Cavalry Warrior, Mali Empire

Cavalry Warrior, Mali Empire

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The rise of the Mali Empire

The Mali Empire was one of the largest medieval West African states and, probably, exerted the greatest influence on the later states through its language, laws and culture.
Northern Mali has been inhabited from 10,000 BCE when the Sahara was fertile and rich in wildlife. Large settlements had developed, most notably near Djenné, one of West Africa’s oldest cities, by 300 BCE. The lucrative trans-Saharan trade had begun, thereby facilitating the rise of the three great western Sudanic states –

Ghana, Mali and Songhai – by the 6th century CE.
The Mali Empire (referred to historically as Manden Kuruowca) began as a small Mandinka kingdom in the upper reaches of the Niger River, centered on the town of Niani. It was founded by Sundiata Keita (c. 1214-c.1255) and became renowned for its rulers’ wealth. Sundiata Keita was a warrior-chieftain who was called upon to free the Mali people from Soumaoro Kanté, the ruler of the earlier Sosso Kingdom. The conquest of Sosso, c. 1235, gave Mali access to the western trans-Saharan trade routes.

The Empire’s administration was regulated from top to bottom. The Mansa (the title of Mali’s rulers following Sundiata Keita’s death in 1255) managed to retain revenue from taxation and exercised nominal control over the area without agitating his subjects to revolt. At the local level (village, town and city), for example, the kun-tigui elected a dougou-tigui (village-master) an administrator called kafo-tigui (county-master) was appointed at the county level by the governor of the province who was selected according to local custom.

The Empire expanded through annexation or conquest. In the event of conquest, a farin took control of the area until a suitable native ruler could be found. A region was allowed to select its own dyamani-tigui after its capitulation was confirmed or its loyalty was assured. Mali, in this way, governed an area of approximately 1,240,140 km² by 1350 and attained its highest polyglot population with over 400 cities, towns and villages.

The Empire’s economy was based, essentially, on its vibrant trade. It contained three immense gold mines within its borders and taxed every gramme of gold, copper and salt that entered its territory. Mali was regarded as the source of almost half the Old World’s gold exported from mines in Bambuk, Boure and Galam by the beginning of the 14th century. Copper, a valued commodity, traded in bars and was mined from Takedda in the north and traded in the south for gold. Salt, an important unit of exchange, was regarded as valuable, if not more valuable, than gold. It was cut into pieces and spent on goods with close to equal buying power throughout the Empire.

The Empire maintained a permanent army by requiring each clan to provide a quota of fighting-age men who had to be of the horon (freemen) caste and equipped with their own weapons. The standing army rose to an estimated strength of 100,000, with 10,000 of that number being made up of cavalry which could be deployed throughout the Empire at short notice with the help of the river clans. The large army was needed to project its power throughout the Empire’s extensive territories and to protect its flourishing trade. The number and frequency of conquests in the late 13th and 14th centuries are a measure of the Empire’s military power.

Mansa Musa rose to power in 1307 after a series of civil wars and ruled for thirty years. Mali flourished especially when Timbuktu – a centre of education, entertainment, and commerce – fell under Mansa Musa’s control. The city’s water supply was a leading cause to its successes in trade.
The Great Mosque of Djenné exemplified the Empire’s Sudano-Sahelian characteristic architecture using mudbricks and an adobe plaster, with large wooden-log support beams jutting out from the wall face for large buildings such as mosques or palaces.

Sankoré University had been converted into a fully-staffed university with the largest collections of books in Africa by the end of Mansa Musa’s reign. Sankoré University was reputed to be capable of housing 25,000 students and had one of the largest libraries in the world with roughly 1,000,000 manuscripts.

Do we know how the peoples of Mali dressed in the Medieval period?





Some more random 19th century Sudanic types for inspiration:

Mandinka warriors (left), Soninke women (right):

Toubou women (left), Fulani (right)

In the Upper Niger river region:

Upper Niger somewhere (Mali?):



This is a 19th century depiction of the brother of the king of the Igala, having a discussion with some advisors and associates. The image is from William Allen's Picturesque Views on the River Niger, sketched during Lander's Last Visit in 1832-33.

Bonhams : ALLEN (WILLIAM) Picturesque Views on the River Niger, Sketched During Lander's Last Visit in 1832-33, FIRST EDITION, SUBSCRIBER'S COPY, John Murray, 1840

I used to have a closeup of a colored version of this image as my avatar picture on here a while back. I forget the source for that particular version, but here it is:

The colored version from Bonhams has the colors a bit different:

Probably more realistic/accurate in its colors, but less vibrant somehow so I prefer the first one slightly.

The Igala kingdom was in the central part of what is now Nigeria. By the 19th century, when that drawing was made by Allen, there was some Muslim influence in the kingdom (though it could not be considered a Muslim polity) and that probably explains the spread of the sort of fashion worn by some of the people in the drawing, and probably also the two figures in the background with the Fulani style straw hats.


In my opinion this one below is really the most interesting of the figures:

I've always wondered who exactly this is supposed to be. Definitely someone of some importance.

There is a book called Djenné-Jeno: 1000 years of terracotta statuary in Mali (2014) by Bernard de Grunne which has a good overview of some of what is known about these terracotta statues and related artworks from that area. There are also a few rarely seen pieces of this art in that book, such as a terracotta of a man in a turban with a circular shield, and also some information about some of the bronzes from Djenne.

There is also some discussion of the Djenne terracotta figures and other art from the region in the book Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara (2020) by Alisa LaGamma. That book is quite good and I would recommend it to you, and to wskim, as a source of some information and images about the medieval western Sudan if you guys are not already familiar with it.


I'm asking, because I'm doing some illustrations and would like to be as accurate as I can be, if I have to just make something up, though, I will.

I know we have photographs and illustrations from the 19th and 20th century of Sahelian dress. I'm also aware that we have scant descriptions by Ibn Battuta, but aside from saying the clothes that were worn by peoples in the Mansas court were "fine" and "silks" there's not much of a description past what metal women's jewelry was made of. I've seen some terracotta figurines which are quite scantly clad, including mounted soldiers who from what I can tell from some of the figurines to me don't dress too differently from these guys. which in itself is cool.
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As I've said, I'm aware of photos and sketches from the 19th and 20th century, but over the span of hundreds of years the clothing of a population can change a lot, though, not necessarily. For instance, among commoners in Medieval England clothing seemed to change drastically of the ages, whereas clothing often seemed to stay the same in Egypt I know there are descriptions by Ibn Battuta which mentions Berbers in the region being veiled which seems to be an indication of long standing continuity.

if I'm to take their self depictions at a depiction of how the people really dressed over time rather than just being a standard artistic convention. I admittedly know nothing about Egypt.

Is it safe to say that the commoners of the Mali empire would've likely worn little clothing like figurines seem to depict? Is there evidence to the contrary?

For the Malinke people which formed the heart of the empire, I think this is a case where we just don't really know exactly what their clothing looked like (which is probably why all the imaginative modern drawings attempting to depict Malians from 600 to 800 years ago seem to differ so much in their details), even though we may be able to make some inferences from some of the surviving art or textiles (such as the ones Sundiata1 posted) of certain other groups that were part of the empire they established. We also have written descriptions from al-'Umari and Ibn Battuta that we can make some inferences from (there are some similar details in their descriptions of clothing, such as both authors mentioning that the color of the clothing that many of the Malians wore was white).

I would be very wary however about assuming that the people (horsemen and others) depicted in the Djenne terracotta art are truly representative of the appearance of actual Malinke/Mandinka horsemen and people from that time period.

As Sundiata1 noted, there was some cultural/ethnic distinctiveness that should be kept in mind:

I made a similar point on the forum in another thread on here a few years ago:

Getting back to the issue of cavalry, we know that several aspects of Al-Umari's description are confirmed by other sources, so if his description of Mali's cavalrymen diverges significantly from the supposed "artistic evidence" of Mali's cavalry, it would probably make more sense to go with Al-Umari's description. The best explanation for the divergence is probably that he is describing troops centered in and around the capital, whereas the supposed "artistic evidence" on Mali's cavalry actually has little to nothing to do with the state's main forces, and probably just depicts auxiliaries from areas that were incorporated into the empire but were not at the heart of the empire.

