When asked about rich people, you probably think of Bill Gates, Rockefeller, Warren Buffet, Carlos Slim, or the Rothschild family. But according to historians, the richest man to have ever lived was an Islamic Malian king named Mansa Musa, great grandson of Soundiata Keita – the lion king. Mansa meaning King. Mansa Musa ruled over the Malian empire of Mali from 1312 till 1337 and caught the attention of Europeans and Arabs after his renown Hadj (Islamic pilgrimage) to Mecca in 1324. During this, Mansa Musa’s fortune was estimated at 400 billion dollars, and caught the eye of many far and beyond the countries he visited! He gave zakat to the poor and build houses and mosques on his way to Mecca.
The then Malian Empire contained countries such as Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Chad. This enormous Empire stretched up to two thousand miles from the Atlantic Ocean in the West to Lake Chad to the East of its borders.
While helping out a high schooler for his history exam, he seemed not eager to study. I asked how come his body language was so odd. Mohamed, a friend told me that Africa used to be very rich and had enormous kingdoms. So why isn’t any of this mentioned in my history book? Why do I have to learned world history but there is nothing in it about African kingdoms? Can you explain this to me, he anxiously asked. A few days later while giving a guest lecture I asked the participants about African history. Besides Egypt there was not much to be said. Back home I rushed to my high school history books. Years of history and there was nothing to be found about Africa besides Egypt. This striking lack of world history is an insult to students, a starvation of a broader feeling with the world connected thru history and for all it plays in to Eurocentric ideas about we the civilized and them the uncivilized.
So my antidote for all this? I read and tell stories about African and world history. So I started writing the story of Mansa Musa.
Pilgrimage to Mecca
As a devoted Muslim, Mansa Musa prepared his pilgrimage soon after he took his position from Abu Bakri II in 1312. During these preparations, which took years, Mansa Musa used the knowledge and resources from his rich land. Through Malian scholars, who helped plan the pilgrimage, Mansa Musa was well prepared and knew a lot about the cities he went to and how to navigate his way to Mecca. 1324, off to Mecca!
Finally, in 1324 he took up to a thousand servants (some say 60,000) with him. They had more than 80 camels loaded with 300 pounds of gold and other needed goods with them for their trip of over four thousand kilometers. Mansa Musa had 1200 slaves with him each carrying a golden adorned staff. During his voyage he stopped in the Egyptian cities Alexandria and Cairo where he attracted the Arabs’ and Europeans’ interest. Due to his act of kindness and bounteous (giving Zakat), it is said that he gave away most of his gold to whom he met, especially to the poor on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria. But he also helped building mosques each Friday on his way to Mecca.
His act of kindness was felt years later in Egypt, Mecca and Medina as the local economy collapsed and gold prices substantially fell. Soon Mansa Musa was a known man in the Arab world and in Europe. There have been tales from Italian merchants and Egyptians about this sub-Saharan African Muslim king, who was loaded with gold. This earned Mansa Musa a spot on the maps drawn by Arabs and Europeans. One of this maps was Italian map. Some say his trip was the cause of Europeans to think of Africa as a place full of gold hence
The impact of his trip
Coming back home, Mansa Musa brought with him Arab scholars, architects, and bureaucrats to help him build the historic building we now have in Gao and Timbuktu. Timbuktu became a famous scholarly, cultural, and flourishing trade city in these years. A city to which people from Europe, Asia, and Northern Africa came to learn, trade, and live.
A funny story: a descendant from the prophet Muhammad went to Timbuktu to teach Malian Muslims, but he failed the entrance test for the Madrasa. This meant he had to study three years to be able to be student at the university of Timbuktu.
The legacy of these Arab (Andalusian) architects consists of a few masterpieces like the Djinguereber Mosque, which is a part of the university of Timbuktu. It contains the Masjid of Sidi Yahya and Sankore. Other notable buildings are the palace of Madagou and the university/masjid of Gao.
The Islamic scholarly was boosted by this trip, as the amount of Madrasas and libraries grew together with the Islamic knowledge. At the same time, Islamic leaders and kingdoms increased the exchange of commerce, scholars, poets… This made Timbuktu the center of Islamic studies and trade in sub-Sahara Africa.
After Mansa Musa’s death in 1337, his son Maghan I became Mansa. But his rule did not last as long. Attacks from Morocco and the kingdom of Songhai soon meant the downfall of this great Islamic kingdom.
So what about this…?
If you ask me telling history and stories of the world in our classrooms fights racism and inferiority complex. Cause I Belgian classes we don’t host white Belgians, they host Belgians from all over the globe. And all this stories they bring in the classrooms need recognition. The Eurocentric way of telling world history prolongs implicitly the feeling of white supremacy and fits and 19th century world but not that of a classroom in the 21st century. But how can you brake this cycle? When we are taught by teachers taught by mostly white teachers, citing from works written by white people.
Mansa Musa’s wealth may have gone unnoticed but his story can break chains of lies about pre-colonial Africa. It’s a story that teaches us that African kingdoms were able to establish great societies. It shows us that Europeans used to come and learn from Africans and that there were forms of exchange ongoing. This teaches us that world history is always connected!
Mohamed Barrie is a column writer. His column WeaPen your mind, Open your world appears monthly on Bleri Lleshi’s blog
P.S Fun fact : Mansa Musa is mentioned in the computer game: Civilization IV.
Ted ex Video on Mansa Musa: Video