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Mali Empire

Mali Empire
Nyeni  (Bambara)
after c. 1230:
Manden Kurufaba  (Bambara)[1]


c. 1235–c. 1600



Extent of the Mali Empire (c. 1350)
Capital Niani; later Ka-ba
Languages Malinké, Mandinka, Bambara, Fulani, Bozo
Religion African Traditional Religion, Islam
Political structure Empire
Mansa (Emperor)
 •  1235–1255 Mari Djata I (first)
 •  c. 17th century Mahmud IV (last)
Legislature Gbara
Historical era Postclassical Era
 •  Established c. 1235
 •  Capital moved from Niani to Kangaba 1559
 •  State collapses and divided among emperor's sons c. 1600
 •  1250[2] 100,000 km² (38,610 sq mi)
 •  1312[3] 1,294,994 km² (500,000 sq mi)
 •  1380[2] 1,100,000 km² (424,712 sq mi)
 •  1500[2] 400,000 km² (154,441 sq mi)
Currency Gold dust
(Salt, copper and cowries were also common in the empire)
Today part of  The Gambia
 Ivory Coast
National Symbol: Falcon
Sacred Animal:Falcon and numerous other animals according to each of the governing clans (Lion, Boar, etc.)

The Mali Empire (Manding: Nyeni;[4] English: Niani), also historically referred to as the Manden Kurufaba,[1] was a Mandinka/Bambara empire in West Africa from c. 1230 to c. 1600. The empire was founded by Sundiata Keita and became renowned for the wealth of its rulers, especially Mansa Musa.

Mali Empire was the largest in west Africa and profoundly influenced the culture of West Africa through the spread of its language, laws and customs along the lands along the Niger River and extending over a large area that consisted of numerous vassal kingdoms and provinces.[5]


  • The Mali Empire 1
  • Pre-Imperial Mali 2
    • The Kangaba Province 2.1
    • The Two Kingdoms 2.2
    • The Kaniaga Rulers 2.3
    • The Hungering Lion 2.4
      • Battle of Kirina 2.4.1
    • Organization 2.5
      • The Great Assembly 2.5.1
      • Social, economic, and government reformation 2.5.2
      • Mari Djata I / Sundiata Keita I 2.5.3
  • Imperial Mali 3
  • The Emperors of Mali 4
    • The Keita/Djata Lineage 1250–1275 4.1
      • Ouali Keita I 4.1.1
      • The Generals' Sons 4.1.2
    • The Court Mansas 1275–1300 4.2
      • Abubakari Keita I 4.2.1
      • Sakoura 4.2.2
    • The Kolonkan Keita Lineage 1300–1312 4.3
      • Economy 4.3.1
        • Gold
        • Salt
        • Copper
      • Military 4.3.2
        • Strength
        • Order of Battle
        • Equipment
      • The Gao Mansas 4.3.3
      • Abubakari Keita II 4.3.4
    • The Laye Keita Lineage 1312–1389 4.4
      • Administration 4.4.1
      • Farins and Farbas 4.4.2
      • Territory 4.4.3
      • Musa Keita I 4.4.4
      • Souleyman Keita 4.4.5
      • Mari Djata Keita II 4.4.6
      • Musa Keita II 4.4.7
      • Maghan Keita II 4.4.8
    • The Obscure Lineages 1389–1545 4.5
      • Sandaki Keita 4.5.1
      • Maghan Keita III 4.5.2
      • Musa Keita III 4.5.3
      • Ouali Keita II 4.5.4
      • Mansa Mahmud Keita II 4.5.5
      • Mansa Mahmud Keita III 4.5.6
  • Late Imperial Mali 5
    • Mansa Mahmud Keita IV 5.1
  • Collapse 6
    • Manden Divided 6.1
    • The Bamana Jihad 6.2
      • Sack of Niani 6.2.1
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • Sources 9
  • Further reading 10
  • External links 11

The Mali Empire

Mansa Musa depicted holding a gold nugget, from the 1375 Catalan Atlas

The name Mālī (مالي) was recorded as the name of the empire by Ibn Battuta (d. 1368/9). According to Battuta's contemporary Chihab al-Umari (d. 1384), the name of the empire was Nyeni (Niani), after its capital. Alternative variants of the name Mali included Mallel, Mel, and Melit.