Al-Umari's description of Mali's cavaliers does not at all match the equestrian terracotta art from Djenne which is commonly used (in certain art books or on certain websites) to represent Malian cavalry or which is commonly presented as being representative of horsemen of the area in general during the time of the Mali empire. For example Al-Umari's description emphasizes the fact that the cavaliers wore wide trousers, whereas most of the Djenne terracotta horsemen are not wearing trousers, and the very few that are, cannot be said to be wide. The best explanation for this divergence is simply that the art from Djenne reflected a tradition (which was perhaps not quite in line with orthodox Islam, since it depicted human beings) of depicting some local equestrian forces from an area that was incorporated into the Mali empire later on (actually, al-Sadi claims in the Tarikh al-Sudan that Djenne was never conquered by Mali, but only by Songhai, whereas the Tarikh al-fattash does have Djenne as a vassal of Mali), but which does not represent the main cavalry forces of the empire that Al-Umari's informants observed. Furthermore, Djenne was actually an originally independent cosmopolitan city inhabited by people from different ethnic groups and had different and separate origins from the Malian state, even if it was inhabited by some people who were ethnically related to the Malinke and who could be broadly considered as being part of the same larger cultural complex.

As a comparable example from a different part of west Africa, the "lower Niger bronzes" of southern Nigeria sometimes depict warrior figures, but these warriors are nowhere near as impressive in appearance (and, to the best of my knowledge, do not even depict armor) when compared to the depictions of military figures in the "Benin bronzes". Benin (the kingdom, not the modern republic) and much of the surrounding area of southern Nigeria could all be said to be part of the same larger cultural complex, at least when compared with other parts of Africa. All of the peoples of the area speak related languages, had similar or closely related religious practices, and the cultures could be said to be very similar to each other in many other ways, but a piece of art depicting a soldier from an area that was at most temporarily ruled by Benin almost always depicts something quite different from a piece of art depicting a soldier that was made in Benin itself. We don't have a "made in Mali itself" piece of art showing Malian cavalrymen (like we do for Benin, showing Benin soldiers), we only have art from a place (Djenne) which was sufficiently distinctive and unique that one source even claims that this polity maintained its independence from Mali. But we do have a contemporary foreigner's description which considers the Mali cavalrymen to be "knights."

To give some context about what I wrote (in the second paragraph above) back then about Djenne's relationship with Mali, I will quote from Levtzion's book Ancient Ghana and Mali, which might put things in perspective:

"About the middle of the fifteenth century Mema was conquered by Songhay. Some time before that the king of Mema, with a dozen sub-chiefs under him, asserted his independence. The secession of Mema from the empire of Mali may have followed the conquest of Timbuktu by the Tuaregs as Mali lost its hold over the Sahel. It was probably about that time, in the 1430s, that the Diawara of Kingui broke away from Mali. The accumulated evidence indicates an interesting process, in which former provinces of Mali exploited its weakness to become independent. Their independence, however, lasted for a few decades only, after which they were incorporated, through conquest, into the new emerging empire of Songhay. Such an interpretation may help us to sort out the conflicting evidence about the position of Jenne. According to al-Sa'di, the rulers of Mali did not conquer Jenne even when their power was at its peak. They tried ninety-nine times and failed. In Ta'rikh al-Fattash, on the other hand, one reads that the ruler of Jenne (Jenne-koy) was one of the humble vassals of the king of Mali so low was his status that he brought his tribute to the king's wife, and was not received by the king himself. . .Both Timbuktu and the Niger waterway were under Mali's control, so it is likely that Jenne was within the same imperial system, perhaps as a fief, which gave yearly tribute in return for autonomous rule. . .In the first half of the fifteenth century, when Mali was pressed by the Songhay and the Tuaregs and the province of the northern Sahel threw off the domination of Mali, Jenne also asserted its independence. Al-Sadi's account may refer to this period, up to the conquest by Sonni 'Ali in 1473." - N. Levtzion, Ancient Ghana and Mali, pp. 81-83

So keeping in mind the difference in power, status, etc. between "Mali proper" and Djenne, I think one cannot simply assume that they all had the same attire.

The relevant medieval Arabic written descriptions which mention some details about Malian attire are the accounts of Mali in the works of al-'Umari and Ibn Battuta. After looking at those accounts again it is clear that both accounts do actually have some additional details about clothing beyond just mentioning that clothes were fine (or Ibn Battuta's mention of silk), but even with the additional details from those descriptions I don't think one can form a clear mental image of exactly what their attire looked like. Of course a picture is worth a thousand words, and as I stated on here years ago, we don't really have a "made in Mali (proper)" set of artworks that directly show what Malians wore.


The naming origins of the Mali Empire are complex and still debated in scholarly circles around the world.

One of the most obvious possibilities is that it's named for the Malinke people who live in the region [ 8 ] .

While the meaning of “Mali” is still contested, the process of how it entered the regional lexicon is not. As mentioned earlier, the Mandinka of the Middle Ages referred to their ethnic homeland as “Manden” in Africa.

Among the many different ethnic groups surrounding Manden, were Pulaar speaking groups in Macina, Tekrur and Fouta Djallon. The Mandinka of Manden became the Malinke of Mali. [ 9 ] So while the Mandinka people generally referred to their land and capital province as Manden, its semi-nomadic Fula subjects residing on the heartland’s western (Tekrur), southern (Fouta Djallon) and eastern borders (Macina) popularized the name Mali for this kingdom and later empire of the Middle Ages.

The Empire of Mali

The Mali Empire is one of the largest and most widely known precolonial African states. It has featured in films, video games, works of fiction, and its memory is still a profound force in the articulation of social and political identities across Mande West Africa. Founded in the 13th century in the south of modern Mali, it quickly grew from a small kingdom to a vast empire stretching from the Senegambia in the west to Ivory Coast in the south. Before its disintegration in the late 16th century, its connections to distant trade networks stretched from Europe to China and its rulers became famous across the Old World for their wealth. In the absence of indigenous written histories, knowledge of the Mali Empire has been based on a complex combination of oral traditions, medieval Arabic chronicles, European accounts, oral histories, and archaeology. Through a critical analysis of these sources, it has been possible to learn much about Mali’s history, including aspects its social organization, political structure, belief systems, and historical evolution. However, there is much we still do not know, including the location and nature of its capital(s).



  • Archaeology
  • Early States and State Formation in Africa
  • Oral Traditions
  • Political History
  • West Africa

Origins of the Mali Empire

Both oral traditions and references in medieval Arabic accounts suggest the demise of Ghana/Wagadu in the late 11th century was followed by a period of political fragmentation in which a constellation of competing polities strove for regional control. Two among them, the kingdoms of Sosso and Mali, would eventually come to dominate the political landscape, and war between them ensued. The main source on this conflict is the Sunjata epic. Set in the 13th century , it narrates the life of the Manding prince Sunjata Keita and his exploits leading to the foundation of the Mali Empire. The epic begins with Sunjata’s ancestry and describes how, after a troubled childhood and a prolonged exile, Sunjata returned to his homeland to unite all the Mande clans against the powerful Sumanguru Kante, king of Sosso. A long war followed until Sumanguru’s final defeat at the battle of Krina. 1 Following this victory, Sunjata reputedly set up the legal, political, and ideological framework of Mali’s imperial structure. In some versions of the epic this framework was then consolidated in a “charter of rights” signed at the plain of Karakun Fuga, but upon scrutiny this appears to have been a relatively modern addition, absent in earlier performances. 2

Although as with any epic, the Sunjata story contains many elements of mythical or symbolic nature, we also know that Sunjata Keita was indeed a historical figure, as confirmed by his appearance in 14th-century texts by Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Battuta. 3 Whether the accomplishments described in the epic were indeed undertaken by a single man in such a short time span or whether oral accounts conflate in a single figure and period, the results of a longer and more complex process is difficult to ascertain.

Mali’s Expansion and Apogee

The 13th and 14th centuries were times of expansion for the newly created empire, reaching its greatest territorial extent in the early 14th century , after the annexation of the regions of Walata, Gao, Timbuktu, the Gambia, and the Senegal Valley. These new territories and vassal kingdoms were added to the zones already controlled by Mali from the end of the Sosso war (i.e. the Middle and Upper Niger) and most of the western Sahel, thus establishing one of the most extensive polities in the history of West Africa (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. The Empire of Mali at its greatest territorial extent (Map drawn by the author).

