Empire of Mali

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The Empire of Mali existed from the 13th century to the 17th 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 14th 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 17th 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 At its decline, it was superseded by the Islamic kingdom of Songhai.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 14th century who travelled 75,000 km during his world tour, featured in the works of 14th century historiographer and historian Ibn Kaldun, the 14th century Catalan Atlas and featured in the works of Leo Africanus in the 16th 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.

Ibn Battuta, Travels

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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Empire of Mali

by Editorial Team time to read: 7 min