Black History Makers: Mansa Musa

Mansa Musa (D. 1337) In the thirteenth century, the Mandinka people of the state of Kangaba in Western Sudan emerged as the most powerful group in Africa. The rise of the Mandinka was due largely to one man, Kankan Musa who is commonly known as Mansa (Emperor) Musa.

It is not known when Mansa Musa was born, but it is likely that he was the grandson or grandnephew of the legendary Sundiata, who founded the family dynasty. Mansa Musa came to the Mandinka throne in 1312following the death of his predecessor, Abu-Bakr II. He oversaw many conquests, including that of Ghana, and created the empire of Mali, ruling all (or parts) of modern day Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Chad.

Mansa Musa was a devout Muslim. He became the first Muslim ruler in West Africa to make the nearly four thousand mile journey to Mecca. Preparing for the expedition took years and involved the work of artisans in numerous towns and cities across Mali.  In 1324 Musa began his pilgrimage with an entourage of thousands of escorts from his capital of Niani on the Upper Niger River to Walata (present-day Oualata, Mauritania) and on to Tuat (now in Algeria) before making his way to Cairo, Egypt.

He was accompanied by a caravan consisting of sixty thousand men, including twelve thousand richly dressed servants and supporters. Musa made generous donations to the poor and to charitable organizations as well as the rulers of the lands his entourage crossed. On his stop in Cairo, Egypt, the Emperor gave out so much gold that he generated a brief decline in its value. Cairo’s gold market recovered over a decade later.

Rulers of West African States before Mansa Musa had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, but it was his lavish journey that awakened the world to the riches of Mali. Before long, traders from other parts of Africa, the Middle East, and even from as far away as Europe were seeking to do business there.

Upon his return from Mecca, Mansa Musa brought Arab scholars, government bureaucrats, and architects.  Among those who returned with him was the architect Ishaq El Teudjin who introduced advanced building techniques to Mali, including the use of fired bricks versus sun-dried bricks. He designed numerous buildings for the Emperor including a new palace named Madagou, the mosque at Gao, the second largest city in Mali, and the still-standing great mosque at Timbuktu, the largest city in the empire. That mosque was named the Djinguereber. El Teudjin’s most famous design was the Emperor’s chamber at the Malian capital of Niani.

Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage boosted Islamic education in Mali by adding mosques, libraries, and universities. The great mosque of Sankore was particularly striking. Over the years it also became a center for the teaching of Islamic philosophy and law, paving the way for the later University of Sankore, in addition to bringing increased commerce and scholars, poets, and artisans. In fact, under Mansa Musa, Timbuktu became one of the major cultural centers not only of Africa but of the entire world. Even after the power of Mali declined, Timbuktu remained the major Islamic center of sub-Saharan Africa.

The awareness of Musa by other Islamic leaders brought increased commerce and scholars, poets, and artisans, making Timbuktu one of the leading cities in the Islamic world during the time when the most advanced nations from Spain to central India were Muslim. Timbuktu was clearly the center of Islamic Sub-Saharan Africa.

Mansa Musa liked to boast that it would take a year for someone to travel from one end of his empire to the other. It was not quite that large; even so, a fourteenth-century traveler named Ibn Battuta reported that it took four months to travel from the northern border of the Mali empire to the capital city of Niani in the south. For the next two centuries Italian, German, and Spanish cartographers produced maps of the world which showed Mali and which often referenced Mansa Musa.  The first of these maps appeared in Italy in 1339 with Mansa Musa’s name and likeness.

Mansa Musa died in 1337 after a twenty-five year reign.  He was succeeded by his son, Maghan I.


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