The native name Manden for the territory was eponymous of the name of the ethnic group, the Manden’ka, with the ka suffix meaning "people of".[6] From the evidence of the Epic of Sundiata, a semi-historical account of the empire's foundation in the early 13th century,[7] the territory with this name comprised most of present-day northern Guinea and southern Mali. The empire originated as a federation of Mandinka tribes called the Manden Kurufaba[1] (Manden being the country, kuru meaning "assembly" and faba meaning "great entirety"). The rulers of Mali came to be called mansa, meaning “emperor” or “master.” Mansa Musa was Mali’s most renowned king, ruling from 1312 to 1337 CE. He was the grandson of Sundiata’s half brother, and ruled Mali at a time of great prosperity, during which trade tripled. During his rule, he doubled the land area of Mali; it became a larger kingdom than any in Europe at the time. The cities of Mali became important trading centers for all of West Africa as well as famous centers of wealth, culture, and learning. Timbuktu, an important city in Mali, became one of the major cultural centers not only of Africa but of the entire world. Vast libraries and Islamic universities were built. These became meeting places of the finest poets, scholars, and artists of Africa and the Middle East. Mansa Musa, who was Muslim, was perhaps best known outside of Mali for his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 C.E. According to some accounts, 60,000 people accompanied him, along with 200 camels laden with gold, silver, food, clothing, and other goods. This pilgrimage displayed Mansa Musa’s enormous wealth and generosity.

Pre-Imperial Mali

There are a few references to Mali in written literature of roughly contemporary age. Among these are references to "Daw" and "Malal" in the work of al-Bakri in 1068,[8] the story of the conversion of an early ruler, known to Ibn Khaldun (by 1397) as Barmandana,[9] and a few geographical details in the work of al-Idrisi.[10]

There has also been archaeological work done especially at Niani, reputed to be the capital of Mali, by Polish and Guinean archaeologists in the 1960s which revealed the remains of a substantial town dating back as far as the 6th century.

Modern oral traditions also related that the Mandinka kingdoms of Mali or Manden had already existed several centuries before Sundiata's unification as a small state just to the south of the Soninké empire of Wagadou, better known as the Ghana Empire.[11] This area was composed of mountains, savannah and forest providing ideal protection and resources for the population of hunters.[12] Those not living in the mountains formed small city-states such as Toron, Ka-Ba and Niani. Through the oral tradition of Griots, The Keita dynasty from which nearly every Mali emperor came traces its lineage back from Lawalo, one of the sons of Bilal,[13] the faithful muezzin of Islam's prophet Muhammad, which was said to migrated into Mali and his descendants establishing the ruling Keita Dynasty through Maghan Kon Fatta, father of Sundiata Keita.[14]

It was common practice during the Middle Ages for both Christian and Muslim rulers to tie their bloodline back to a pivotal figure in their faith's history, so the lineage of the Keita dynasty may be dubious at best.

The Kangaba Province

Genealogy of the kings of the Mali Empire based on the chronicle of Ibn Khaldun[15]

During the height of Sundiata's power, the land of Manden became one of its provinces.[16] The Manden city-state of Ka-ba (present-day Kangaba) served as the capital and name of this province. From at least the beginning of the 11th century, Mandinka kings known as faamas ruled Manden from Ka-ba in the name of the Ghanas.[17]

The Two Kingdoms

Wagadou's control over Manden came to a halt after internal instability lead to its decline.[18] The Kangaba province, free of Soninké influence, splintered into twelve kingdoms with their own maghan (meaning prince) or faama.[19] Manden was split in half with the Dodougou territory to the northeast and the Kri territory to the southwest.[20] The tiny kingdom of Niani was one of several in the Kri area of Manden.

The Kaniaga Rulers

In approximately 1140 the Sosso kingdom of Kaniaga, a former vassal of Wagadou, began conquering the lands of its old masters. By 1180 it had even subjugated Wagadou forcing the Soninké to pay tribute. In 1203, the Sosso king Soumaoro of the Kanté clan came to power and reportedly terrorized much of Manden stealing women and goods from both Dodougou and Kri.[21]

The Hungering Lion

Mali Terracotta horseman figure from 13th to 15th centuries

According to Niane's version of the epic, during the rise of Kaniaga, Sundiata of the Keita clan was born in the early 13th century. He was the son of Niani's faama, Nare Fa (also known as Maghan Kon Fatta meaning the handsome prince). Sundiata's mother was Maghan Kon Fatta's second wife, Sogolon Kédjou.[13] She was a hunchback from the land of Do, south of Mali. The child of this marriage received the first name of his mother (Sogolon) and the surname of his father (Djata). Combined in the rapidly spoken language of the Mandinka, the names formed Sondjata, Sundjata or Sundiata Keita.[13] The anglicized version of this name, Sunjata, is also popular. In Ibn Khaldun's account, Sundjata is recorded as Mari Djata with "Mari" meaning "Amir" or "Prince". He also states that Djata or "Jatah" means "lion".[22]

