The Mali Empire

The Kingdom of Mali existed between 1200 and 1500 and was one of the richest empires in Africa. It grew from a small state called Kangaba and was established by the Madingo, or Madinka, people. It became the greatest Muslim state in the western Sudan. The Madingo people were farmers and middle-men in the gold trade and had been conquered by the Kingdom of Ghana. When the small nation was again attacked, 11 of the king's 12 sons were killed, with only Sundiata Keita, a cripple, spared and exiled.


Sundiata Keita began ruling Mali in 1230 and called himself Mari Djata, or Lion Prince. He commanded a mighty army and expanded his country by defeating neighboring kingdoms. Eventually he divided his empire into provinces that were ruled by governors. He died in 1255.

The kings of the Mali empire were called “mansa” which means “lord”, a title that had been adopted by Sudiata. The most famous of all, after Sundiata, was his grandson, Mansa Kankan Musa I. Musa, who was in power from 1312, to 1337 was not the first Muslim ruler of Mali, but he became famous as a result of his hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, the holy city of Islam, in 1324 and 1325. His lavish display of riches and generosity drew the attention of the whole Islamic world and Europe.

He brought 500 slaves and 500 golden staffs as well as gold to trade along the way. The enormous amount of gold he brought had serious economic results for the lands he passed through, especially Egypt, because the price of the precious metal dropped. His travels put Mali on the map and soon the kingdom became legendary. Mansa Muta's image holding nuggets of gold was even used to indicate the area on maps of Africa.

During this time Mali covered the area from the Atlantic Ocean to the salt plains in the north and the gold mines in the south. Timbuktu, in Mali, also became a centre of learning, religion and trade and many important scholars visited the country, like Ibn Battuta, the greatest of all Arab travelers and writers.

Economy and industry

The people of Mali farmed and traded and became rich from taking over control of the salt and gold trade that had been ruled by Ghana. The natural environment was ideal for planting cotton, peanuts, grains and other crops, which fed the people. The inhabitants of Mali were Muslim, and because slavery was not forbidden by Islam they also became wealthy through selling slaves. Mali was immensely rich in gold and traded with North Africans, the Middle East and Europe.


When Ibn Buttata visited Mali in the 14th century, shortly after Mansa Musa's death, he was surprised and impressed by how strictly order was enforced in the kingdom and he even visited the king. After the death of its king Mali lacked a ruler that could lead such a large and powerful kingdom.

The former ruler's grandsons fought over his throne and far-off provinces of the empire began breaking away while enemies attacked it in its weakened state. In 1534 the ruler Mansa Suleyman asked Portuguese colonizers at the coast for help, but they refused. Mali shrank to the original size of Kangaba by 1645. Mali finally collapsed with the rise of the Kingdom of Songhai, but no empire ever had the power and wealth the Kingdom of Mali had once held.