According to the 14th-century Arabic historian Ibn Khaldun, following Sunjata’s death, three of his sons—Wali, Wati, and Khalifa—successively rose to power. Khalifa was eventually deposed and replaced by Abu-Bakr, who in turn was killed and succeeded by a freed slave named Sakura. 4 After the killing of Sakura upon his return from Mecca, kingship returned to Sunjata’s line with the coronation of Mansa Qu and later his son Mansa Muhammad. The fate of the latter has been the subject of some debate, as according to his successor, Muhammad wanted to discover what laid at the end of the ocean and so he sailed into the Atlantic at the head of a large fleet, never to be seen again. 5 While this episode has sometimes been used to argue for a pre-Columbian African arrival in the Americas, a successful Atlantic crossing would have been unlikely given the riverine and coastal nature of their naval technology, the lack of prior experience in long-distance oceanic expeditions, and the fact that nobody returned. 6

Despite Muhammad’s grand plans, it was his successor Mansa Musa who put Mali firmly on the international stage with his famous pilgrimage to Mecca and visit to Cairo in 1324–1325 . Mansa Musa may not have been the first emperor of Mali to undertake the haj,j but his pilgrimage was the first one to be recorded with such a profusion of detail and diversity of sources. 7 This was partly due to the grandiosity of his delegation, but it was also the result of the flourishing of Mamluk historiography in Cairo at the time. 8 Despite the diversity of the accounts, one element is common to all: Mansa Musa’s opulence. His delegation is said to have included hundreds or even possibly thousands of people and to have brought so much gold that it devalued the price of gold in Cairo for over a decade. 9 It is thus no wonder that Mansa Musa’s 25-year reign is often described as Mali’s “golden age,” but it is important to remember that while it did take place during Mali’s apogee, it probably was not the wealthiest or most powerful, just the best recorded. 10

Figure 2. Detail of a 14th-century Catalan atlas by Abraham Cresques showing the emperor of Mali holding a large gold nugget in front of an Arab trader.

If Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage firmly placed Mali’s wealth on the map (sometimes quite literally see Figure 2), it was during the reign of his brother Suleyman that we have the first direct account of Mali’s royal court, thanks to the visit of the traveler Ibn Battuta in 1352–1353 . 11 Ibn Battuta spent seven months in Mali, during which he witnessed the court’s operation, protocol, and rituals. He reported, for instance, how the mansa’s pavilion was decorated with golden and silver arches, and drums and trumpets announced when he was ready to hold council. He described how before every council 300 slaves carrying bows, short lances, and shields horses, rams, lancers, and bowmen entered the room and stood around the mansa in formation. Then singers and musicians performed while the cavalry commanders entered on horse carrying bows and quivers, preceded by their followers armed with lances, while the rest of the population sat outside. 12

Political and Territorial Organization

Although traditionally referred to as an empire, Mali’s structure and organization does not appear to abide by the traditional definition of the territorial state, with its implications of territorial sovereignty, centralized government, specialized administration, and monopoly over the legitimate use of force. Instead, it was composed of different “lands” or “vassal kingdoms” that retained considerable autonomy, with control becoming more nominal and less real as the distance from the core increased, and no assumption of ethnic, cultural, or political homogeneity.

At the center of the structure was the emperor or mansa and his court. The operation of the court is one of the elements we have the most information about, thanks to Ibn Battuta’s account. The most important official in court was the griot or jeli: spokesman, master of ceremonies, counselor, princes’ tutor, and director of court musicians. The farariya (commanders of the cavalry) and the mansa’s personal guard represented the military in court. Also important were the qasa (the mansa’s first wife) the santigi, or finance minister, master of the treasury and guardian of royal granaries and valuable deposits and the kangoro-sigi or viceroy. Finally, slaves and Muslim officials were also valued and influential, often becoming royal confidants and advisers. Although the writing skills and northern connections of the latter were highly valued, administrative procedures remained mainly verbal. 13

According to the Arab historian Al Umari, at its maximum extension Mali comprised fourteen districts and their towns, villages, and countryside, and its provinces were kingdoms in themselves. 14 Ibn Khatir, on the other hand, claims twenty-four kings were under the control of Mali’s emperor, and in any case the number of vassal territories would have changed over time. As for the nature of the empire, although certainly more than an alliance of independent chiefdoms, the degree of centralized control would have varied for each province. 15 Three types of government existed: autonomous provinces supervised by a local representative of the mansa, with local dynasties largely retaining their autonomy (applied to allies and kingdoms that had not offered resistance to conquest) provinces directly administered by a faren or farba (centrally appointed governor in charge of justice, security, and taxes), for initially hostile regions (e.g., Sosso) or regions of key economic importance (e.g., Walata) and the Malinké heartland, directly controlled by the mansa or a kinsman/ally of his. 16 Where a centrally controlled provincial government existed, it reproduced the central court on a smaller scale, as shown by Ibn Battuta’s description of Walata’s farba audience. 17

According to oral traditions, the representatives of the mansa met once a year at the royal court. All problems and projects were put forward and debated, and the mansa indicated the measures to be taken. After the council, the governors were not summoned until the following year, unless they disobeyed the mansa’s guidelines. 18 An example of one such summoning was observed by Ibn Battuta during his stay in Mali, when the mansa’s representative in Walata was accused of not repaying a debt. 19

Although unprecedented in scale, the imperial structure was rooted in, and integrated with, traditional forms and spheres of authority. Beyond the court, pre-imperial power structures appear to have remained in place. The basic unit in precolonial Mande society—as preserved by oral traditions and documented in early colonial accounts—is the lu (extended family), controlled by the fa (family head), who represents the link with the ancestors and administers property and the relations with other lu. Several lu form a dugu (village), governed by the notables of the village (the fa of the most important lu) assisted by the dugu-tigi (village head), who is the fa of the first lu believed to have settled the place, whose ancestors first established the relation with the spirits of the land. A series of dugu can form a confederation or kafu, controlled by a particular lineage and ruled by a council with a kafu-tigi at its head. 20 Although it is difficult to establish exactly how far back in time these structures go, the appearance of some of the terms in medieval Arab accounts suggests that at least some were indeed present by the early empire, and others may even predate it.

The strong links between traditional kinship notions and the imperial structure were an important aspect of Mali’s imperial ideology. As the primary authority system, the family and clan system provided the basis for the buildup of power networks, from the local to the regional and up to the imperial level. Thus, the mansa’s office grew out of the family headman and the village head and, in the case of Mali, from a kafu controlled by the Keita clan to an extensive centralized empire. Initially supervised by elders’ councils, the mansa gradually escaped such control, expanding his territorial dominion and becoming the hereditary office found immediately before the rise of Mali and the framework of hierarchical structures on which the future empire would be based. 21

Furthermore, the office of mansa was not just based on kinship principles but also depended on them for the deployment and maintenance of authority. In the “provinces” the state did not relate to individuals but to kinship groups—lineages and clans—and other traditional authorities. 22 Besides, the local dugu-tigi (master of earth) and wula-tigi (master of the bush), who controlled the spirit of the place, had to be respected so the soil would keep producing. For example, al-Dawadari reports how during his stay in Cairo, Mansa Musa was asked why he sent tribute collectors to the gold-producing lands instead of ruling them directly. He replied that for the land to produce gold, it had to be controlled by its inhabitants, as conquest and direct rule would destroy the land’s productivity. 23

The Quest for Mali’s Capital

Of all the issues concerning the empire of Mali, the location and nature of its capital has been by far the most debated. Arabic sources commonly describe the capital—Ibn Battuta even visited it in person—but they do not provide any definitive clues regarding its name or location. The capital is referred to as BYTY by Al-Dukkali, as BNY by Ibn-Khaldun, as Mali by Ibn Battuta, and as Malal by Ibn Said and al-Idrisi. 24 Other names present in the literature include “Songo,” suggested in 1492 by the Portuguese de Barros, while the 17th-century Tarikh-el-Fattash claims the two successive capitals of the empire were Diâriba (sometimes interpreted as Kangaba) and Yan’ (also read as Niani, Nyang, and Dyang, depending on translation). 25

Regarding its location, Al-Dukkali’s description—a first-hand account of a city encircled on all sides by a river south of a great lake, with seasonal floods and in hilly and verdant country—could refer to somewhere in the vicinity of the Inland Niger Delta. Al-Idrisi located it twelve stages south of Ghana. 26 The city visited by Ibn-Battuta, on the other hand, was ten miles from the river, and although different interpretations have been made of his itinerary from Walata to Mali, a west bank location north of Bamako seems likely, given the trip’s duration and the fact that he does not mention crossing the Niger. 27

Oral traditions are not much clearer. When taken globally, the Sunjata corpus weighs heavily in favor of Mali’s 13th-century administrative center being located somewhere southwest of Bamako and northeast of Kela, but it is inconsistent regarding which bank of the Niger was involved. Narena and Farakoro are the towns most commonly associated to Sunjata’s father, whereas Dakajalan, Kangaba, and Niani are the most frequently identified with Sunjata. 28

Bearing in mind the diversity of the sources, it is hardly surprising that the academic debate on the matter has been complex (see Figure 3). Already in 1841 , Cooley argued that the capital of ancient Mali was located near Niamina on the northern bank on the Niger, in current Mali. 29 This opinion was seconded thirty years later by Binger, who further specified the site of Niani Madougou, between Tougouni and Kondou, west of Niamina as the location. Delafosse, on the other hand, favored Kangaba as the ancient capital but, influenced by Binger, accepted Niani as Sunjata’s town. 30

Figure 3. Locations of the suggested capitals/power centers of the Mali Empire (Map drawn by the author).

