Mansa Musa was the descendent of the founder of the Empire of Mali, and a man whose personal wealth and piety still serve as worthy exemplars for emulation six centuries after his death. He is still believed to be the wealthiest person who ever lived. He nonetheless remained uncorrupted by money, using it as a tool to bring scholars and artists back to Mali to enrich his empire. The ancient city of Timbuktu in particular is associated with him, and its reputation as a center for trade and learning was a result of his efforts.
He was grandson of the Malian Empire's founder, Sundiata, and ascended to the throne around 1307. Little information about his reign has been found in western sources, until in 1324 when he undertook the Hajj—the pilgrimage to Mecca that devout Muslims undertake. However, Mansa Musa was no simple pilgrim.
His entourage is said to have consisted of 60,000 men, including 12,000 richly-dressed slaves. 500 slaves each carrying bags of gold dust or golden staves preceded him, with an additional train of gold-laden camels bringing up the rear. It is said that each night, when the caravan stopped, the pious Mansa Musa paid to have a mosque erected on the site. When the caravan arrived in Cairo, Musa produced a veritable rain of gold upon the city. Chroniclers and historians ran out of superlatives to describe his generosity. The economy of one of the world's greatest trading cities literally collapsed under a flood of gold. A historian stopping in Cairo 12 years after his visit found the locals still singing his praises, and the economy still recovering from the massive influx of gold—no mean feat, given that Cairo had borne witness to the rise and fall of countless rulers over the millennia, and the generally-world-weary chroniclers were not readily given to rhapsodies of praise.
During his Hajj, Musa recruited many Islamic scholars, scientists, and jurists from throughout the Islamic world, with the intention of resettling them in his empire to bring the latest learning to his subjects. During his absence, his general, Sagamandir, completed the conquest of the neighboring Songhai kingdom, adding the rich cities of Goa and Timbuktu to the Malian Empire. Mansa Musa returned home by touring his new conquests.
Timbuktu received imperial munificence. The Grenadan poet and architect Abu Ishaq al-Sahili was commissioned to construct new mosques (the Djinguereber mosque is maybe the most famous) and oversee an expansion of the University of Sankore. The distinctive earthen construction of these buildings is still renowned and iconic throughout the world. Sankore housed the largest collection of books in Africa—approximately a half million works—since the Library of Alexandria.
The exact dates of his death are uncertain, but most western sources give the year as 1332. He was succeded by his son, Maghan Keita I. Mansa Musa left Mali a larger empire than he had received. Malian traders now ranged as far as Cairo, and students flocked to Timbuktu from across Africa. By all accounts, his personal behavior had been proper and moral (he nearly provoked a diplomatic incident by ignoring the sultan of Cairo in lieu of attending to his religious practices during the Hajj). He had raised Mali's profile to the world, while importing learning and ideas from other lands. His immense wealth had been a tool in his hands, not a means to an end, and Mali flourished under his stewardship.