Prince Sundjata was prophesized to become a great conqueror. To his parent's dread, the prince did not have a promising start. Sundiata, according to the oral traditions, did not walk until he was seven years old.[19] However, once Sundiata did gain use of his legs he grew strong and very respected. Sadly for Sundjata, this did not occur before his father died. Despite the faama of Niani's wishes to respect the prophecy and put Sundiata on the throne, the son from his first wife Sassouma Bérété was crowned instead. As soon as Sassouma's son Dankaran Touman took the throne, he and his mother forced the increasingly popular Sundjata into exile along with his mother and two sisters. Before Dankaran Touman and his mother could enjoy their unimpeded power, King Soumaoro set his sights on Niani forcing Dankaran to flee to Kissidougou.[13]

After many years in exile, first at the court of Wagadou and then at Mema, Sundiata was sought out by a Niani delegation and begged to combat the Sosso and free the kingdoms of Manden forever.

Battle of Kirina

Returning with the combined armies of Mema, Wagadou and all the rebellious Mandinka city-states, Maghan Sundiata or Sumanguru led a revolt against the Kaniaga Kingdom around 1234. The combined forces of northern and southern Manden defeated the Sosso army at the Battle of Kirina (then known as Krina) in approximately 1235.[23] This victory resulted in the fall of the Kaniaga kingdom and the rise of the Mali Empire. After the victory, King Soumaoro disappeared, and the Mandinka stormed the last of the Sosso cities. Maghan Sundiata was declared "faama of faamas" and received the title "mansa", which translates roughly to emperor. At the age of 18, he gained authority over all the twelve kingdoms in an alliance known as the Manden Kurufaba. He was crowned under the throne name Mari Djata becoming the first Mandinka emperor.[19]


The Manden Kurufaba founded by Mari Djata it was composed of the "three freely allied states" of Mali, Mema and Wagadou plus the Twelve Doors of Mali.[13] It is important to remember that Mali, in this sense, strictly refers to the city-state of Niani.

The Twelve Doors of Mali were a coalition of conquered or allied territories, mostly within Manden, with sworn allegiance to Sundiata and his descendants. Upon stabbing their spears into the ground before Sundiata's throne, each of the twelve kings relinquished their kingdom to the Keita dynasty.[13] In return for their submission, they became "farbas" a combination of the Mandinka words "farin" and "ba" (great farin).[24] Farin was a general term for northern commander at the time. These farbas would rule their old kingdoms in the name of the mansa with most of the authority they held prior to joining the Manden Kurufaba.

The Great Assembly

The Gbara or Great Assembly would serve as the Mandinka deliberative body until the collapse of the Manden Kurufa in 1645. Its first meeting, at the famous Kouroukan Fouga (Division of the World), had 29 clan delegates presided over by a belen-tigui (master of ceremony). The final incarnation of the Gbara, according to the surviving traditions of northern Guinea, held 32 positions occupied by 28 clans.[25]

Social, economic, and government reformation

The Kouroukan Fouga also put in place social and economic reforms including prohibitions on the maltreatment of prisoners and slaves, installing documents between clans which clearly stated who could say what about whom. Also, Sundiata divided the lands amongst the people assuring everyone had a place in the empire and fixed exchange rates for common products.

Mari Djata I / Sundiata Keita I

Mansa Mari Djata later named Sundiata Keita saw the conquest and or annexation of several key locals in the Mali Empire. He never took the field again after Kirina, but his generals continued to expand the frontier, especially in the west where they reached the Gambia River and the marches of Tekrur. This enabled him to rule over a realm larger than even the Ghana Empire in its apex.[23] When the campaigning was done, his empire extended 1,000 miles (1,600 km) east to west with those borders being the bends of the Senegal and Niger Rivers respectively.[26] After unifying Manden, he added the Wangara goldfields making them the southern border. The northern commercial towns of Oualata and Audaghost were also conquered and became part of the new state's northern border. Wagadou and Mema became junior partners in the realm and part of the imperial nucleus. The lands of Bambougou, Jalo (Fouta Djallonke), and Kaabu or Gabu means North in Mandinka Gabunke means Northner were added into Mali by Fakoli Koroma (Nkurumah in Ghana, Kurumah in Gambia, Colley in Casamance, Senegal),[19] Fran Kamara (Camara), and Tiramakhan Traore (Tarawelley Gambia),[27] respectively. Among the many different ethnic groups surrounding Manden were Pulaar speaking groups in Macina, Tekrur and Fouta Djallon.The Mandinka of Manden became the Malinke of Mali.

