Article

Mansa Musa journeyed to the holy city of Mecca with more than 60,000 people.

Illustration by Niklas Asker

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.7, SL.6-8.1, W.6-8.2

C3 (D2/6-8): Civ.14, Eco.1, Geo.2, Geo.6, Geo.11, His.3, His.14

NCSS: People, places, and environments; Global connections

Enjoy this free article courtesy of Junior Scholastic, the Social Studies classroom magazine for grades 6–8.

The Bling King

How Mansa Musa, an early African emperor, turned his stash of gold into one of the world’s biggest empires

Rihanna reportedly spends $1 million a year on her hair. Boxer Floyd Mayweather recently dropped $18 million on a diamond-encrusted watch. And Amazon founder Jeff Bezos shelled out $65 million for a private jet. But those celebs’ spending habits—and their bank accounts—would have been chump change for African emperor Mansa Musa (MAHN-sah MOO-sah). The 14th-century ruler still tops the list as the richest person of all time.

Musa ruled as mansa, or king, of the West African empire of Mali from 1312 to 1337, controlling about 80 percent of the world’s gold. His net worth would have topped $400 billion in today’s dollars.

Musa’s claim to fame extended far beyond money, however. The emperor was a skilled leader who transformed Mali into one of the largest empires in African history. 

Original accounts about Musa and his reign still exist. So why haven’t more people heard of Musa, nicknamed the “Lion of Mali”? Mainly because he lived hundreds of years ago. Many world history classes don’t even discuss events that happened before 1450—especially those in Africa. 

Here’s everything you need to know about the mighty emperor and the secrets of his success.

Q: How did Musa get so rich? 

A: He was in the right place at the right time, for starters. Mali had an ideal location on the upper Niger River in West Africa. The fertile soil produced abundant crops and the area teemed with natural resources, including salt and gold.  

Salt was a hot commodity in the ancient world. It could be used to preserve meat and other foods. That was especially important, since refrigerators weren’t invented for another 500-plus years. Mali had easy access to the Sahara Desert’s huge salt deposits. 

As for gold, “the upper reaches of the Niger River produced more gold in the 14th century than anywhere else,” says Richard Smith, an expert on ancient Mali at Ferrum College in Virginia. (Gold was still relatively rare back then, which made the metal even more valuable.) 

Musa built on that wealth by conquering Timbuktu and other major cities along trade routes in the Sahara. The conquests were doubly beneficial to Musa: Merchants paid him taxes, and conquered kings gave him gifts of gold and other valuables.

Rihanna reportedly spends $1 million a year on her hair. Boxer Floyd Mayweather recently dropped $18 million on a diamond-encrusted watch. And Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought a $65 million private jet. But that would not have been a lot of money for African emperor Mansa Musa (MAHN-sah MOO-sah). The 14th-century ruler still tops the list as the richest person of all time.

Musa was mansa, or king, of the West African empire of Mali. He ruled from 1312 to 1337. He controlled about 80 percent of the world’s gold. His net worth would have topped $400 billion in today’s dollars.

But Musa’s claim to fame went far beyond money. The emperor was a skilled leader. He turned Mali into one of the largest empires in African history.

Musa was nicknamed the “Lion of Mali.” Original accounts about him and his reign still exist. So why is he not well-known today? Mainly because he lived hundreds of years ago. Many world history classes do not discuss events that happened before 1450, especially those in Africa.

Here is everything you need to know about the mighty emperor and the secrets of his success.

Q: How did Musa get so rich?

A: He was in the right place at the right time, for starters. Mali had an ideal location on the upper Niger River in West Africa. The fertile soil produced a lot of crops. The area was full of natural resources, including salt and gold.

Salt was a highly prized product in the ancient world. It could be used to preserve meat and other foods. That was especially important because refrigerators were not invented for another 500-plus years. Mali had easy access to the Sahara Desert’s huge salt deposits.

As for gold, “the upper reaches of the Niger River produced more gold in the 14th century than anywhere else,” says Richard Smith. Smith is an expert on ancient Mali at Ferrum College in Virginia. (Gold was still relatively rare back then. That made the metal even more valuable.)

Musa built on that wealth by conquering Timbuktu and other major cities along trade routes in the Sahara. The conquests helped Musa in more than one way. For one thing, merchants paid him taxes. For another, conquered kings gave him gifts of gold and other valuables.

Q: How important was the Mali Empire really?

A: Pretty important. Mali became West Africa’s most powerful state back in the 1200s, under the leadership of Sundiata, the empire’s first great mansa. 

