The Mali Empire

“The Place Where the Kings Live”

Sundiata Keita
  • West African empire founded by Sundiata Keita
  • The Mali Empire was the largest empire in West Africa and profoundly influenced the culture of West Africa through the spread of its language, laws, and customs
Mandika Griot
  • A major source of information comes from the Mandinka oral tradition, through storytellers known as griots
  • The empire began as a small Mandinka kingdom at the upper reaches of the Niger River; during the 11th and 12th centuries, it began to develop as an empire following the decline of the Ghana Empire to the north
Mali Kingdom Trade
  • Sundiata centralized the government and maintained diplomacy and a well-trained army; this led to a massive military expansion 
  • Acting as a middle-trader between North Africa via the Sahara Desert and the Niger River to the south, Mali exploited the traffic in gold, salt, copper, ivory, and slaves across West Africa
  • Muslim merchants were attracted to the commercial activity and converted Mali rulers who in turn, spread Islam

Additional Information:

  • Following the death of Sundiata Keita in c.1255, the kings of Mali were referred to by the title mansa
  • The Mali Empire collapsed in the 1460s following civil wars, the opening of trade routes elsewhere, and the rise of the neighboring Songhai Empire
  • It did continue to control a small part of the western empire into the 17th century
  • The Sudan region of West Africa where the Mali Empire would develop had been inhabited since the Neolithic Period
  • The Niger River regularly flooded which provided fertile land for agriculture beginning at least 3,500 year ago
  • Cereals such as red-skinned African rice and millet were grown with success, as were tuber and root crops, oil and fiber plants, and fruits
  • Fishing and cattle herding were other important sources of food, while local deposits of copper were exploited and used for trade
  • The Kingdom of Sosso took over the Ghana Empire and imposed trade restrictions on the Mali region, the native Malinke (Mandingo) tribe rose to rebellion
  • The Mansa, or king, was assisted by an assembly of elders and local chiefs with audiences held in the royal places or under a large tree
  • The king was also the supreme source of justice, but he did make use of legal advisors
  • The king was also helped by a number of key ministers such as the chief of the army and master of the granaries, as well as other officials like the master of ceremonies and leader of the royal orchestra
  • The Mansa acted as a supreme monarch and monopolized key trade goods
  • The king had certain mystical qualities attributed to him, and all slaves were exclusively loyal to him
  • No person had the right to be in the king’s presence when he ate and all visitors before him had to be barefoot and bow down and pour dust over their heads
  • Sundiata continued to expand the Mali Empire to include the old kingdoms of Ghana, Walata, Tadmekka, and Songhai
  • Tribute was acquired from conquered chiefdoms, although many local chiefs were permitted to continue to rule their own people but with a Mali-appointed governor to assist them, often backed by a garrison
  • This federation prospered, developing over the next century into one of Africa’s richest ever empires whose wealth would astound both Europe and Arabia
  • Foreign visitors noted the high degree of justice they saw, the safety with which one could travel from place to place, and the abundance of food in all villages
  • The Mali Empire prospered thanks to trade and its prime location, situated between the rain forests of southern West Africa and the powerful Muslim caliphates of North Africa
  • The Mali rulers had a triple income: they taxed the passage of trade goods, bought goods and sold them on at much higher prices, and had access to their own valuable natural resources
  • Significantly, the Mali Empire controlled the rich gold-bearing regions of Galam, Bambuk, and Bure; one of the main trade exchanges was gold dust for salt from the Sahara
  • The Mali Empire came to include many different religious, ethnic, and linguistic groups
  • Timbuktu, founded c.1100 CE by the nomadic Tuaregs, was a semi-independent trade port which had the double advantage of being on the Niger River bend and the starting point for the trans-Saharan caravans
  • The city would be monopolized and then taken over by the Mali Empire who made it into one of the most important and cosmopolitan trade centers in Africa
  • Mali architects had a distinct disadvantage because of the rarity of stone in the region, and for this reason, buildings were typically constructed using beaten earth (banco) reinforced with wood which often sticks out in beams from the exterior surfaces
  • The Malinke had a rich tradition of recounting legends and community histories orally by specialized story-tellers known as griots
  • These stories, passed down from generation to generation (and continue today), were often accompanied by music
  • The Mali Empire was in decline by the 15th century; the ill-defined rules for royal succession often led to civil wars
  • As trade routes opened up elsewhere, several rival kingdoms developed to the west, notably the Songhai
  • There were attacks on Mali by the Tuareg in 1433 and by the Mossi people, who at that time controlled the lands south of the Niger River
  • Around 1468, King Sunni Ali of the Songhai Empire conquered the rump of the Mali Empire which was now reduced to controlling a small western pocket of its once great territory
  • What remained of the Mali Empire would be absorbed into the Moroccan Empire in the mid-17th century

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