"Mali guards its secrets jealously. There are things which the uninitiated will never know, for the griots, their depositories, will never betray them."
- Oral history, recited by Malian djeli Mamadou Kouyate.
Mali emerged against the back-drop of a declining of Ghana under the dynamic leadership of Sundiata of the Keita clan. But the region he took over had a past rich in trade and powerful rulers.
There was also the city of Jenne-Jeno (ancient Jenne), which archaeologists have now established was first settled in 200 BC, and only began losing its pre-eminence in the 12th Century. Between whiles, it was a vital crossroads in the north-south trade. Recent excavations reveal high levels of craftsmanship in pottery, iron-work and jewellery making. This suggests the people of Jenne imported iron ore, stone grinders and beads.
Mali Discovers America?
"So Abubakar equipped 200 ships filled with men and the same number equipped with gold, water, and provisions, enough to last them for years?they departed and a long time passed before anyone came back. Then one ship returned and we asked the captain what news they brought.
"He said, 'Yes, Oh Sultan, we travelled for a long time until there appeared in the open sea a river with a powerful current?the other ships went on ahead, but when they reached that place, they did not return and no more was seen of them?As for me, I went about at once and did not enter the river.'
"The Sultan got ready 2,000 ships, 1,000 for himself and the men whom he took with him, and 1,000 for water and provisions. He left me to deputise for him and embarked on the Atlantic Ocean with his men. That was the last we saw of him and all those who were with him.
"And so, I became king in my own right." - Mansa Musa, talking to Syrian scholar Al-Umari.
Sundiata Keita rose to power by defeating the king of the Sosso - Soumaoro (Sumanguru), known as the Sorcerer King, in 1235. He then brought all the Mandinke clans rulers (or Mansas) under his leadership, declaring himself overall Mansa. He took Timbuktu from the Tuareg, transforming it into a substantial city, a focus for trade and scholarship.
A significant portion of the wealth of the Empire derived from the Bure goldfields. The first capital, Niani, was built close to this mining area.
Mali at its largest was 2,000 kilometres wide. It extended from the coast of West Africa, both above the Senegal River and below the Gambia River, taking in old Ghana, and reaching south east to Gao and north east to Tadmekka.
Gold was not its only mainstay. Mali also acquired control over the salt trade. The capital of Niani was situated on the agriculturally rich floodplain of upper Niger, with good grazing land further north. A class of professional traders emerged in Mali. Some were of Mandinka origin, others were Bambara, Soninke and later Dyula. Gold dust and agricultural produce was exported north. In the 14th century, cowrie shells were established as a form of currency for trading and taxation purposes.
Mali reached its peak in the 14th century. Three rulers stand out in this period. The first one, Abubakar II, goes down in history as the king who wanted to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
Abubakar II's successor, Mansa Musa (1312-1337) was immortalised in the descriptions of Arab writers, when he made his magnificent pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324.
Mansa Musa's Pilgrimage to Mecca
"It is said that he brought with him 14,000 slave girls for his personal service. The members of his entourage proceeded to buy Turkish and Ethiopia slave girls, singing girls and garments, so that the rate of the gold dinar fell by six dirhams. Having presented his gift he set off with the caravan."
- Cairo born historian al-Maqurizi.
Mansa Musa also spent his wealth to more permanent effect. He commissioned the design and construction of a number of stunning buildings, for example, the building of the mosques at Gao and Jenne. At Niani he was responsible for the construction of a fantastic cupola for holding an audience in. Timbuktu became a place of great learning with young men linked to Fez in the north.
The other famous Malian ruler was Mansa Suleiman. Less is known of him. The historian Ibn Khaldun describes the considerable gifts he assembled for a Sultan in the north. But Ibn Battuta criticises his meanness.
On arriving in Mali, Ibn Battuta does not mince his words.
"He is a miserly king, not much giving is to be expected from him. It happened that I stayed this period and did not seen him because of my sickness..."
Finally Mansa Suleiman sends Ibn Battuta a gift, but it is definitely not up to Ibn Battuta's standards.
"Behold - three circular pieces of bread, a piece of beef fried in gharti, and a calabash of sour milk. When I saw them, I laughed and wondered a lot..."
So he complains.
"I stood before the sultan and said to him, 'I have indeed travelled in the lands of the world. I have met their kings. I have been in your country four months and you have given me no hospitality and not given me anything. What shall I say about you before the Sultans?"
And that does the trick. Mansa Suleiman claims that he had not even realised Ibn Battuta was in town and hastily makes amends for the previous omissions in hospitality.
"Then the Sultan ordered a house for me in which I stayed and he fixed an allowance for me?He was gracious to me at my departure, to the extent of giving me one hundred mitqals of gold."
The court of Mali converted to Islam after Sundiata. As in Ghana, Muslim scribes played an important role in government and administration. But traditional religion persisted. Arab historians make much of the Islamic influence in Mali, whereas oral historians place little emphasis on Islam in their histories.
The relationship between the Mansas of Mali and the people who worked on the gold fields is worth noting. The rulers received taxes from the miners in the form of gold, but they never exercised direct control over the mining process. At one point, the miners stopped working when the Mansas tried to convert them to Islam.
A historian compares Ancient Mali to Ancient Ghana
"To some aspect they look the same, the gold, the way they made trade. But to the opposite of Ghana, I think Mali was really able to have more territory beyond some of the area Ghana went to, like Taghaza, the salt gulf, that was all part of the empire of Mali.
"So territorial position was one of the greatest differences between Ghana and Mali. And also, the kind of ties Mali was able to make with peoples outside of Africa, is one of the great differences between the two empires?Mali was much much more international than Ghana was."
- Tereba Togola, Head of Archaeology at the Institute of Human Sciences, Bamako. He is responsible for all archaeological research in Mali.
Decline of Mali
A combination of weak and ineffective rulers and increasingly aggressive raids by Mossi neighours and Tuareg Berbers gradually reduced the power of Mali. In the east, Gao began its ascendancy while remaining part of the Mali Empire.
In the early 1400's, Tuareg launched a number of successful raids on Timbuktu. They did not disrupt scholastic life or commercial activity, but fatally undermined the government by appropriating taxes for themselves.
Meanwhile Gao had become the capital of the burgeoning Songhay Empire which, by 1500, had totally eclipsed Mali. But the idea of Mali regaining its former splendour and glory, remained strong in the minds of many Mandinka for generations to come.
One of the most internationally famous Malians today is musician Salif Keita. He is the descendant of Mansa Sundiata, born into a noble but poor family. His decision to become a musician was very much frowned upon by his family, since music was the province of a lower caste, the djelis.