Having visited the site of Niani Madogou in 1922 and not having found the large city he expected, Vidal proposed that Mali had had four capitals in succession: Diériba (nowadays Dieliba-Koto, in the Milo), Niani-on-Sankarani, Manikoura near Figuira, and Kangaba. 31 Soon after, Gaillard’s initial 1923 excavations at Niani uncovered a site sizable enough to convince Delafosse to accept Vidal’s hypothesis. 32 Monteil, on the other hand, argued that Mali had two capitals: Tabou (near Sigui) for the early period under the Konate dynasty and an unspecified town in the area between Kangaba and Siguiri from Sunjata onward. 33

Following the 1960 publication of D. T. Niane’s version of the Sunjata epic, in which Niani-on-Sankarani (in current Guinea) appeared as the only and permanent capital, the second set of excavations were undertaken by Filipowiak. 34 These uncovered several structures supposedly corresponding to the royal palace and audience hall in Ibn Battuta’s account. Nevertheless, the structures’ association with smoking pipes (not introduced until two centuries later) and a clustering of radiocarbon dates between the 6th and the 10th centuries , with a reoccupation in the 16th century , leave a 600-year gap coinciding precisely with the Mali Empire. Consequently, all available evidence indicates that Niani-on-Sankarani was not the city visited by Ibn Battuta or Mali’s capital at its apogee, although it may have been a power center during its decline.

Another possibility, suggested by the historian David Conrad, is the site of Dakajalan near the village of Kirina, in current Mali, which is the town oral traditions most frequently associate with Sunjata. 35 A brief archaeological reconnaissance in the site in 2014 found the site to be of great sacred importance to the current populations but yielded very limited archaeological material. 36 More recently, a magnetometry survey uncovered some possible evidence for walls as well as some arrowheads, but archaeological evidence for an important power center in the area still remains limited. 37 Further north, in the Segou region, survey and excavations at the site of Sorotomo have documented an unusually large, nucleated settlement mound (72 ha) whose foundation and abandonment coincide well with the Mali Empire’s chronology, but research at the site is still in its early stages. 38

Beyond the issue of the capital’s name and location, there is a parallel—and perhaps more interesting—debate regarding whether in fact “capital” is a relevant term altogether. On the one hand, it is possible that archaeologists just have not found the capital yet after all, archaeological work in the heartland of ancient Mali has been limited and focused largely on the great commercial centers of Arabic texts. On the other hand, it is possible that the notion of a permanent seat of power and administration may be altogether inappropriate, resulting exclusively from our own assumptions and the cultural preconceptions of Arab authors on the nature of government and urbanism.

The notion, first suggested by Monteil, that Mali might have had not of a single permanent capital but several seats of power in succession has gradually gained popularity. 39 Whether peripatetic, as suggested by Haour, or sedentary but changing location several times during history, as argued by Monteil, Hunwick, and Conrad, several factors suggest that the power center might have been more mobile than traditionally thought. 40 In fact, except for versions adapted to Western audiences, the notion of capital is largely absent from the Sunjata epic. Instead, we find references to mansaduguw or “king’s towns,” conveying the idea that the center of authority was wherever the mansa happened to be. The same sources also clearly distinguish between the royal lineage’s ancestral residence and the king’s court, and only in relation to the first is a clear sense of place conveyed. 41 On the other hand, the number of places described as mansadugu is limited, suggesting a certain length of occupation for each site. This perception is reinforced by Ibn Battuta’s description of large, permanent royal structures, not consistent with a pattern of continuously moving capitals. 42

Social Structure

Colonial sources often describe precolonial Mande society as characterized by a tripartite division into horonw, nyamakalaw, and slaves. While not as rigid as some of these sources might imply, Arab/European sources and linguistic evidence confirm a version of this structure does indeed go back to imperial times. 43 Horonw (sing. horon)—sometimes confusingly translated as “nobles”—comprised the majority of the population, including farmers, warriors, traders, and clerics, as well as the ruling elites. Nyamakalaw (sing. nyamakala), on the other hand, were endogamic specialists such as blacksmiths, leatherworkers, and griots (oral historians/musicians). The status of nyamakalaw was ambiguous: as people with special capacities to perform activities considered dangerous, polluting, and connected to mystical forces, they were feared and respected but also despised and banned from political power.

The precise origin of nyamakalaw is unclear: most oral traditions attribute their formal establishment to Sunjata, but some nyamakalaw trace their ancestry back to Wagadu. 44 Griots certainly existed by the 14th century when Ibn Battuta visited the court of Mali, as corroborated by the Portuguese Valentim Fernandes a century later. 45 Linguistic evidence indicates some of the words used to refer to these specialists appeared among the Malinké no later than the 13th century . 46 The current regional variability in a clan’s status, however, with cases in which the same clan is considered horon in one zone and nyamakala in another, suggests that the process by which these classifications were established may have been longer and more diverse than implied by oral sources. 47 In any case, the creation of a social category of endogamic specialists by Mali’s elites would have been a fundamental tool in the articulation and control of traditional spheres of power. Through the control of groups especially suited to harness mystical energy, elites benefited from occult-sanctioned persuasion without being polluted by it. 48

As for slaves, their status and process of enslavement greatly varied, from prisoners of war to members of other groups seized during raids, youngsters pawned by their families, and condemned criminals. Except for chattel slaves sold into the trans-Saharan, Indian Ocean, and later the transatlantic trade, slaves were always attached to a family and very often adopted the family name. They could also rise to positions of significant military and political importance, and the head of slaves was one of the most powerful figures in court. 49 We even know of cases of freed slaves who became emperors, like Sakura in the 14th century , as described by Ibn Khaldun. 50

The View from the Periphery: Kaabu

Although our knowledge of Mali’s provincial organization is generally limited, there is one exception: Kaabu. Located in the Senegambia, Kaabu was Mali’s westernmost province and main link with the Atlantic world. It is also the part of the empire where Mali’s structures survived the longest, for after Mali’s collapse, Kaabu continued to flourish as an independent kingdom until its demise in the 19th century . Consequently, for both geographical and chronological reasons, European literature on Kaabu is far more abundant and richer than for any other part of the empire, giving us a unique glimpse into the diversity of Mali’s provincial structures.

According to the Sunjata epic, Kaabu was conquered and annexed to the Empire by Tiramakan Traoré, one of Sunjata’s generals. Tiramakan was then given control of the region and, together with his descendants, created a political and administrative structure combining Mali’s principles with local idiosyncrasies. While we have no proof of Tiramakhan’s existence or deeds, European travelers’ descriptions of Kaabu’s political traditions are consistent with this hybrid political structure.

In some aspects, Kaabu reproduced Mali’s organization and protocols to the detail. For instance, in 1623 , the British traveler Richard Jobson described how in an audience with a Gambian king, the guest kneeled and sprinkled dust upon his head two or three times, a protocol that had been described in almost the same exact terms for the imperial court of Mali two centuries earlier by Al-Umari and later by Ibn Battuta. 51

In terms of social structure, Kaabu followed Mali’s tripartite division into horonw, nyamakalaw, and slaves, but it also had its own peculiarities—most notably, the existence of two aristocratic classes, nyanthio and koring, unknown in the rest of the Manding world. The nyanthio were at the top of the social hierarchy and the group to which all of Kaabu’s rulers belonged. Identified by the patronyms Sane and Mane, nyanthio status was transmitted only through the maternal line. The nyanthio looked down on both agriculture and trade, as war and hunting were the only occupation worth their status. 52 Below the nyanthio were the koring. Koring status could be inherited patrilineally, or from a nyanthio father and a non-nyanthio mother. They had a greater variety of patronyms than the nyanthio and could not become rulers of Kaabu but were allowed to rule over certain territories. Like the nyanthio, they did not farm and reveled in military exploits and hunting. 53

Kaabu’s territorial organization—both as part of Mali and later as an independent kingdom—was that of a confederation of diverse territories, linked by fluctuating ties of subordination and collaboration. Three of these territories (Jimara, Pathiana, and Sama) were considered nyanthio provinces, with the right to provide rulers for the whole Kaabu, which they did following a system of rotation. Another important difference of Mali’s rulership was the existence of female rulers, which, although not frequent, were far from rare. For instance, a ruler list from Kankelefa—one of Kaabu’s territories—includes three female rulers out of a list of ten, and a similar account from another province, Niumi, features twelve queens. 54

While Kaabu is not necessarily representative of other territories within the Mali Empire, it does illustrate the richness and diversity of political organizations within a common tradition that characterized Mali’s imperial organization.