But a century later, Musa took the empire to the next level by seizing control of gold-producing regions, monopolizing important trade routes, and reconquering areas of the kingdom that had broken away. 

By the time his reign ended, the Mali Empire spanned about 1,200 miles of West Africa. It covered all or part of what are now nine modern-day countries (see map, below). Musa once boasted that it would take a year for a person to travel from one end of his empire to the other.  

Musa ruled over 40 million people in his kingdom and managed to maintain peace during his 25-year reign. He devoted large amounts of time and money to building schools and mosques (buildings where Muslims worship), both of which benefited his many citizens. He was also known for his generosity, handing out millions of dollars’ worth of gold. 

Those habits were likely the secret to his great success, says David Tschanz, who wrote a book about the emperor. 

“If you have a good economy and everybody’s happy,” he says, “nobody gets upset with you.”

Q: How important was the Mali Empire really?

A: Pretty important. Mali became West Africa’s most powerful state back in the 1200s. It was under the leadership of Sundiata. That was the empire’s first great mansa.

But a century later, Musa took the empire to the next level. He did this by seizing control of gold-producing regions and monopolizing important trade routes. He also reconquered areas of the kingdom that had broken away.

By the time Musa’s reign ended, the Mali Empire spanned about 1,200 miles of West Africa. It covered all or part of what are now nine modern-day countries (see map). Musa once bragged that it would take a year for a person to travel from one end of his empire to the other.

Musa ruled over 40 million people in his kingdom. He managed to keep peace during his 25-year reign. He devoted large amounts of time and money to building schools and mosques (buildings where Muslims worship). These benefited his many citizens. He was also known for his generosity. He handed out millions of dollars’ worth of gold.

Those habits were likely the secret to his great success, says David Tschanz. Tschanz wrote a book about the emperor.

“If you have a good economy and everybody’s happy, nobody gets upset with you,” he says.

Q: That sounds like a lot of work. Did Musa ever take time off? 

A: As a matter of fact, he took the vacation of the century in 1324—a trip so extravagant that it wowed people throughout Europe and the Middle East. 

Musa’s journey was a 4,000-mile hajj—the Muslim pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. In true centibillionaire fashion, he didn’t go it alone. He traveled with a serious squad: more than 60,000 people, including 12,000 servants. (Of course, the king himself led the way on a blinged-out black stallion.) Musa’s caravan stretched as far as the eye could see.

Also along for the ride: a mind-boggling amount of gold. About 80 camels carried roughly 300 pounds of gold each. Musa’s slaves lugged another 24 tons of the precious metal. 

“It was more money than anybody had ever seen anybody ever bring with them,” Tschanz says.

Musa and his entourage crossed the Sahara Desert, stopping for a few months in Cairo, Egypt. Along the way, Musa spent—and handed out—a lot of gold. Tales of his incredible wealth and charity quickly spread to North Africa, Europe, and the Arab world through traders and travelers he encountered during his journey. 

He had good reason to show off his fortune. “The lavish display of wealth was designed to advertise his kingdom as a trade destination, and to a large extent, it worked,” Smith says. After Musa’s hajj, he and his empire were included in the 1375 Catalan Atlas, a map of the world that was important in medieval Europe. 

Q: How did Musa’s religion affect his rule? 

A: As evidenced by his hajj, Musa took his Islamic faith very seriously. Fridays are holy days for Muslims, and every Friday during his hajj, Musa reportedly ordered that a mosque be constructed wherever he happened to be. 

After the trip, he devoted himself to turning Timbuktu into a center for Muslim learning and culture. He brought Islamic architects and artists to the city and also built a major college, Sankore University, with a library collection that dwarfed those of European libraries at the time. (Invaders destroyed the school a few centuries later.)

Musa wanted his people to learn to read and write Arabic so they could understand the Koran, the Muslim holy book. To that end, he oversaw the construction of schools and mosques to promote the study of Islam. One of Musa’s mud-brick-and-wood structures, Djinguereber Mosque, could hold 2,000 people. It still stands in Timbuktu today.

Q: That sounds like a lot of work. Did Musa ever take time off?

A: As a matter of fact, he took the vacation of the century in 1324. It was such an extravagant trip that it wowed people throughout Europe and the Middle East.

Musa’s journey was a 4,000-mile hajj. That is the Muslim pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. In true centibillionaire fashion, he did not go it alone. He traveled with a serious squad of more than 60,000 people. That included 12,000 servants. (Of course, the king himself led the way on a blinged-out black stallion.) Musa’s caravan stretched as far as the eye could see.

