Ancient Mali: History & Civilization

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The kingdom of Mali was one of the great economic, military, and cultural powers of the medieval world. In this lesson, we'll talk about the history and impact of this powerful state.


While Europe was fighting off the Black Death and trying to emerge from the Dark Ages, do you know what was happening in West Africa? A kingdom was thriving and enjoying the splendors of wealth and stability. Dominating the region from the 9th century through the 16th, the kingdom of Mali was spectacular. It stretched from the heart of Africa to the Atlantic coast, was home to 40-50 million people, and its cities of Djenne, Timbuktu, and Gao were amongst the wealthiest trade and intellectual centers in the world. While it's not a name we all know today, people of the ancient world recognized it as a global center of economic and cultural production. They might as well have called it Maliwood.

The Mali Empire at its greatest extent

Rise of Mali

Around the year 1000 CE, West Africa was home to three major kingdoms, the Mali, Ghana, and Sosso. The largest of these was Ghana. Ghana was a massive empire, sustained by trade routes stretching across the continent. Merchants along these routes were largely interested in the high-quality gold flowing through Ghana's markets. Mali was a smaller kingdom and a province within the empire of Ghana. Eventually, however, this began to change.

Around the 13th century, Ghana began to fall into decline, paving the way for new powers to emerge. One of the aspiring rulers was Soumaoro, king of the city of Sosso. The Sosso started invading and conquering other cities and managed to invade Mali. However, Soumaoro found himself opposed by a Mali leader of the Keita clan named Sundiata. Sundiata rallied an army and defeated the Sosso between 1230 and 1235 CE, and then brought all of the clans together under his leadership, declaring himself the Mansa, or ruler, of all the clans.

The Growth of Mali

Sundiata started focusing on developing Mali as both an economic and intellectual center. The first part came with Mali's dominance over Ghana's trade networks. Mali also expanded enough to gain access to its own abundant gold mines, and the kingdom's wealth soon became legendary. This allowed Sundiata to start rebuilding the kingdom's major cities, as well as reorganizing Mali society into a strict class-based system based on their clans and kinship.

Other Mali kings would continue to expand the power and wealth of the empire. In 1310, a ruler named Abubakari II (sometimes written as Abubakr) was crowned. Abubakari oversaw the growth of Mali to its greatest point yet. The kingdom was so prosperous and stable that Abubakri didn't even feel the need to govern it personally. Around 1312, he left the empire on an expedition to expand their power west. Yes, west. You may remember that Mali's western border was the Atlantic Ocean. Abubakari may have been one of the first people in the eastern hemisphere to attempt to cross the Atlantic, a journey from which neither he nor his 2,000-4,000 ships ever returned.

When Abubakari left Mali to sail across the ocean, he handed power to a new ruler named Mansa Musa. Under Mansa Musa, Mali reached the height of its wealth and power. Their borders expanded, their trade networks flourished, and Mali became one of the wealthiest places in the world. This was made evident when Mansa Musa made a pilgrimage to the Islamic holy site of Mecca around 1324. Traveling with dozens of attendants, hundreds of slaves, hundreds of camels, and more than 30,000 pounds of gold, Mansa Musa's pilgrimage is one of the most recorded events of the century. As he passed through cities like Cairo, he demonstrated his wealth, and that of his kingdom, by passing out gold to random passersby.

Mansa Musa on a 14th-century Spanish map of Africa- shown holding a gold nugget

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