World History 2 33 - 3.1.3 The Mali Empire

Larger political entities emerged in Sudanic West Africa, beginning with the Mali Empire in the early thirteenth century. Around 1235, Sundiata Keita, the founder of Mali, set about consolidating his control over the heartland of the Mande people, a region centered on the well-watered grasslands of the upper reaches of the Senegal and Niger Rivers. Sundiata convinced the other Malinke (also known as Mandinke) kings to surrender their title, mansa (which means “ruler” in the Malinke language), to him. He thus became the sole mansa, the religious and secular leader of all the Malinke people.

Sundiata then moved to expand the Mali kingdom by taking control of all the Soninke peoples (Figure 3.8). This territory took in much of the former kingdom of Ghana and its nominally independent peripheral vassal states, including Mema and Wagadu. These newly conquered territories were often administered indirectly, leaving in place friendly puppet regimes to do the bidding of the Malian monarch, a political strategy that bred resentment among certain of the Malian vassal states, including Takrur and Songhai. In a few short years, the empire extended from the forested margins of the southwest through the grassland savanna country of the Malinke and the southern Soninke to the Sahel of former Ghana. The kings of Mali were less interested in conquering the various small kingdoms and chiefdoms of the grasslands than in taking the trading towns of the Sahel that linked the regional economy to the vast trans-Saharan trade. These towns were key prizes to the Malian monarchs and included Djenné, Timbuktu, and Gao. Throughout history, economic considerations have often driven political decisions, like conquering neighboring people, made by rulers on all continents.

A map of northwest Africa is shown. The Tropic of Cancer and the Atlantic Ocean are shown to the west, and the Gulf of Guinea and the Equator are shown to the south. A pink area is highlighted in the middle of the western portion and labeled ‘Mali Empire.’
Figure 3.8 The Mali Empire reached its maximum geographic extent in the fourteenth century, stretching from the mouth of the Senegal River in the west to the borders of present-day Algeria and Niger in the east, encompassing some 478,000 square miles and about four hundred cities. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

When Sundiata’s successors converted to Islam, Mali became the largest Islamic kingdom in West Africa. Although its heartland was the Niger floodplain, Mali’s capital Niani was located at the Bure goldfields, enabling its rulers to exert direct control over the most valuable of all the raw materials transported along the trans-Saharan trade routes. Mali’s fabulous wealth made it famous, and its rulers used that wealth to attract scholars and jurists from all over the Islamic world. For example, Mali’s most famous ruler, the fourteenth-century Mansa Musa, transformed the trading center of Timbuktu by establishing mosques and schools there that became repositories of Islamic scholarship and learning.

Link to Learning

An introduction to the spread of Islam to West Africa is provided by the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative.

Trans-Saharan commerce also promoted the development of public works in Mali, including the building of social and religious structures. Travelers to West Africa were impressed by the palaces, walled cities, and mosques they saw there and often remarked on them. In the sixteenth century, Leo Africanus, a formerly enslaved Amazigh diplomat and writer (born al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan), visited Songhai and praised the fine architecture of the city of Timbuktu, particularly the walled palace of the king and the temple of “stone and mortar” that dominated the center of the city. While these buildings awed many visitors, none were quite as striking as Timbuktu’s mosques. With its sunbaked brick walls and spiky pyramidal shape, for example, the Sankore mosque presented onlookers with a unique example of West African architecture at this time (Figure 3.9).

The postcard shows a brown, sandy mosque with tall walls and a seven-story building in the middle showing above the walls. No openings are visible in the walls. In the background a city with low buildings is shown. A person is visible in the foreground standing next to one of two bushes.
Figure 3.9 The fourteenth-century Sankore mosque, shown in this postcard from about 1905, was one of the leading centers of Islamic learning and scholarship in Timbuktu. It is also an example of Sudanese West Africa’s unique architectural style and has long dominated the city’s skyline. (credit: “Fortier 368 Timbuktu Sankore Mosque” by Dogon/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Link to Learning

Click this link to read an excerpt in which the sixteenth-century traveler Leo Africanus describes the town of Timbuktu and his experiences while there.

