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.