Economy and Trade

Agriculture and Taxation

The base of Mali’s economy was undoubtedly agrarian, with the majority of the population involved in agriculture, cattle-rearing, fishing, hunting and/or gathering, as described in Arabic sources and confirmed by archaeology. 55 Arab writers often report the abundance of food and provisions in its villages, and the mansa is said to have regularly offered public feasts, derived from the annual contributions of the provinces. 56 Levied in kind by local rulers, then given as tribute to the central government, taxes were a more viable option than direct control over production, given the extensive nature of most agriculture and the prevailing notions of ancestral property of the land. Tribute funded the central government and its institutions, maintained its non-food-producing specialists, and would have supplied its reputed standing cavalry army with food, fodder, mounts, and equipment.

Long-Distance Trade and Prestige Goods

Long-distance trade was certainly of great significance to Mali’s rulers, although its economic importance has sometimes been exaggerated due to an overreliance on Arabic sources. The southward flow of salt, copper, cloth, brass, horses, and Mediterranean manufactures entered the Sudan to be exchanged for southern exports including slaves, kola, spices, gold, wood, and hides coming from the forest and savannah trade networks. 57 As with local production and regional exchanges, royal involvement in trade was not based on direct participation or control over production but on authority over commerce via entrepots. State revenues from trade thus derived from taxes and customs, with actual trade left in the hands of private traders, both local and foreign. 58 It is remarkable, however, that despite the abundance of gold and other metals, Mali never minted its own coins or used any other sort of currency they could control. Salt, metal, and cowries became successively the most employed currencies, as shown by Arabic references and archaeological finds. 59

Access to certain prestige goods, on the other hand, was strictly controlled. Some items were exclusive to the mansa, while others were limited to people in court or other positions of power. These status-defining goods not only identified a particular social class but also enabled the mansa to control it. Through redistribution of prestige goods, the mansa could gain and maintain the loyalty of vassal chiefs and army commanders both in the royal court and the periphery, who depended on him for the supply of wealth and ritual power. For instance, in the 14th century Al Umari’s described regional chiefs “whose wealth derived from the king reaches 20,000 mithqāls of gold every year, besides which he keeps them in horses and clothes.” 60

The role of textiles and clothing as prestige markers was of particular importance. For instance, Al-Umari reports that whenever a soldier added to his list of exploits, the mansa would give him a pair of wide trousers, the size of which increased with the number of exploits. The mansa himself wore trousers made of twenty pieces, which nobody else could wear. He was also recognizable by the turban end let hanging in front of him instead of tied under the chin like the rest. 61 The mansa’s griot was also highly visually recognizable at council with his fine garments of silk brocade, a large turban, and the only boots and spurs in the pavilion, he was not just the mansa’s spokesperson but also a material symbol of his power. 62

In addition to materializing social differences in court, cloth was also an important mechanism for control of the provincial elites. As part of the ceremony of access to any important office, the bestowing of special garments reflected a transfer not just of actual wealth but also of symbolic power and its link to the central court. For instance, while in Timbuktu, Ibn Battuta witnessed how to appoint an emir for a group, the farba (governor) bestowed on him a garment, turban, and trousers. 63

Military Power and the Army

Military power, and more specifically horsemanship and iron weaponry, are recurrent themes in the material culture and oral traditions of Mali. Whether this reflects their physical importance in the maintenance and expansion of the territory or its symbolic significance as prestige markers is difficult to ascertain. In Mali a permanent army was institutionalized, with large garrisons stationed in sensitive frontiers and important cities, including Walata, Gao, and Timbuktu. 64 Al Umari describes a contingent of 100,000 soldiers, both infantry and cavalry, with the latter constituting a tenth of the total number. 65 While the reliability of such figures is doubtful, Mali’s military force was undoubtedly substantial, as shown by the fact that north African princes approached Mansa Musa during his trip to Cairo to request his assistance in their campaigns. 66 Mansa Musa himself claimed during his trip that he had conquered “by his sword and armies” twenty-four cities with their surrounding estates. 67 Furthermore, Ibn Battuta describes Mali as an exceptionally safe territory, where “neither traveller there nor dweller has nothing to fear from thief or usurper.” 68

Religion and Belief


The arrival of the first Arab travelers to West Africa during the 8th century and the establishment of stable trans-Saharan trade networks deeply influenced West African polities, and Mali was no exception. Attracted by trade opportunities, Muslim merchants brought with them not only goods for exchange but also new ideas and beliefs, including their religion. Islam thus gradually penetrated West African belief systems, adapting to and changing existing beliefs and practices.

According to Ibn Khaldun, the first Malian ruler to convert to Islam was Barmandar, one of Sunjata’s predecessors. 69 While we have no independent confirmation of Barmandar’s conversion or existence, evidence for Islamic practices in the early empire is clear, especially in Mali’s northern trading centers like Gao or Timbuktu. Archaeologically, it takes the form of mosques, like the Sankoré, Djinguereber, and Sidi Yahya mosques in Timbuktu, built between the 13th and 15th centuries , and Muslim cemeteries with inscribed tombstones, like the 11th- to 14th-century stelae found at Gao and Saney. 70 These tombstones are particularly important as they confirm many of the Islamic burials were converts, as opposed to Muslim migrants. 71 Diet can also sometimes be an indicator of conversion through the presence/absence of species forbidden under Islamic dietary rules, such as dog and pig. At Gao, for instance, dog was part of the diet in the Gadei quarter but not in the more Islamized Gao Ancien. 72 The presence of dog bones should not, however, be taken by itself as a conclusive proof of non-Muslim practices, as excavations in the northern entrepôt of Essouk have yielded evidence of dog-eating in Muslim communities during this period. 73

Further south, the absence of large-scale archaeological projects (which have tended to concentrate on the large trading centers mentioned by Arab texts) makes any such assessment impossible at present. We do, however, have the evidence provided by Arab authors. As already discussed, Mansa Musa’s 14th-century pilgrimage impressed Cairene scholars with not just the emperor’s wealth but also his piety. A few decades later, during his stay in Mali, Ibn Battuta witnessed the celebration of Ramadan and the breaking of the fast festival and praised the people of Mali their assiduity in prayer and eagerness to memorize the Koran. 74

It is thus clear that Islam became woven into the fabric of Mande political traditions, as shown by the inclusion of Islamic forebears into myths, legends, and ancestor lists. Ideologically, Islam provided new tools for government, strengthening the state’s capacity to bring together the highly heterogeneous populations under its rule as well as reinforcing trade relations and the prestige derived from them. 75

Pre-Islamic Practices and Beliefs

Islam, however, never replaced pre-Islamic beliefs and practices entirely. The Sunjata epic, and oral traditions more widely, contain plenty of evidence of non-Islamic practices for acquiring power, encouraging fertility, and defeating enemies. Arab and European authors noticed them too: Al Dukkali, for instance, described how in the 14th century the people in Mali made “much use of magic and poison,” while the Portuguese Valentim Fernandes described the worship of idols and faith in charms of its inhabitants in the 16th century . 76 Nevertheless, it is unclear to what extent the authority of the emperor relied on such elements. There are some indications of potential divine kingship: for instance, both Arabic and European accounts noted how the mansa would refuse to eat in anybody’s presence. 77 This is highly redolent of 10th- century Kanem, where according to Al Muhallabi “they exalt their king and worship him instead of God. They imagine he does not eat.” 78 However, oral traditions and in particular the Sunjata epic clearly state that “kings are only men.” 79 In any case, it seems clear that the arrival of Islam had a deep impact on Mali’s state ideology but that, rather than replacing already existing beliefs and practices, it became interwoven with them, producing a flexible and syncretic system well suited to the empire’s own diversity.

Mali’s Decline

By the time of Ibn Battuta’s visit to the court of Mali in 1352 in the times of Mansa Sulayman, increasing instability was already undermining the central power, resulting in the successive independence of the vassal states of Gao and Méma in the early 15th century . 80 This process of internal division was further encouraged by the rise of the Songhay Empire in the northeast and its gradual conquest of most of Mali’s eastern territories during the 16th century . Subsequent defeats at the hands of Moroccan troops in the north and the loss of the Bambuk goldfields in the southeast further reduced Mali’s territory and power. Although no longer an empire, Mali did survive as a much smaller polity into the 17th century , possibly even longer. 81 So did its legacy: Kaabu, its Atlantic province, survived as an independent kingdom until the late 19th century , and Mali’s structures and political traditions deeply shaped its successors, including the Songhay Empire itself.