Also along for the ride was a mind-boggling amount of gold. About 80 camels carried about 300 pounds of gold each. Musa’s slaves carried another 24 tons of the precious metal.

“It was more money than anybody had ever seen anybody ever bring with them,” Tschanz says.

Musa and his followers crossed the Sahara Desert. They stopped for a few months in Cairo, Egypt. Along the trip, Musa spent—and handed out—a lot of gold. Tales of his incredible wealth and charity quickly spread to North Africa, Europe, and the Arab world. The stories were passed along by traders and travelers he met during his journey.

He had good reason to show off his fortune. “The lavish display of wealth was designed to advertise his kingdom as a trade destination, and to a large extent, it worked,” Smith says. After Musa’s hajj, he and his empire were included in the 1375 Catalan Atlas. That map of the world was important in medieval Europe.

Q: How did Musa’s religion affect his rule?

A: As shown by his hajj, Musa took his Islamic faith very seriously. Fridays are holy days for Muslims. Every Friday during his hajj, Musa reportedly ordered that a mosque be built wherever he happened to be.

After the trip, he devoted himself to turning Timbuktu into a center for Muslim learning and culture. He brought Islamic architects and artists to the city. He also built a major college, Sankore University. It had a library collection that made the European libraries seem small. (Invaders destroyed the school a few centuries later.)

Musa wanted his people to learn to read and write Arabic. He wanted them to understand the Koran, which is the Muslim holy book. So he oversaw the building of schools and mosques to promote the study of Islam. One of Musa’s mud-brick-and-wood structures is the Djinguereber Mosque. It could hold 2,000 people. It still stands in Timbuktu today.

Q: Did Musa spend all of his money on building stuff? 

A: He did build an awful lot. But construction wasn’t Musa’s only expense. During his pilgrimage, for example, he spent a lot of time shopping at Cairo’s world-famous markets. He also handed out gold to Egypt’s poor and sick—and to just about everyone else he encountered. Historians estimate that the gold he gave away during his hajj alone would be worth more than $100 million today. 

Musa reportedly pumped so much gold into Cairo’s economy that the precious metal decreased in value. It took more than 12 years for gold’s value to bounce back. Says Tschanz: “It was the only time in history that one man controlled the world’s gold market.”

Q: How does Musa stack up to today’s wealthiest people?

A: It’s not even a contest. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is currently the world’s richest person, with a net worth of about $112 billion. Musa’s net worth was more than three times that much—an amount unfathomable to most people. 

“Imagine as much gold as you think a human being could possess and double it,” Rudolph Ware, a history professor at the University of Michigan, told Time. “This is the richest guy anyone has ever seen.”

Q: What happened to Musa’s empire after he died? 

A: Musa died in 1337, somewhere around age 55. His empire lived on for only 100 or so more years, partly because Musa’s successors did not share his talent for leadership. Outsiders conquered Gao, one of the kingdom’s most important trading hubs, around 1365. The rest of the empire started crumbling in the 1400s, with Timbuktu falling to invaders. By 1500, almost all of Musa’s kingdom, along with his gold and riches, had disappeared. 

Q: Did Musa spend all of his money on building stuff?

A: He did build an awful lot. But construction was not Musa’s only expense. During his pilgrimage, for example, he spent a lot of time shopping at Cairo’s world-famous markets. He also handed out gold to Egypt’s poor and sick people, and to just about everyone else he encountered. Historians estimate that the gold he gave away during his hajj alone would be worth more than $100 million today.

Musa reportedly pumped so much gold into Cairo’s economy that the precious metal decreased in value. It took more than 12 years for gold’s value to bounce back. “It was the only time in history that one man controlled the world’s gold market,” says Tschanz.

Q: How does Musa stack up to today’s wealthiest people?

A: It is not even a contest. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is currently the world’s richest person. He has a net worth of about $112 billion. Musa’s net worth was more than three times that much. It was an amount most people cannot comprehend.

“Imagine as much gold as you think a human being could possess and double it,” Rudolph Ware told Time. Ware is a history professor at the University of Michigan. “This is the richest guy anyone has ever seen.”

Q: What happened to Musa’s empire after he died?

A: Musa died in 1337. He was somewhere around age 55. His empire lived on for only 100 or so more years. That is partly because Musa’s successors did not share his talent for leadership. Outsiders conquered Gao around 1365. Gao was one of the kingdom’s most important trading hubs. The rest of the empire started crumbling in the 1400s. Timbuktu fell to invaders. By 1500, almost all of Musa’s kingdom had disappeared. So had his gold and riches.

Write About It! How might learning about Mansa Musa and other ancient rulers affect people’s perceptions of Africa?

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