Human histories are reconstructed from a variety of sources--written, oral and archaeological. Each contributes a different element to the overall story.
The few written accounts about ancient Mali were recorded by Arab travelers and scholars. One of the most famous travelogues is Rihlah by the African-born Ibn Battuta (1304-1368/9), a great Arab traveler of the time. Rihlah describes life in Mali between 1352 and 1353/4 and records his travels to Anatolia (current-day Turkey), Crimea, east Africa, Persia (present-day Iran), India, Cylon, Sumatra, North Africa and perhaps China. Although other written accounts of the ancient West African empires exist, Ibn Battuta is one of the few who actually traveled to this area and wrote from personal experience.
Oral histories are the traditional means by which people typically pass on their histories. Oral sources of African histories included poems, praise songs, and accounts of past events. Official oral historians, known as griots, recorded the peoples' and courts' histories. The epic poem "Sundiata" (also spelled Sundjata) chronicles the life of Sundiata Keita (ca. 1210-1260), the son of the king who defeated the Ghana king Sumanguru and founded the empire of Mali.
Archaeology offers the most tangible evidence of earlier civilizations. Although archaeology has already provided invaluable information pertaining to the life styles and skills of the peoples from this region of West Africa, the archaeological record is still incomplete. The figurative sculptures featured in this resource furnish one part of the historical puzzle of this region. These handsome terracotta sculptures are from the Inland Niger Delta region near Djenne (pronounced JEH-nay; also spelled Jenne), one of several important trading cities that grew and developed during the Mali Empire.
The emergence of the three centralized states
at given points in history can be attributed to the coupling of the lucrative gold trade from the Sudan with the salt brought by North African Muslim traders. Ghana was the richest of the three in c. 1150, owing its wealth primarily to the vast gold fields of Buri and Bambak.
The acceptance of Islam by the rulers of Ghana, Mali and Songhay (also spelled Songhey and Songhai) in c. 1000 encouraged trade between the empires and North Africa. The introduction of Islam also instituted more cosmopolitan social structures, such as universities, world religions and, especially, centralized state systems and military forces.
At its peak, the Mali Empire extended across West Africa to the Atlantic Ocean and incorporated an estimated 40 to 50 million people. The administration of such an enormous territory was formidable and relied on the establishment of a government sensitive to the diversity of the land, population and cultures and accepting of the indigenous rulers and their customs. What distinguished the empires of West Africa, particularly Mali and later Songhay, was their ability to centralize political and military power while allowing the local rulers to maintain their identities along side Islam. The imperial powers were located in active commercial centers like Djenne, Timbuktu and Gao.
The wealth of the Mali Empire is illustrated by the Mali emperor Mansa Musa's pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324. His entourage reportedly included thousands of soldiers, officials and attendants, 100 camels each carrying 300 pounds of gold, and 500 maids and slaves to serve Mansa Musa's senior wife. Once in Egypt, Mansa Musa paid homage to the sultan with gifts of gold. He distributed so much gold that its value was decreased by 10 to 25 percent.
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