Discussion of the Literature

For its historical importance, the available literature on the Mali Empire is limited. The main and most comprehensive syntheses remain Nehemia Levtzion’s 1973 Ancient Ghana and Mali and Monteil’s 1929 “Les Empires du Mali,” both of which present important problems in terms of source identification and criticism. 82 Two separate syntheses exist for Kaabu, Mali’s westernmost province: D. T. Niane’s Histoire des Mandingues de l’Ouest and Carlos Lopes’s Kaabunké: espaço, território e poder na Guiné-Bissau . 83 In recent decades, historians have devoted substantial energy to the recording, publication, and analysis of oral traditions and medieval Arabic accounts and epigraphic evidence, as discussed in the Primary Sources section. As a result, a parallel discussion has emerged critically evaluating the role of different sources, particularly with regard to the historical value of oral traditions and the limitations and biases of Arab sources. 84

Walking the line between the ethnographic and the historical, anthropologists have exponentially expanded our understanding of Mali’s past and present social structures. These have mostly focused on nyamakala or endogamic specialists, and in particular on blacksmiths and griots. 85 Archaeological debates, on the other hand, have tended to focus on two topics: trade and its role in the emergence and operation of West African states and the location and nature of Mali’s capitals/political centers. 86

Primary Sources

Arab Chronicles

From the first reference to Mali in 1068 by the geographer Al-Bakri to much more detailed accounts such as Al-Umari’s description of Mansa Musa’s visit to Cairo in 1324 , or Ibn Battuta’s chronicle of his stay in Mali’s royal court, medieval Arabic sources provide highly relevant information about the Mali Empire as a whole. At present there are two main compilations of translated Arab texts on the Mali Empire: J. Cuoq’s Recueil des sources arabes concernant l’Afrique occidentale du Ville au XVe siècle and Levztion and Hopkins’s Corpus of Early Arabic sources for West African History . 87 They also provide a good index of relevant documents for those wishing to consult the original Arabic texts.

European Accounts

In 1446 , a Portuguese expedition under the command of Nuno Tristao reached the Gambia and Geba rivers for the first time. Their journey, described by Zurara, Gomes, and De Barros, was the first of many by Portuguese and later Dutch, British, and French traders, explorers, soldiers, and missionaries. 88 Although most of the information in these texts refers specifically to Kaabu and the Senegambian kingdoms post-Mali’s collapse, some of the early sources include references to Mali. Most prominently among these are the accounts by Valentim Fernandes, Duarte Pachecho Pereira, and André Alvares de Almada. 89

Indigenous Sources: Oral Traditions, Tarikhs, and Epigraphic Evidence

There are more than seventy published versions of the Sunjata epic, ranging from the highly novelized to annotated translations of griotic performances. 90 Some of these focus on regional variants, including additional elements like Tiramakhan’s conquest of the Senegambia. 91 Although indigenous written historical records in the Western Sahel are rare, there are two notable exceptions: the Timbuktu tarikhs and funerary inscriptions.

The Tarikhs are 17th-century royal chronicles, written in Arabic, that narrate the story of the Songhay Empire and of its predecessor, Mali. They include two main texts, traditionally known as the Tarikh al-Fattash and the Tarikh al-Sudan . 92 The former, first translated in 1913 , has been shown since to be a combination of two texts, a 17th-century chronicle called Tarik Ibn al-Muktar and a 19th-century text, the Tarik el-Fattash proper. 93

Funerary inscriptions, on the other hand, date from the 11th century to the 15th century ce and have been found in several of Mali’s northern trading centers (Gao, Saney, Essuk, Junhan, Benthia). A detailed analysis and transcription of these inscriptions can be found in Paulo de Moraes Farias’s Arabic Medieval Inscriptions from the Republic of Mali . 94


Initially by colonial officials, journalists, and military personnel, later by scholars and more recently by archaeologists, excavations on and research about the Mali Empire have gradually become more systematic and better recorded. Raymond Mauny’s Tableau Géographique is a good summary of the archaeology conducted during the colonial period, while the Bulletin de l’IFAN , the Bulletin du Comité des Études Scientifiques et Historiques de l’Afrique Occidentale Française , and Notes Africaines provide more in-depth reports about some of the projects. 95 More recently, research projects have focused on potential capitals/political power centers like Niani, Dakajalan, and Sorotomo as well as large trading towns like Dia, Timbuktu, and Gao and trans-Saharan entrepôts such as Essouk/Tadmekka and Tegdaoust/Awdaghust. 96

AI player names [ edit | edit source ]

When playing a random map game against the computer, the player may encounter any of the following Malian AI characters:

  • Abu Bakr II (fl. 14th century): Also spelled Abubakri and known as Mansa Qu, may have been the ninth mansa ("king of kings") of the Mali Empire. He succeeded his nephew Mansa Mohammed ibn Gao and preceded Mansa Musa. Abu Bakr II abdicated his throne in order to explore "the limits of the ocean".
  • Mamadou: Mansa Mahmud II, also known as Mamadou, was mansa of the Mali Empire from 1481 to 1496.
  • Mansa Mahmud IV: The last great emperor of the Mali Empire according to the Tarikh al-Sudan, the West African chronicle written in Arabic in around 1655 by Abd al-Sadi.
  • Mansa Musa (c. 1280 – c. 1337): The tenth mansa of the Mali Empire. During his reign, Mali Empire reached its golden period. He is also considered as the richest man of all time. ΐ]Α]
  • Mansa Sakura (died c. 1300): A former slave who became the sixth mansa of the Mali Empire.
  • Mari Djata I: The same as Sundjata according to Ibn Khaldun, a North African Arab historiographer and historian, in the late 14th century.
  • Ouali Keita: Mansa Uli, also known as Ali or Wali in Arab sources, was the second mansa of the Mali Empire.
  • Soumaba Cisse: A monarch of Ghanaian Empire, ally of Sundjata Keita: 1235–1240.
  • Soumaoro Kante: Soumaoro Kanté, also known as Sumanguru was a 13th-century king of the Sosso people. Seizing Koumbi Saleh, the capital of the recently defunct Ghana Empire, Soumaoro Kanté proceeded to conquer several neighboring states, including the Mandinka people in what is now Mali.
  • Sundjata: Was a puissant prince and founder of the Mali Empire. The famous Malian ruler Mansa Musa who made a pilgrimage to Mecca was his grandnephew.
  • Tiramakhan: A 13th century general in the Mali Empire who served under Sunjata Keita. Traore expanded the power of Mali westward and set up the Kabu Empire.

Fall of Africa’s Greatest Empire

The Battle of Tondibi, which resulted in the defeat of the Songhay army, took place on 13 March 1591.

The Songhay Empire would not be the first military power to set too much store by its cavalry. Founded in 1464 out of the ruins of the Malian Empire, Songhay was the largest of the indigenous empires in Africa. At its zenith, it covered around 540,000 square miles, stretching east-west for 1,200 miles along the River Niger with the Sahara to the north and the Sudan savannah to the south. Although it incorporated the great centre of Islamic learning and culture at Timbuktu, its capital was sited further east at Gao.

Internally, its biggest problem was succession. While some emperors, such as Askia Toure (1493-1528) and Askia Dawud (1549-82), were able to secure their thrones and rule successfully, the succeeding periods were characterised by fratricidal rivalries and rifts.

But it also had a powerful enemy. In January 1590 the Moroccan sultan Al-Mansur sent Emperor Askia Ishaq II an ultimatum. Ishaq sent back spears and horseshoes a sign that his horsemen would prevail. Besides, if Moscow had its winter to defend it from Napoleon, Songhay had the Sahara. Al-Mansur was undeterred. He had arquebuses and cannon on his side. The Songhay were so disdainful of the new technologies of war it is said that they threw captured Moroccan firearms into the Niger.

The 4,000-strong Moroccan army entered the Sahara in late December, provisioned by 10,000 camels and 1,000 pack horses. Meanwhile, Ishaq’s army – at least 40,000 strong, although possibly more than twice that – was assembled too slowly to attack the invading army as it emerged exhausted from the desert.

These then were the circumstances of the Battle of Tondibi, not far from Gao, which was fought on 13 March 1591 (though some reports suggest it may have been the day before.) One report says that Ishaq’s plan was to break the Moroccan line by driving hundreds of stampeding cattle into it. But, terrified by the noise of the cannon, the cattle turned and crashed into the Songhay army instead. Their ranks scattered Ishaq himself fled. In the end only a small group of Songhay warriors, who had roped themselves together, were left standing. They fought to the last.