The fortunes of the Mali Empire were transformed in the fifteenth century, when a host of internal and external challenges combined to fatally undermine the Sudanic kingdom, including rebellions, dynastic disputes, the rise of powerful new neighbors, and the arrival of the Portuguese. These factors, which are explained next, had the effect of weakening Mali economically and politically, setting it up for instability and collapse.

The successors of Mansa Musa, who died circa 1337, tended to be weaker and less influential than their famous predecessor. During the brief reign of his son, Mansa Maghan, Timbuktu was raided and burned by the Mossi, a people who lived to the south of the Niger bend. Although the Malians returned to the city and ruled it for another hundred years, the Mossi raid demonstrated to others that the empire had been diminished. Later, Tuareg nomads raided and caused havoc. They occupied and governed Timbuktu for the next forty years.

The attacks by the Mossi and Tuareg squeezed the enfeebled Malian Empire from the north and east. These raids were followed by rebellions in towns, signaling a more dramatic shift in the region’s geopolitics whereby many of the empire’s most important cities sought to break free of Malian rule. Between 1374 and 1387, uprisings occurred in the salt-producing center of Takedda and in the major trading center of Gao. While Mansa Musa II managed to subdue the Tuareg rebellion at Takedda, he was unable to control the Songhai of Gao, who asserted their independence from Mali. By the 1430s, Mali had lost control not only of Timbuktu but also of vassal kingdoms such as Mema to the north, and critical trading towns such as Djenné had also regained their independence.

The Past Meets the Present

Preserving Mali’s Past

Who owns a nation’s history? Who decides what constitutes an appropriate expression of religious faith? In Mali, such issues have occasioned much debate in the recent past. Many of the Malian Empire’s most important historical and religious sites are in danger as a result of political conflict. In 2012, members of the Tuareg separatist group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, which seeks independence for northern Mali, and members of Ansar Dine, a group linked to al-Qaeda, attacked mosques in the city of Timbuktu. Members of these groups believe the mosques violate Islamic prescriptions for religious buildings and are “idolatrous.”

In Djenné, to the south, the preservation of Mali’s Islamic heritage has encountered other problems. Each year since the Great Mosque was built, the residents of Djenné have applied a new layer of mud to replace the coat washed away during the rainy season. As time has passed, the layers have accumulated, damaging the structure. For several years, the practice had to cease while reconstruction of the building took place, angering the worshippers, who believe they acquire religious merit by repairing the mosque. Some residents also have cause to dislike the mosque’s designation as part of a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) World Heritage site in 1988; the designation protects not only the mosque but also the surrounding mud-brick houses from alteration. This has prevented those who live there from modernizing their homes.

  • Do you agree with UNESCO’s position that “World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located”?
  • Who has the right to decide how historical and religious sites should be treated? Why?

As a result of weak rulers, rebellions, and attacks by the Mossi and Tuareg, the trading towns and routes on which the mansas depended for their wealth and power were gradually being stripped away from the Malian Empire when the arrival of the Portuguese in the fifteenth century complicated matters. The first Portuguese slave raids in West Africa took place on the Senegambian coast, the Atlantic coastline of Senegal and the Gambia in West Africa, in 1444. Initially, the raids caught Malian vassal territories off guard, but they soon recovered and effectively resisted further European encroachment. In 1462, the Portuguese were forced to negotiate a peace treaty, which limited them to trading along the Senegambian coast. This new, direct trade between a European power and Mande merchants along the coast was the first of several steps that ultimately rerouted much commerce away from the trans-Saharan trade routes of the West African interior.

As the European threat gradually faded, pressure mounted on the Mali Empire’s eastern and northern frontiers. There, the emergent Songhai Empire under the leadership of Sunni Ali was expanding, and in a series of conquests, it managed to annex the former Malian territory of Mema (1465), capture Timbuktu (1468), and seize Djenné (1473). By the end of the century, nearly all the lands the Mali Empire once ruled had been lost. What remained was little more than the Mande-speaking heartland and surrounding grassland. Mali continued in this diminished state until the late seventeenth century, by which time most non-Malinke people had asserted their independence and reverted to rule by individual mansas.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax