The Mali Empire in the Middle Ages

In the 13th century, when King Louis IX (Saint Louis) reigned in France, a new empire was born in sub-Saharan Africa, on the ruins of that of Ghana. Founded by the legendary Soundiata Keita, theMali Empire is quickly becoming a rich and powerful state, connected to the commercial and cultural networks of Africa, far beyond the Sahara, to the Muslim world. In the 14th century, the reputation of Mansa even crossed the Mediterranean as it was found featured on the famous Catalan Atlas, offered to the King of France Charles V by the King of Aragon.

The Gesture of Soundiata Keita

A mix of oral traditions and written sources late or from the Muslim world, the founding of the Mali Empire is linked to the largely legendary epic of Soundiata Keita.

As the versions are numerous and differ in certain aspects, it is difficult to describe a how Keita founded the Mali Empire. Despite everything, we can say that the Manden (or Manding), heart of the future Mandingo Empire, and located today between Guinea and Mali, was attacked by the king of Soso, Sumaworo. The latter would have defeated Dankara Tuman, whose half-brother, Soundiata Keita, had been exiled.

The people of Manden are said to have called Keita for help, around 1230s. After several battles, the king of Soso is defeated, and Keita, who has united most of the clans in the region, becomes "Mansa". He reigned until 1255 and established a strong administration.

Mansa courtyard

It is mainly thanks to the Muslim traveler Ibn Battuta that we know of the functioning of the court of the Emperor of Mali (whom he calls "sultan") in the 14th century. He describes it as sumptuous, with the presence of ministers as well as soldiers, governors, and semi-independent vassals. Ibn Battuta emphasizes the display of wealth that characterizes this court. Rare products, like velvet and silk, but above all gold, a lot of gold. Indeed, if the population lived mainly on agriculture, the state derived its great wealth from the exploitation of gold and the trans-Saharan trade, notably slavery.

The pilgrimage to Mecca of Kanga Moussa

As famous, if not more, than Soundiata Keita, the Mansa Kanga Moussa became famous in the 14th century. It is he who is represented in the Catalan Atlas, like a Western monarch, seated on a throne, crowned, a specter in his hand, and in the other hand holding a gold sphere.

For contemporaries, Kanga Moussa was known for his great pilgrimage to Mecca, made between 1324 and 1326. Accompanied by thousands of soldiers, part of his court, and a gigantic caravan full of gold (we speak of several tons), the emperor would stop every Good Friday in a town or village and have a mosque built there. He would have spent so much gold that he would have made the price drop, and would have finally had to borrow from an Egyptian who arrived in Cairo! This did not prevent the emperor, on his return, from building large mosques in Gao and Timbuktu, and a palace in Niani, described by Ibn Battuta.

From the Mali Empire to the Songhai Empire

The reign of Kanga Moussa was both the height and decline of the Mali Empire. At his death in 1337 (the date is debated), the boxes are empty.

During the 14th century, even if the empire was in contact with its neighbors, in particular Morocco (Kanga Moussa would have sent, according to Ibn Khaldûn, an emissary to the Moroccan sultan following the capture of Tlemcen), the weakening accelerated , especially its influence on big business. Mali finds itself under the threat of the Tuaregs, and ends up giving way under the blows of the Songhaï.

The latter, from the Niger loop, founded in the 15th century an empire that would have nothing to envy the power of the Empire of Mali, even if it in turn collapsed at the end of the 16th century.

Bibliography :

- F. Simonis, Sudanese Africa in the Middle Ages. The time of the great empires (Ghana, Mali, Songhaï), Sceren, 2010.

- P. Boilley, JP. Christian, History of ancient Africa, 8th-16th century, Photographic documentation, 2010.

Video: Tales from Timbuktu and the Glorious Mali Empire - Part 2 (January 2022).