The Empire at its Zenith (1300 - 1340)

The territorial gains of the Mali Empire were maintained well after Sakura’s death. Mansas Gao, Mohammed ibn Gao and Abubakari II reigned in peace and prosperity over a well-guarded realm dotted with garrisons in Walata, Timbuktu, Gao, Koumbi-Saleh and many others. [ 46 ] In 1312, Mansa Musa I came to power and brought the empire even more fame and prestige with his legendary Hajj to Mecca. His generals added Walata and the Teghazza salt mines to the empire’s already impressive size. [ 45 ] In 1325, the Mandinka general Sagmandir put down yet another rebellion by the Songhai in Gao. [ 45 ] The Mali Empire was at its largest and wealthiest under Musa I, spanning over 1.29 million square kilometers. [ 47 ]

To 840 mentions Khwarazmian polymath al-Khwarizmi first time Gao . The most important reason for the emergence of the empire of Gao was the favorable geographical location of the city on the eastern Niger arc far to the north of the agricultural areas of the Sahel . Fabrics, horses, weapons, glass and pearls were imported from North Africa, and salt was also imported from the Sahara . Slaves and gold were exported . The levying of tariffs, especially on the valuable salt of the Sahara, was in favor of the king. Al-Muhallabi mentions around 985 AD that the ruler of Gao was already a Muslim at that time. The lively trade relations with Tahert in the Maghreb may have led to the early introduction of heterodox Ibadi Islam.

Traditional story: Movement of the Za from Kukiya to Gao

According to al-Sa'di in the Chronicle of Ta'rikh al-Sudan , the Za dynasty was founded by a refugee from Yemen in Kukiya about 150 km downstream from Gao Niger. Za-Kosoi, the 15th ruler of this dynasty, converted to Islam in 1009/10 AD. This reading of the story continues to be represented in many accounts of Songhai's history. According to the Chronicle of Tarikh-el-Fettach , the refugee from Yemen settled directly in Gao and not in Kukiya. In accordance with the reports of Arab geographers, one can therefore conclude that a state was founded on the eastern arch of the Niger.

Foundation of the Zaghe dynasty around 1087

In the second half of the 11th century, a new dynasty came to power in Gao. She left the marble steles of Gao-Saney , on which the highly vaunted names of the Prophet and the first two caliphs with dates of death from the beginning of the 12th century are recorded: Muhammad ibn Abd Allah (st. 1100), Umar ibn al-Khattab (st . 1110), Uthman ibn al-Quhafa (st. 1120). This makes it clear that the kings of the Zaghe saw their mission in the spread of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa and, in this respect, placed themselves on a par with the founders of the Arab-Islamic world empire. The inscriptions on the stelae also provide the local name Yama ibn Kima for the third king, which can be found in the list of Za kings in the Chronicles of Timbuktu in 18th position. He is therefore identical to the third successor to the first Muslim king of the Za. The synchronism shows that the Za, as Jean Sauvaget had already suspected, are actually to be equated with the Zaghe kings of the steles. Accordingly, the Islamization of the dynasty did not take place around 1009/10, as the Ta'rikh al-Sudan states, but around 1087. The Zaghe kings must have been connected to the Almoravids , who were commissioned to manufacture marble stelae in Spanish Almería and the subsequent creation of the steles is most likely. In addition, the discovery of the steles in the merchant town of Gao-Saney and not in the royal city of Gao itself indicates that the new rulers had a foreign origin.

The Za / Zaghe kings of Gao-Saney and the Almoravids

The Zaghe obviously viewed themselves as black African followers of the world historical task of the first Arab rulers of Islam. Their origin, stated by Tarikh al-Sudan , from Kukiya southwest of Gao, which is not confirmed by Tarikh al-Fattash , is incompatible with their close ties to the Almoravids . Rather, a combination of the introduced under pressure from the Almoravids 1,076 Sunni - Islam in Ghana is expected. It can be assumed that the king of Ghana Yama ibn Kima had to withdraw to Gao after the death of the Almoravid leader Abu Bakr ibn Umar in front of religious zealots. Here he continued to enjoy the protection of the Massufa of Tadmekka , a subgroup of the Almoravids who probably organized the manufacture and delivery of the marble stelae by Gao-Saney from Almería , Spain .

Identity of the Za / Zaghe rulers and the history of Songhai

The identification of the Zaghe with the Za thus has important consequences for the history of the Gao Empire:

  • The Za were not Songhai rulers from Kukiya (previous doctrine).
  • The Za cannot be viewed as newly installed black African petty kings who acted as obedient vassals of the Almoravids.
  • As highly respected former kings of Ghana, the Za / Zaghe played an important role in the spread of Sunni Islam south of the Sahara, also in the eyes of the Almoravids.

There is nothing to indicate that the Songhai, who come from Kukiya, came to power relatively late. Rather, it can be assumed that the Songhai were resident in Gao in the most ancient times. The early Qanda kings in particular seem to have emerged from them. The Yemen tradition, the Songhai name and the former royal Dongo / Shango cult also provide evidence of an early immigration from the ancient Near East.

Wassoulou Empire

He was exiled to Gabon where he died two years later on June 2, Islam has been blended with indigenous beliefs that involve worshiping the spirits of the land. Flonikerry’s Assistance to Manimassah among the Gola.

While social divisions are quite complex, a great deal of social behavior is influenced by this philosophy. Both authority figures and individuals outside the authority structure compete for control by employing methods to gain this occult power. As a result of these traditional teachings, in marriage a woman’s loyalty remains to her parents and her family a man’s to his.

Like elsewhere, these Muslims have continued their pre-Islamic religious practices such as their annual rain ceremony and “sacrifice of the black bull” to their past deities.

Who are the Mandinka? – HISTORY

They reached Musadu town of Zomusa Musa the herbalist where they were welcomed and encouraged to send for their friends Feni Kamara became the outstanding landlord of those who later followed from Many He gave the Dukules section of the family site to erect Dukulela the Nyeis built Nyeila the Beles built lela and Fakoli Krom son Jala Kromah built Jakorodu where the French barracks were These nve towns were in chief Koniny mandinia Feni.

Pliz u can analyze why Toure was defeated and his impacts for his defeat Like Like. Peanuts are a main crop, and a staple of the Mandinka diet they also plant millet, corn and sorghum. Authority at the village level is shared by two officeholders, one with political credentials and one with a ritual commission. The praise singers are called ” jalibaa ” in Mandinka.

Sounds from the Sahel: From until his death, Samori’s ambition was opposed by the expansion of the French. Archaeology, History, Languages, Cultures and Environment.

Toure was defeated because he was unable to direct mandknka caravan routes afterHe was weakened by natural calamities like drought, also the system of divide and rule was used. Perhaps the most important political organizations cross-lineage associations are the “age sets of youth” and the “young men. Traditional customs include circumcision for both boys and girls, arranged marriages and polygamy Mandinka men are allowed up to four wives. The Muslim influence from North Africa had arrived in the Mandinka region before this, via Islamic enpire diasporas.

Ntomos prepare young boys for circumcision and initiation into adult society. The production of empkre and craft products is very important. Natalie on September 20, at 7: Could you please extend them a little from subsequent time?

Wassoulou Empire – Wikipedia

Site Title on June 27, at 3: One of the most famous dyamu names is Toure’, which has been the name of leaders in many states, including ancient Ghanaancient Mali, Songhai, and modern Guinea. MIMI on May 22, at 6: Hamis Jumanne Detroit Tanzania on February 16, at 3: Of course, his name was Samori!

Islam was omnipresent, and social stratification was highly developed. The practitioners of that tradition are known as griots mandibka singers, the middle division of the caste system who recapitulate their history and heritage through stories and songs passed down the generations.

Very determining and interesting Like Like.

Empire of Mali

The Empire of Mali existed from the 13 th century to the 17 th century. It was one of the most powerful kingdoms of West Africa, established by the ruler Sundiata Keita. It consisted of three states—Mali, Memo and Wagadou—and the twelve garrisons known as Twelve Doors of Mali.

It rose to prominence under the rule of Mansa Musa in the 14 th century. At its height, the empire covered 500,000 sq. miles and ruled over a population of around 20 million. Mansa Musa expanded the kingdom’s reach inland, trade, wealth and established diplomatic relationships with Arab states.

The empire of Mali is primarily credited with the spread of Islam within its corner of West Africa. It was ruled by Keita dynasty until the collapse of the kingdom in the 17 th century. Scholars like Ibn Battuta and Ibn Khaldun recorded their experiences of the Mali kingdom on their travels.

The empire spanned the present-day countries of Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Ivory Coast, The Gambia, Mauritania, and Niger. At its decline, it was superseded by the Islamic kingdom of Songhai.

The kingdom of Mali succeeded the wealthy empire of Ghana after unrest in the kingdoms. Sundiata Keita, the ruler of the small Kangaba province, overthrew the ruler of the Susu kingdom in a rebellion in 1235. The twelve small states within Niana, which would later become the capital of the empire, pledged allegiance to Sundiata Keita. He proclaimed himself as the ruler or Mansa and went on to spread the boundaries of the empire from the Atlantic coast to the Middle Niger.

