Surfing on internet, reading articles or just watching television is quite easy to get in touch with this kind of topic: “the richest man of the world”, this prestigious title seems to ping-pong between different people every few years, but nowadays’ giants like Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates won’t come close to being the richest human of all time—that would mean besting people like Augustus Caesar who personally owned all of Egypt for a period or Song Dynasty Emperor Shenzong, whose domain at one point accounted for 25 to 30 per cent of global GDP. But the wealthiest of them all was Mansa Musa, the ruler of the Mali Empire, who once disrupted Egypt’s economy “just by passing through”.
He was an African Muslim king, whose 4,000-mile trip to Mecca accompanied by a caravan of 60,000 people and thousands of servants, went down in history and contributed to making him so famous, but before of talking about his extravagant travel, Who was him and from Where did all his wealth comes from?
Musa was born in 1280, and Mansa means ‘Sultan’ in the native language of Mandinka spoken in the region. He came to the throne in 1312 and in his 25-year reign, the Kingdom of Mali expanded massively to include the current day nations of Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Guinea and the Ivory Coast and his wealth, trying to compare it to our concept of money, can be compared to an amount of around $400 billion it became a legend that he built a mosque every Friday during his reign for over twenty years. His main focus was the trade and exportation of Mali’s natural resources. The kingdom was really rich in precious stones, mainly gold, and salt, which was exported throughout the continent. However, as usually happens in stories of wealthy men, what makes these men stand out and gives them an edge is their ability to see beyond, and Musa wasn’t the exception. Apart from trading goods, he strategically conquered cities with important ports to control the main trading routes between the Mediterranean and Africa. The Mali Empire, in fact, was the largest and richest empire yet seen in West Africa; Indigenous rulers adopted Islam from their contact with Arab merchants, and the Mali Empire would thus play a significant part in the spread of Islam across West Africa. Locals, or at least urban ones, were converted, which created communities that then attracted Muslim clerics from the north, strengthening the religion’s grip on the region. Local leaders would even perform pilgrimages to the Islamic holy sites like Mecca, including their greatest ever ruler, Mansa Musa and coming back to this incredible trip that we quoted before, let’s now see why it makes him so famous.
Mansa Musa, like many other devout Mali rulers before and after, set off for a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 CE, but it was not like any other journey ever witnessed, it was the biggest ever made: each of 100 camels carried 135 kilos of gold dust while 500 slaves each had a 2.7 kilo (6 pounds) gold staff. Besides, there were hundreds of other camels loaded down with foodstuffs and textiles, horse riders waving the huge red and gold banners of the king, and an impressive human entourage of servants and officials that numbered around 60 000 people.
Musa was famous for his generosity and piety. He built a mosque every Friday during his journey and he gave away so much gold and his entourage spent so much shopping in the markets of the city that it caused such a decline in the currency’s value, that the market had still not fully recovered 12 years later, his kindness( that paradoxically destroyed Egyptian economy) can be easily understood by considering that he had given 50,000 gold dinars to the sultan of Egypt merely as a first-meeting gesture; an indication of the impression Mansa Musa had made is that news of his Cairo visit eventually reached Europe.
Once arrived in Mecca he donated huge amounts of gold also in Mecca and Madinah, he met descendants of the Prophet Muhammad and gave them lands and houses and even persuaded a few of them to return to Mali with him, the king was also inspired by the universities he had seen on his pilgrimage, and he brought back to Mali both books and scholars. The king greatly encouraged Islamic learning and established a university attracting students and scholars from across the Muslim world, making Mali a centre of knowledge in Africa.
He wanted to return to Mecca after abdicating the throne to his son Mega, but he passed away without returning. After his death, the Kingdom of Mali started to decline but his pilgrimage, generosity and reputation awakened the world to the immense wealth of Africa, and in particular, Mali and made us aware of the most extravagant, discussed and “kind” trip that history has ever seen.

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