Mali Empire conquered neighboring lands, and various peoples, including the Bamana, Tuareg, and Wolof, came under their rule. Thus, by the 14th century, the Mali Empire became the dominant state in West Africa. The success of the Mali Empire, however, rested not only on its territorial expansion, but also on its economy. It was trade that allowed the Mali Empire to flourish. Gold, salt, and copper were the most important commodities of the Mali Empire and their trade enriched the empire.

The Mali Empire at the end of Mansa Musa's reign 1337. (Mossmaps / CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Mali Empire at the end of Mansa Musa’s reign 1337. (Mossmaps / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The wealth of the Mali Empire is most famously illustrated in the story of Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca. A contemporary Egyptian historian, al-Maqurizi, recorded that as Mansa Musa passed through Cairo, members of his entourage spent lavishly, buying slave girls , singing girls, and garments. So lavish was their spending, “the rate of the gold dinar fell by six dirhams”. In addition to this spending, Mansa Musa also gave alms generously, so much so that he ran out of money and had to take out a loan to pay for his journey home. Mansa Musa’s gold brought the Empire to the attention of both the Christian and Islamic worlds, earning it a place on world maps of that time.


Mansa Musa or the Mali Empire, is shown sitting on a throne and holding a gold coin. (Aa77zz / Public Domain)
Mansa Musa or the Mali Empire, is shown sitting on a throne and holding a gold coin. (Aa77zz / Public Domain )

The Decline of the Mali Empire

The Mali Empire had reached its zenith during the reign of Mansa Musa , and after his death the empire begin its slow decline. This does not mean, however, that all subsequent rulers of the Empire were incompetent. As an example, Mansa Musa’s brother, Mansa Souleyman, who came to the throne in 1341, was a capable ruler. His predecessor was Mansa Maghan I, the son of Mansa Musa. Unlike his father, Mansa Maghan I was a weak ruler and spent wastefully. Fortunately, the Empire was strong enough to withstand his misrule and thanks to Mansa Souleyman’s efforts, the empire’s financial problems were mitigated. In addition to economic problems, Mansa Souleyman faced military incursions and a palace plot to dethrone him, both of which he dealt with successfully.

Terracotta archer figure from the Mali Empire - 13th-15th century, with a quiver on his back. The bow and quiver of arrows were the symbols of power in Imperial Mali. (Saithilace / Public Domain)
Terracotta archer figure from the Mali Empire – 13th-15th century, with a quiver on his back. The bow and quiver of arrows were the symbols of power in Imperial Mali. (Saithilace / Public Domain )

By the beginning of the 16th century, the power of the Empire had been much reduced and neighboring states took advantage of the situation to expand into the empire. Around 1610, the last ruler of the Mali Empire, Mansa Mahmud IV, died and the realm was divided by his sons into three parts. The three rulers fought not only against outsiders but also among themselves. The situation persisted until the rise of the Bamana of Djenné, who declared a jihad on all other Muslim powers in the area. By 1650, two of the three Mandinka rulers were defeated and only the mansa of Kangaba was left. Niani was sacked and burned in 1670, which marked the end of the Mali Empire.

Top image: African Empires, Source: K. Flewelling / YouTube.

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