Much of the history before this is disputed since it was only preserved orally.

The Keita dynasty established a system of a federal rule in their territories. An oral constitution of how the states were to be governed was created at this time. Called the Kouroukan Fouga, it was divided into four sections–social classes, property rights, environmental relations, and personal responsibility.

Trade and Economy in The Mali Empire

The biggest reasons for Mali’s wealth and growth as an empire were its trade policies, tax system and gold mines.

Trade operated via the rivers and caravan routes along the Sahel and towards the present-day regions of Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. It furthered the empire’s reach towards North Africa bearing salt, kola nuts, gold, livestock, copper, grains, and slaves. The boats would come back laden with books, cereal, dried fruit and cloths of different kinds.

Something similar to a modern day customs system was applied to all imports and exports. All goods that crossed the borders of Mali were taxed, most notably under the rule of Mansa Musa. The villages and towns also paid taxes in goods to the monarchy as an acknowledgment of their rule.

Agriculture was another main occupation of the people in the state. The grains sowed were rice, millet, and sorghum. Fishing and rearing of livestock were the primary sources of livelihood in the savannahs.

The Mali Empire controlled three gold mines. The gold was always claimed by the Mansa, but gold dust was used as a form of currency along with cowrie shells. On his pilgrimage to Hajj, Mansa Musa distributed gold so freely that it caused inflation in Egypt and the Arab peninsula. It served to spread fame about the Mali kingdom as a vibrant and wealthy state.

Culture and Religion In The Mali Empire

Before the establishment of the empire, the people living in the regions of Mali practiced ancient native religions. The founder of the empire, Sundiata Keita, followed both Islam and the native religions of the land to remain popular amongst the people. He was regarded as a cultural hero, and his feats have been immortalized in songs and poems like the Epic of Sundiata.

As trade grew under the rule of his descendants, Islamic clerics and traders began visiting the lands of Mali often. This contributed to the spread of Islamic literature amongst the natives of the state. The Mansa, or the kings, commissioned mosques with minarets and wooden beams, which allowed for regular maintenance of these structures. Not much of the ancient architecture remains today because they were built of mud bricks.

Ibn Battuta describes the enthusiasm of the people in observing Islamic festivals as well as the readings of the Quran in the record of his travels. He also described traditional Malian rituals being incorporated into Islamic rituals. Similarly, not much of the art and sculpture of the empire remains today because they were made of easily perishable material. Terracotta statues are still preserved in some museums.

Timbuktu was known to be a great place of art, architecture, and entertainment. The University of Timbuktu is widely regarded as one of the oldest in the world. The subjects taught pertained to Islamic study as well as medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and surgery among others. It drew a large number of visitors for its bustling markets, trade, and scholarly reputation.

The traditional people of Mali did not wear much clothing except for cotton loincloths due to the hot, harsh nature of the climate close to the Sahara. Once the Islamic influences began to grow, clothing grew longer into robes. The people often wore jewellery made of ivory.

Administration in The Mali Empire

When Sundiata Keita established the Mali kingdom, he allowed the twelve garrisons in Niani to rule their states independently under the title of Farbas, or commanders. This system continued for a long time in the kingdom of Mali.

The administration was decentralized in the kingdom. Since the Mali kingdom had assimilated various peoples and regions into its rule, ministers or rulers native to each region were elected to avoid dissatisfaction amongst the people. Each small village or town had its own county master. Above that was the governor of the province, who collected tax, reported to the Mansa and made sure native administration did not interfere with the central administration.

The towns were still liable to pay tax, which kept the authority of the Mansa over them. The tax was often paid in rice, millet, and weapons. In case the town or city was an important trade centre or often revolted, the Mansa appointed a Farbas. Each Farbas reported to the Mansa and was allowed to quash any rebellion in the small state with the help of the army.

The relative stability of the kingdom despite the frequent coups and dethronements, as well as sometimes wicked rulers, is attributed to the significant decentralization.

Major Battles and The Fall Of The Empire

The Malian army consisted of 100,000 men including 10,000 on cavalry. The military used poisoned arrows, reed spears and shields, and iron-based weapons. Bowmen were an essential part of the army.

The Mali monarchy was always in unrest. Two sons of Mansa Sundiata vied for the throne after his death, which also caused civil wars in the state. A Mali slave by the name of Sakura overthrew a Keita king to ascend the throne, and he died on the way back from a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Mansa Musa brought a period of stability to the region. He expanded the territories of the Mali Empire up till the Sahara Desert, the eastern Hausa kingdom, absorbed the trading cities of Gao and Timbuktu and annexed the salt producing regions of Taghaza. He brought the empire prosperity, but his successors and their descendants would lose the empire to the lousy ruling.

After his death, the empire began fragmenting and was damaged by raids of the Mossi and the Songhai forces. The kingdom fell to the Songhai in the late 1500s due to the increasing pressure from the Portuguese and lack of military power. The Mali kingdom was never fully annexed, but they were reduced from their former glory. They survived another two centuries until colonization.

Contemporary writers

During its time the Mali Empire attracted the attention of certain famous writers, explorers and geographers including Ibn Battuta in the 14 th century who travelled 75,000 km during his world tour, featured in the works of 14 th century historiographer and historian Ibn Kaldun, the 14 th century Catalan Atlas and featured in the works of Leo Africanus in the 16 th century.


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Books About The Mali Kingdom

Gomez, Michael A. (2018). African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9781400888160.

Blanchard, Ian (2001). Mining, Metallurgy and Minting in the Middle Ages Vol. 3. Continuing Afro-European Supremacy, 1250–1450. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag. ISBN 3-515-08704-4.

Cooley, William Desborough (1966) [1841]. The Negroland of the Arabs Examined and Explained. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-7146-1799-7.

Delafosse, Maurice (1972) [1912]. Haut-Sénégal Niger l’histoire (in French). Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose. ISBN 2-7068-0535-8.

Goodwin, A. J. H. (1957), “The Medieval Empire of Ghana”, South African Archaeological Bulletin, 12: 108–112, JSTOR 3886971

Hempstone, Smith (2007). Africa, Angry Young Giant. Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, LLC. ISBN 0-548-44300-9.

Insoll, Timothy (2003). The Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-65702-4.

Ki-Zerbo, Joseph (1978). Histoire de l’Afrique noire: D’hier à demain. Paris: Hatier. ISBN 2-218-04176-6.

Ki-Zerbo, Joseph (1997). UNESCO General History of Africa, Vol. IV, Abridged Edition: Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-06699-5.

Levtzion, N. (1963). “The thirteenth- and fourteenth-century kings of Mali”. Journal of African History. 4 (3): 341–353. doi:10.1017/S002185370000428X. JSTOR 180027.

Levtzion, Nehemia (1973). Ancient Ghana and Mali. London: Methuen. ISBN 0-8419-0431-6.

Levtzion, Nehemia Hopkins, John F.P., eds. (2000). Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West Africa. New York: Marcus Weiner Press. ISBN 1-55876-241-8. First published in 1981 by Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-22422-5.

Piga, Adriana (2003). Islam et villes en Afrique au sud du Sahara: Entre soufisme et fondamentalisme. Paris: KARTHALA Editions. pp. 417 pages. ISBN 2-84586-395-0.

Niane, D. T. (1994). Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali. Harlow: Longman African Writers. ISBN 0-582-26475-8.

Niane, D. T. (1975). Recherches sur l’Empire du Mali au Moyen Âge. Paris: Présence Africaine.

Stiansen, Endre & Jane I. Guyer (1999). Credit, Currencies and Culture: African Financial Institutions in Historical Perspective. Stockholm: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet. ISBN 91-7106-442-7.

Stride, G. T. & C. Ifeka (1971). Peoples and Empires of West Africa: West Africa in History 1000–1800. Edinburgh: Nelson. ISBN 0-17-511448-X.

Taagepera, Rein (1979). “Size and Duration of Empires: Growth-Decline Curves, 600 B.C. to 600 A.D.”. Social Science History. 3 (3/4). doi:10.2307/1170959.

Thornton, John K. (1999). Warfare in Atlantic Africa 1500–1800. London and New York: Routledge. pp. 194 Pages. ISBN 1-85728-393-7.

Thompson, Carol, “The Empire Of Mali (African Civilisations).” Franklin Watts. 1 September 1998. ISBN: 978-0531202777

Wonly, Philip, “Discovering The Empire Of Mali (Exploring African Civilisations).” Rosen Classroom. 1 January 2014. ISBN: 978-1477718834

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