Mansa Musa: The Golden Ruler of the Mali Empire

Discover the legendary story of Mansa Musa, the richest person in history, and the impact of his fabled pilgrimage to Mecca.

May 10, 2024By Thomas Bailey, BSc Geography

mansa musa mali empire ruler


Mansa Musa was the legendary ruler of the Mali Empire, thought by many to be the richest person to have ever lived. The Mali Empire was the center of the world’s gold production, affording Musa indescribable wealth. During his reign, he embarked on a fabled gold-laden pilgrimage to Mecca. He can be credited with the spread of Islam throughout West Africa, as the Mali Empire became a hub for Islamic learning. Mansa Musa presided over a golden age of African development and prosperity.


The Mali Empire

mali empire map 1337
Map of the Mali Empire at its greatest extent at the end of Mansa Musa’s reign (1337 CE). Source: Gabriel Moss via World History Encyclopaedia


The Mali Empire was founded in 1226 CE by Sundiata Keita. Sundiata was the second son of the King of the Mandinka people. It was prophesized that Sundiata would become a great ruler. Upon the death of his father, his elder half-brother ascended to the throne, and Sundiata was forced into exile as his brother feared he would steal his throne to fulfill the prophecy. Sundiata spent his time in exile with the King of Mema. However, the Sosso Empire conquered the Mandinka people, and his elder brother fled. Sundiata, at the age of 18, rallied the support of his people and allies and won a great victory against the Sosso Empire at the Battle of Kirinia. Sundiata was crowned Mansa (translates as “King” or Emperor” in the Mandinka language) of the newly emergent Mali Empire.


The empire soon expanded and consolidated itself as a regional power in West Africa. This was mostly due to the region’s wealth in gold. At its peak, the Mali Empire contained three large gold mines containing half of the world’s known gold supply. Considerable amounts of salt and copper also contributed to the empire’s wealth. The nation also boasted one of the most effective administration systems of pre-colonial Africa. The empire was divided into numerous provinces, overseen by province masters and governors. This decentralized system meant the empire could expand across significant territory, allowing the Mansa to maintain control over taxes wwithout agitating his subjects.


Mansa Musa Ascends to the Throne

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The Voyage of Mansa Muhammad ibn Qu into the Atlantic Ocean, 2001. Source: Leo & Diane Dillon


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Very little is known about Musa’s early life, though it is believed he was born in the late 13th century. Musa is believed to be the grandnephew of Mansa Sundiata. His father, Faga Leye, was the son of Mande Bori (known in Arabic as Abu Bakr), who was Mansa Sundiata’s brother. Mande Bori played a crucial role in the founding of the Mali Empire, serving as Sundiata’s right-hand man throughout his reign.


Musa’s predecessor was Mansa Muhammad ibn Qu. The exact details of Musa’s ascension to the throne are still unclear. However, it is believed that Mansa Muhammad launched an expedition to the Atlantic Ocean. Musa was appointed as deputy ruler of the empire until Mansa Muhammad returned. However, Mansa Muhammed and his fleet of 2,000 ships disappeared and were never heard of or seen again. Some optimistic historians claim that Mansa Muhammad reached the new world, discovering the Americas 200 years before Christopher Columbus. However, no archaeological evidence supports this. Mansa Muhammad and his expedition were likely lost at sea.


In the aftermath of Mansa Muhammad’s disappearance, Musa was crowned the 9th Mansa of the Mali Empire in approximately 1312 CE. Upon his ascension to the throne, Mansa Musa quickly expanded his empire, conquering 24 new cities. During this time, the empire’s gold mines were at their most productive, which rapidly grew Musa’s wealth and power.


Fabled Pilgrimage to Mecca

mansa musa pilgrimage mecca
Mansa Musa and his pilgrimage procession on the journey to Mecca, 2001. Source: Leo & Diane Dillon


Mansa Musa was a devout Muslim, being the first truly Muslim Mansa of the Mali Empire. Musa believed that Islam was a pathway into the more cultured world of the Middle East and that the spread of Islam in his Empire would lead to greater development and prosperity. It is also rumored that Musa’s pious and god-fearing nature was the result of him accidentally killing his mother, though this is subject to much debate.


In 1324 CE, Musa departed for his grand pilgrimage to Mecca, the sacred center of Islam. The pilgrimage procession consisted of as many as 60,000 people, although more conservative estimates place the number at around 15,000. This included the Mansa’s servants, enslaved people, soldiers, and prominent members of the royal court, including the Mansa’s wife. It is stated that 500 slaves carried staffs of solid gold, and the Mansa’s servants wore robes of silk. The caravan also included over 100 camels, each supposedly carrying over 200 pounds of solid gold.


Along his journey across North Africa, Musa built mosques as he went. He visited Cairo, and the procession camped beside the Great Pyramids of Giza before Musa was invited to stay in the royal palace by Sultan Muhamad al-Nasir ibn Qalwuun of Egypt. Musa stayed in Cairo for three months, during which he spent a lot of the gold he carried with him. The massive influx of gold into the Egyptian economy almost caused an economic crisis.


Before reaching Mecca, Musa visited the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina. Musa completed his pilgrimage by reaching Mecca. While there, he bought houses for future pilgrims from Mali and attempted to persuade Muslim scholars and architects to return with him to Mali.


Local Impact of the Pilgrimage 

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Djinguereber Mosque in Timbuktu, Mali, built during the reign of Mansa Musa and still standing today, 2015. Source: Sean Smith via The Guardian


Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage contributed to the consolidation of Islam across Western Africa. Although Islam had reached West Africa and had been adopted by some, including Musa, his pilgrimage cemented Islamic belief in the region.


