Saturday, 4 August 2012

Mali Empire

 Rise and Origins:
Map of Mali EmpireThe founders of the (Manding, Mansa) Mali Empire in West Africa were the Mandinka people. The heartland of the ancient Mali Empire was the plateau between the upper Niger and the Senegal rivers (see map), in the area now within the borders of the modern republic of Mali. At its height in the 14th century A.D. the empire covered an area of more than 24,000 square kilometres.

The Mandingo speaking peoples of the modern states of The Gambia, Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone and Liberia all trace their cultural origins to the Empire of Manding from where their ancestors migrated centuries ago. During the height ofGhana's power the Mandinka lived in scattered villages ruled by village chiefs. Mandinka political unity was brought about by a racial reaction against the oppressive rule of Sumanguru Kante, the Serahule ruler who conquered Mandinka territory after he had established his rule in Kumbi. It was when the scattered Mandingo community came together to resist the oppressive rule of Sumanguru Kante, that the insurgent Mandinka found a national hero inMakhara Makhang Konate, otherwise known as Sunjatta Keita.

Sunjatta was invited by the people of Manding to lead them into war and regain his throne earning his surname Keita which in Mandinka means "to take inheritance". Sunjatta raised a strong army and in 1234 triumphantly entered Jeriba, the capital of Kangaba, and seized the throne. With the defeat of Sumanguru Kante by Sunjatta's forces at the famous battle of Kirina in 1235 the Mali Empire was born. 

At its greatest extent, which was during Sunjatta's lifetime and just shortly after his death, the Manding claimed an immense territory stretching from the edge of the Sahara to the forests of the south in what now comprises the republic of Liberia and Sierra Leone. From east to west, it claimed all the region between Takedda beyond the Niger Buckle covering Senegambia on the Atlantic Ocean. Sunjatta died in 1255 in mysterious circumstances. 

Sujatta's immediate successor was his son Mansa Waliwho reigned for 15 years from 1255 to 1270 and is said to be one of the greatest kings of the Mali Empire. 

 Reign of Mansa Musa:
The best known ruler known to the Arabs and the mostfamous outside the Arab world was Mansa Kankan Musa. Mansa Musa reigned from 1312 to 1337 during its golden age. He consolidated the foundations laid down by Sunjatta and ruled the empire at its greatest height. By the time of his reign Islam had become firmly established among the ruling classes of Mali. It was the emperor's pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 that put the empire on the map. He travelled with thousands of porters and servants carrying lots of gold with him. During his stay in Egypt on his way to Mecca he spent and gave away so much gold that there was a devaluation of the local currency and it sparked an inflationary crisis in Egypt as well as depressing world prices of the commodity. As a result of this rather extravagant display of wealth his fame spread as far as Europe where the Catalan map by Abraham Cresques of about 1375 shows "Mussa Melli" seated on a gold throne wearing a gold crown while holding a gold nugget, describing him as "The riches and most noble king in all the land".

During the time of his reign Mansa Musa also became famous for his work in the fields of politics, commerce and Islam. In the field of politics he extended the borders of Mali even much further and set up a more effective system of government than any of the earlier kings of Mali. Mansa Musa's administration of justice was relatively impartial and in the field of diplomacy he was able to establish friendly relationships with other African states such as Morocco and Egypt. Much of the eyewitness accounts of life in 14th century Manding is derived from the memoirs of Ibn Battuta, an Arab traveller who's Rihla memoirs give a wealth of observation and detail about Mali. Another famous North African scholar, Ibn Khaldun, recorded that "there were diplomatic relations and exchanges of gifts between Mansa Musa and the Contemporary king of Morocco, Sultan Abu-Hassan and that high-ranking statesmen of the two kingdoms were exchanged as ambassadors". 

To help the king in his work, he had judges, scribes and civil servants. These people helped him to strengthen the administrative machinery of the Empire. There were at least 14 provinces in Mali including the province of Manding proper where the the kings' capital of Niani was situated. Most of the provinces were ruled by governors who were usually famous generals. Others, such as the Berber provinces, were governed by their own Sheikhs. Some of the important commercial centres also had governors of their own. All these provincial administrators were responsible to the Mansa, and they were all said to be well paid. The king also regularly invited and dealt with complaints and appeals against injustices perpetrated by the governors. All this elaborate machinery of government was expensive to run, and the Mali kings had the usual sources of income through taxes collected on crops and livestock, tolls tribute from vassal states, trade taxes and proceeds from royal estates.

The Mali Empire enjoyed not only stability and good government under Mansa Musa but also commercial prosperity. As both the salt-producing regions and the gold districts came under her control, Mali was able to attract traders from the north as well as from the south of the empire. His team of governors and strong army were able to maintain order even among the turbulent Berbers of the South-Western regions of the Sahara, so that traders and travellers could move to and fro with a sense of security. In this way commerce became very brisk and traders from different lands such as Egypt and Morocco could be found in the commercial towns.

Mansa Musa and his generals were able to captureWalata, a famous commercial centre built by merchants from Ghana as well as Timbuktu (also spelt Tombouctou), a small town to the north of Mali, which began life as a Berber seasonal camp but would grow into a great commercial and educational centre of the Western Sudan.

 The Economy:
The main commercial centres were its capital Niani, Timbuktu and Gao which later became the capital of Songhai. The major caravan routes terminated at Niani and other commercial staging posts, and defending them was one of the major functions of the empire. Copper, gold, salt, and kola nuts were pivotal to Mali’s economy. After the reign of Sunjatta, Mali became the world’s largest producer of gold. 

Ibn Khaldun described the empire's capital as "an extensive place with cultivated land fed by running water, with an active population, busy markets and at the time, station for trading caravans from Morocco, Tripoli and Egypt".  However, the commercial centres of Timbuktu and Gao to the north of Niani were even more commercially active. The medium of exchange for trade in was the white shells known as cowries, though the system of barter was also practised. 

 Spread of Islam & Literacy:
One of the main things that gave fame to Mansa Musa was his work in the field of Islam. Mansa Musa was himself a very pious Muslim and wanted to use Islam for the spiritual well being of his people. He devoted a great deal of his time purifying, strengthening and spreading Islam in Mali, especially after his famous pilgrimage to Mecca. After his pilgrimage to Mecca he returned to Mali filled with a determination to purify and strengthen Islam, to promote Islamic education and to introduce some of the new things he had seen on his journey.

As a pious Muslim Musa made the end of Ramadan a national ceremony and built imposing mosques in several cities.  He also gave generous patronage to Muslim scholars to encourage them in their study and teaching of the Islamic sciences. The Sankore mosque built in Timbuktu became an internationally known centre of scholarship, equivalent to the Medieval universities of Europe. This had a number of practical advantages. Literacy in Arabic facilitated the transaction of government business and also improved political and commercial dealings with North Africa.

Musa's contact with North Africa brought important developments in the field of architecture. On his return from his hajj in Mecca, he was accompanied by a Spanish poet and architect from Andalusia named El-Saheli. El-Saheli built the king a distinguished palace in Timbuktu as well as a number of Mosques in Manding cities including the mud brick Djingareiber Mosque for which he was paid 200 kg of gold. The architectural styles introduced by El-Saheli were new to the Mandinkas as he introduced the flat roof of North Africa, the pyramidal minaret and the use of burnt bricks. These designs were to later influence architecture in the Western Sudan.

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