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Mali Empire Architecture & Art

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  • 0:04 The Mali Empire
  • 1:34 Architecture
  • 3:10 Art
  • 4:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, we'll explore an important empire of medieval Africa: the Mali Empire. Learn how its architecture adapted to the environment and available resources. Also, discover some of the interesting artwork they produced.

The Mali Empire

Most of West Africa is considered a very poor region today. However, there was a time when this area was home to rich and prosperous empires, with booming trade and flourishing cities. The Mali Empire was one of those nations, and, for centuries, it coexisted with other powers of the region like the Ghana and Songhai Empires.

The Mali Empire developed from the 13th until the 17th century, although some scholars believe it might have been established earlier. At its peak, the empire occupied most of modern Mali, Mauritania, Guinea, and Senegal.

Mali became a wealthy kingdom, mostly due to the trade of gold, salt, copper, and slaves. The empire controlled most of the commerce along the Niger River, and many trade caravans crossing the Sahara desert started or ended in one of Mali's cities. The cities of Timbuktu, Djenne, and Gao were at the heart of the prosperous nation. They were important urban centers and enjoyed a good life quality. In fact, the University of Timbuktu is considered one of the oldest in the world.

The Mali Empire became famous as a rich kingdom, mostly because of Mansa Musa, Mali's monarch, and his pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. During his journey, he gave gold to the rulers of the kingdoms he travelled through and to the poor people he met along the way. Such generosity quickly made him and Mali famous all over the Islamic world.

The Mali Empire started to decline in the 16th century, mostly due to internal struggles for power. Eventually, it dissolved into several small states.

Architecture

Due to its prosperity, the Mali Empire constructed ambitious architectural projects. The structures were mostly religious buildings and palaces. Mali was a Muslim kingdom, and the monarchs ordered the construction of large mosques to accommodate the growing congregation in the cities. Large palaces were also built for the mighty kings.

The Mali architecture was adapted to the local environment and weather, and it mostly used local materials. The constructions were usually made out of mud bricks, created by combining the mud with husks from rice or other grains. The bricks were dried in the sun and used for building the interior and exterior walls. A finish with plaster made from earth and water was then applied. Mud brick construction is commonly known as ''adobe'' or ''banco.''

Wood logs projecting from the walls are a notorious element of Mali architecture. They were used as support beams and usually ran through the building from one outer wall to the other, projecting about two feet from the wall. They also were used for decorative purposes and scaffolding to make repairs to the building. Timber was usually used for the roofs, and the exterior was also covered with mud plaster.

Adobe construction can be resistant, and it needs constant maintenance; strong rainfall can cause severe damage. Therefore, examples of architecture from the empire time are rare. Most of the old structures have become ruins or have been replaced by newer buildings. The mud mosques still standing date from the 19th and early 20th century. Adobe structures require constant maintenance to prevent them from deteriorating, and the plaster usually needs to be repaired or replaced every year.

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