The Mali Empire
Updated: Jun 28
The Mali Empire was the second of three West African empires to rise from the vast savanna grasslands that stretched between the Sahara Desert to the north and the coastal rain forest to the south. Ancient Ghana expanded from a series of small successor trading states to cover the region between the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Chad, a distance of nearly 1,800 miles. Mali was one of the world's largest empires, encompassing all or parts of modern-day Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, and Chad at its peak in 1300.
Between the West African gold mines and the agriculturally rich Niger River floodplain, the Mali Empire was strategically situated. Mali's rise began when Ghana's political leaders failed to restore the empire's former glory after the Almoravids conquered and occupied it in 1076. As a result, a number of small states competed for control of Ghana's resources and influence in the salt and gold trade.
Sundiata Keita, the ruler of Kangaba, defeated its main rival, the neighboring kingdom of Susu, in 1235, and began consolidating control in the region. The conquest of Sundiata in 1235 is regarded as the beginning of the Malian Empire. Mali expanded its influence west to the Atlantic and south into the rain forest area, including the Wangara gold fields, under Sundiata's successors.
The Mali Empire was a confederation of three nations, Mali, Memo, and Wagadou, and twelve garrisoned provinces at its peak in 1350. From the capital of Niani, the emperor or mansa ruled over 400 cities, towns, and villages of different ethnicities, with a population of about 20 million people. The army of Mali numbered 100,000 men, with 10,000 cavalry. Only the Mongol Empire (China) and the Russian Empire are larger than Mali at this time. The mansa claimed exclusive authority over the administration of justice and the imposition of taxes on both domestic and foreign trade. Timbuktu, Djenne, and Gao were the three main cities where this trade took place.
Between 1324 and 1325, the most famous of the Malian Emperors, Mansa Musa, made an elaborate pilgrimage through what is now Sudan, Egypt, and Arabia, bringing thousands of followers and hundreds of gold-laden camels.
"File:Map of ancient and Medieval Sub-Saharan states zoomed in.jpg"by Kulttuurinavigaattori is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
Between 1324 and 1325, the most famous of the Malian Emperors, Mansa Musa, made an elaborate pilgrimage through what is now Sudan, Egypt, and Arabia, bringing thousands of followers and hundreds of gold-laden camels through the well-publicized pilgrimage and indirectly through a complex trade that sent gold to European and Asian capitals, and thus Mali became famous.
Mali's authority was gradually undermined by palace intrigue, which prevented an orderly transition of imperial power, and by smaller states' desire to break free from its rule in order to profit from the salt and gold trade. The Wolof people of what is now Senegal were the first to gain independence from Mali. About 1350, they established the Jolof Empire. The nomadic Tuareg conquered Timbuktu in 1430, and the conquest had immense economic and psychological ramifications: a relatively small but unified force had taken control of the Empire's wealthiest city and one of the main sources of imperial wealth.
The greatest threat, however, came from a revolt in Gao that resulted in Songhai's rise to power. In 1465, the Empire's former vassal state captured Mema, one of the Empire's oldest holdings. They took Timbuktu from the Tuareg three years later.
Beginning in 1502, Songhai forces led by Askia Muhammad seized control of nearly all of Mali's eastern possessions, including trading posts and gold and copper mines along the country's southern and northern borders. Even Mansa Mahmud III's desperate attempt to form an alliance with the Portuguese failed to halt Songhai's advance. The Malians and their emperor were routed from their capital, Niani, in 1545 by a Songhai force. Songhai's victories effectively ended Malian power in the savanna, despite the fact that it never invaded what remained of the Empire of Mali.