The Kingdom, and later Empire of Mali was a remarkably long-lasting, pious, and rich empire, built on a foundation of trade between the Sahara, Sahel, and Subsaharan regions of Africa, unified by an Islamic faith, and administered capably by rulers for over 300 years. The Empire of Mali was at its height of power between the 13th and 16th Centuries, until it fractured under internal pressure and external threats.
West Africa is blessed with a wealth in three valuable treasures: Gold, salt, and copper. The demand for these commodities has meant long-standing trade routes across the region for most of recorded Western history, and the introduction of the camel as a beast of burden during the 2nd Century enabled an increasing volume of trans-Saharan trade.
Into this context, the kingdom of Mali arose in the 9th Century as a local power. Islam spread to the region in the 10th or 11th Century. Mali began a campaign of expansion and conquest under Sundiata (or Sunjata) Keita in the early 13th Century, who is the subject of some of the most famous praise-songs of the Malinese jelis, or griots. Sundiata defeated the Sosso at the Battle of Kirina in 1235, setting Mali on its ascent. According to the Epic of Sundiata, he gathered the nobles to charter a government for Mali, organizing the society, declaring property rights, protecting the environment, declaring rights for women, and listing personal responbilities—a remarkable document that has been declared a UNESCO Intangible Heritage item. The charter even lists the person who can joke with the royal family.
The kingdom was organized more as a confederation of allied city-states and locally administered territories. There was a noble, warrior clan aristocracy, as practiced in other places throughout the world. These rulers were advised by the jeli, a person who combined the role of troubadour, oral historian, and bard. The role of jeli or griot is still an important one throughout West Africa today. Sundiata started a process of centralizing more of this rule under the Manden, but local rulers and ruling families maintained authority after swearing allegiance to the Mansas of Keita.
Mansa Musa Keita I, the grandnephew of Sundiata, ruled for 25 years at the start of the 14th Century. During his lifetime he undertook a famous hajj to Mecca, bringing (and spending) an immense fortune in gold. While he was abroad, he recruited Islamic jurists, scholars, artists, and scientists from around the Islamic world, and invited them to return to Mali with him. Also during his Hajj, Malinese generals conquered the Songhai kingdom and incorporated the cities of Timbuktu and Goa into the empire. Musa returned to his own throne through these newly-conquered lands.
Timbuktu was already a rich trading city, situated on the edge of the Sahara and an important waypoint in the gold and salt trades. Mansa Musa ordered mosques built and the madrassa at Sankore enlarged, where it would become Africa's largest library and a center for jurisprudence (much as Bologna was becoming such a center of learning in Europe at the time). Their distinctive earthen construction was new for the era, but is now considered an iconic part of Malinese architecture.
Ibn Battuta, the legendary traveler and chronicler, passed through Mali from 1349-1353, and remains one of the best sources for life in Mali during the apex of the Empire. During his visit, he remarked positively on the Malian regard for justice, the public safety and absence of banditry, and the public devotion to Islam. He was less enthusiastic about the free mingling of sexes (he thought it unseemly, to say nothing of the dress code), the tolerance of pre-Islamic cultural and religious traditions (he thought it an insult to the faith), and Mansa Souleyman Keita's gifts of traditional foods (he thought them insufficient to his station.)
Records of the Malian Empire are sparse from the 14th - 16th Centuries, possibly as a result of weakening central authority and ineffective rulers. Shifting ecological conditions may have contributed to some of the problems of the late empire. The southward expansion of the Sahara impinged on the woodland regions, reducing supplies of wood for fuel, and the wetter conditions of the early 16th Century may have led to the spread of tsetse flies, which prevented the Mandekalu cavalry from pushing southward. Weaker rulers, and growing power of Morocco and a resurgent Songhai, and a succession crisis on the death of Mahmud Keita IV resulted in the Manden heartland splintering into a series of successor states.
Mali's unique combination of traditional West African and Islamic cultures, oral heritage (particularly the role of the jeli or griot), and its fabulous wealth make it a particularly attractive and rewarding subject of study. West Africans today still look back on the reign of the Mansa with pride, at an age when the European-made maps of Africa depicted the region with a crowned, black-skinned king, sitting on a golden throne, holding an immense gold coin, and spoke of Timbuktu in hushed and awed tones—a heritage of immense material and cultural wealth.