Musa I (1280 – 1337) was the ninth Mansa of the Mali Empire, which reached its territorial peak during his reign. Musa is known for his wealth and generosity. He has been subject to popular claims that he is the wealthiest person in history, but his actual wealth is not known with any certainty. His riches came from the mining of significant gold and salt deposits in the Mali Empire, along with the slave and ivory trade.
Mansa is a word for a ruler, generally translated as “king”. It is particularly known as the title of the rulers of the Mali Empire, and is sometimes translated as “emperor”. Mansa Musa came to power in 1312 C.E., after the previous king, Abu Bakr II, for whom he’d served as deputy, disappeared at sea. Mansa Abu Bakr II had departed on a large fleet of ships to explore the Atlantic Ocean and never returned.
Is that true?
Mansa Musa inherited a kingdom that was already wealthy, but his work in expanding trade made Mali the wealthiest kingdom in Africa. His riches came from mining significant salt and gold deposits in the Mali kingdom. Elephant ivory and the slave trade were major sources of his wealth.
Musa’s rule came at a time when European nations were struggling due to raging civil wars and a lack of resources. under the rule of Musa, the prosperous empire grew to span a sizeable portion of West Africa, from the Atlantic coast to the inland trading hub of Timbuktu and parts of the Sahara Desert.
As the territory grew while Musa was on the throne, so did the economic standing of its citizens. It wasn’t until 1324 that the world outside of Mali’s border would get a glimpse of the king’s expansive wealth. A devout Muslim in a majority Muslim community, Musa set off on a journey to Mecca for his Hajj pilgrimage. But the king didn’t travel by himself. Arab writers from the time said that he traveled with an entourage of tens of thousands of people and dozens of camels, each carrying 300 pounds of gold.
While in Cairo, Mansa Musa met with the Sultan of Egypt, and his caravan spent and gave away so much gold that the overall value of gold decreased in Egypt for the next 12 years. After his return from Mecca, Mansa Musa began to revitalize cities in his kingdom. He built mosques and large public buildings in cities like Gao and, most famously, Timbuktu.
Timbuktu became a major Islamic university center during the 14th century due to Mansa Musa’s developments. Mansa Musa brought architects and scholars from across the Islamic world into his kingdom, and the reputation of the Mali kingdom grew.
The kingdom of Mali reached its greatest extent around the same time, a bustling, wealthy kingdom thanks to Mansa Musa’s expansion and administration. Mansa Musa annexed 24 cities during his reign.
Contemporary accounts of Musa’s wealth are so breathless that it’s almost impossible to get a sense of just how wealthy and powerful he truly was…Rudolph Butch Ware, associate professor of history at the University of California
Mansa Musa returned from Mecca with several Islamic scholars, including direct descendants of the prophet Muhammad and an Andalusian poet and architect by the name of Abu Es Haq es Saheli, who is widely credited with designing the famous Djinguereber mosque. In addition to encouraging the arts and architecture, he also funded literature and built schools, libraries, and mosques.
Timbuktu soon became a center of education and people traveled from around the world to study at what would become Sankore University. The best estimate of Mansa Musa’s wealth puts his riches at an absurd $400 billion. That is more than triple the net worth of the current richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos. Mansa Musa’s palace no longer exists but the mosque and the university he built in Timbuktu still stand.
You’re Dead To Me – Mansa Musa Podcast
- The Hajj is an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the holiest city for Muslims. Hajj is a mandatory religious duty for Muslims that must be carried out at least once in their lifetime by all adult Muslims who are physically and financially capable of undertaking the journey, and of supporting their family during their absence from home. [Back]