Musa successfully persuaded the famous Andalusian architect and poet Abu Is’haq al-Sahili to return with him. Al-Sahili supposedly introduced several new building techniques to Mali. These included burning clay to make bricks and the popularisation of flat roofs. This contributed to the development of new architectural styles in Mali.


During his return from Mecca, the Mali Empire conquered the cities of Timbuktu and Gao, both significant additions to Musa’s realm. In Timbuktu, al-Sahili is credited with the construction of the Djinguereber Mosque and the Sankore University, although some historians dispute al-Sahili’s involvement. Both constructions still stand today.


As a result, Timbuktu became a center for learning. The number of mosques, schools, and the university attracted students from all over North and West Africa, as well as the Middle East. Timbuktu became renowned across the Muslim world. At its peak, it is estimated that around 25,000 students and scholars lived in Timbuktu to study Islamic law and theology.


International Impact of the Pilgrimage

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The earliest map of the entirety of the African continent by Sebastian Münster, 1554 CE. Source: Princeton University


News of Musa’s extravagant pilgrimage spread around most of the Muslim world. The fame and prestige of the Mali Empire became well-known, and its position as one of the largest and richest empires in the world was cemented. This allowed the establishment of strong and friendly relations with Egypt, Spain, and Morocco, which resulted in prosperous trade between the nations and the wider region.


Famously, Musa’s visit to Egypt resulted in severe economic consequences for the country. It is believed that Mansa Musa generously handed out gifts during his time in Cairo, supposedly even handing out gold dust to the poor. Musa’s charity caused the price of gold in Egypt to plummet. It is estimated that Egypt suffered $1.5 billion in economic losses, adjusted for modern inflation. Supposedly, it took 12 years for the Egyptian economy to recover.


Mansa Musa depicted on the Catalan Atlas, 1375 CE. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France


Musa’s pilgrimage also garnered the attention of Europe, which at the time did not have established contacts with the kingdoms of West Africa. In the years following the pilgrimage, European cartographers visited the Empire of Mali numerous times, hoping to produce early maps of the world. Famously, the Catalan Atlas, produced in 1375, depicts Mansa Musa sitting on a throne wearing a golden crown and holding a golden sphere.


Unfortunately, the spread of the legend of Mansa Musa and his golden empire may have encouraged European colonialism. The promise of immense wealth and fortune that the Mali Empire contained may have fuelled the ambitions of many hopeful European explorers to search West Africa for gold.


Mansa Musa’s Wealth, Life, & Death

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Florentine Florins were struck between 1252 and 1533, potentially using gold from West Africa. Source: Coin World


Mansa Musa’s wealth has been a subject of much contention. His wealth is almost indescribable, a staggering fortune that perhaps no individual has ever competed with. The most common estimate for Musa’s wealth is around $400 billion, adjusted for inflation.


In comparison, Forbes’s Billionaires List approximates Elon Musk’s net worth to be $233 billion and Jeff Bezos’s to be $161 billion. This would make Mansa Musa not only by far the richest person by today’s standards but potentially the richest person to have ever lived. Even more incredibly, unlike today’s billionaires, whose wealth is locked in the stocks and success of their respective companies, Mansa Musa’s wealth was tangible, solid gold.


Very little is known about Mansa Musa’s private life. However, it is believed he had a wife, Inari Kunate, with whom he had a son, Maghan.


The circumstances and timing of Mansa Musa’s death are also speculated, though it is commonly accepted that Musa died in 1337 CE at the approximate age of 57. Following his death, his son, Maghan, succeeded him as Musa of the Mali Empire.


Mansa Musa’s Legacy

mali french colonial rule
Mali (French Sudan) under French colonial rule (ca. 1948-ca. 1960 CE). Source: National Archives Catalogue


Mansa Musa’s reign is appropriately referred to as the Golden Age of the Mali Empire. He oversaw a period of impressive territorial expansion and economic development. His pilgrimage to Mecca was so extravagant it could almost be mistaken for pure mythology, the long- and short-term effects of which cannot be overstated. The pilgrimage can be accredited to the diffusion of Islam within West Africa, which continues to be the predominant religion in many modern West African states. Timbuktu also became the heart of Islamic education in the region, becoming famous throughout the Muslim World.


Following his death, poor rulers and civil war led to the decline of the Mali Empire. Musa’s own son Maghan was deposed by his uncle (Musa’s brother) Suleyman. Neighboring states, such as the expanding Songhai Empire, chipped away at Mali’s borders. In the 17th century, the Bamana Empire sacked the capital of Mali. The Mali Empire subsequently disintegrated.


Musa’s pilgrimage also contributed to the exposure of West Africa to Europe. In the decades after Musa’s death, West Africa was frequently visited by European cartographers and explorers. It could be argued that the wealth of the Mali Empire and other West African kingdoms inspired European colonialism, which consequently resulted in the enslavement of the African people and the pillaging of the continent’s wealth and resources.


Mansa Musa’s journey to Mecca can be regarded as one of the most significant events of African history. It had monumental impacts on Africa’s future. Musa himself has become a legendary figure of the continent. The Mali Empire under Musa reflected Africa at one of the summits of its grandeur. But perhaps it is also a somber reminder of what an independent, flourishing Africa could have become.

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By Thomas BaileyBSc GeographyThomas is currently studying for an MA in International Relations at the University of Portsmouth, England, and holds a BSc in Geography from Bangor University. He is passionate about African history and politics, having written his master’s dissertation on the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.