Imperial Mali

Imperial Mali is best known to us through three primary sources: The first is the account of Shihab al-Din ibn Fadl Allah al-'Umari, written about 1340 by a geographer-administrator in Egypt. His information about the empire came from visiting Malians taking the hajj, or pilgrim's voyage to Mecca. He had first hand information from several, and at second hand, he learned of the visit of Mansa Musa. The second account is that of the traveler Shams al-Din Abu Abd'Allah ibn Battua, who visited Mali in 1352. This is the first account of a West African kingdom made directly by an eyewitness, the others are usually at second hand. The third great account is that of Abu Zayd Abd-al-Rahman ibn Khaldun, who wrote in the early 15th century. While the accounts are of limited length, they provide us with a fairly good picture of the empire at its height.

The Emperors of Mali

There were 21 known mansas of the Mali Empire after Mari Djata I and probably about two or three more yet to be revealed. The names of these rulers come down through history via the djelis and modern descendants of the Keita dynasty residing in Kangaba. What separates these rulers from the founder, other than the latter's historic role in establishing the state, is their transformation of the Manden Kurufaba into a Manden Empire. Not content to rule fellow Manding subjects unified by the victory of Mari Djata I, these mansas would conquer and annex Fula,[28] Wolof, Bamana, Songhai, Tuareg, and countless other peoples into an immense empire.

The Keita/Djata Lineage 1250–1275

The first three successors to Mari Djata/Sundiata Keita all claimed it by blood right or something close to it. This twenty-five year period saw amazing gains for the mansa and the beginning fierce internal rivalries that nearly ended the burgeoning empire.

Ouali Keita I

After Sundiatas death in 1255, custom dictated that his son ascend the throne assuming he was of age. However, Yérélinkon was a minor following his father's death.[25] Manding Bory Keita, Sundiata's half-brother and kankoro-sigui (vizier), should have been crowned according to the Kouroukan Fouga. Instead, Mari Djata's son seized the throne and was crowned Mansa Ouali Keita (also spelt "Wali" or "Ali").[29]

Mansa Ouali Keita proved to be a good emperor adding more lands to the empire including the Gambian provinces of Bati and Casa. He also conquered the gold producing provinces of Bambuk and Bondou. The central province of Konkodougou was established. The Songhai kingdom of Gao also seems to have been subjugated for the first of many times around this period.[30]

Aside from military conquest, Ouali is also credited with agricultural reforms throughout the empire putting many soldiers to work as farmers in the newly acquired Gambian provinces. Just prior to his death in 1270, Ouali went on the hajj to Mecca during the reign of Sultan Baibars, according to Ibn Khaldun.[29] This helped in strengthening ties with North Africa and Muslim merchants.[30]

The Generals' Sons

As a policy of controlling and rewarding his generals, Mari Djata adopted their sons.[19] These children were raised at the mansa's court and became Keitas upon reaching maturity. Seeing the throne as their right, two adopted sons of Mari Djata waged a devastating war against one another that threatened to destroy what the first two mansas had built. The first son to gain the throne was Mansa Ouati Keita (also spelt "Wati) in 1270.[31] He reigned for four years spending lavishly and ruling cruelly according to the djelis. Upon his death in 1274, the other adopted son seized the throne.[31] Mansa Khalifa Keita is remembered as even worse than Ouati Keita. He governed just as badly, was insane and fired arrows from the roof of his palace at passersby. Ibn Khaldun recounts that the people rushed upon him and killed him during a popular revolt.[29] The Gbara replaced him with Manding Bory Keita in 1275.[32]

The Court Mansas 1275–1300

After the chaos of Ouati Keita and Khalifa Keita's reigns, a number of court officials with close ties to Sundiata Keita ruled. They began the empire's return to grace setting it up for a golden age of rulers.

Abubakari Keita I

Manding Bory was crowned under the throne name Mansa Abubakari (a Manding corruption of the Muslim name Abu Bakr).[19] Mansa Abubakari's mother was Namandjé,[19] the third wife of Maghan Kon Fatta. Prior to becoming mansa, Abubakari had been one of his brother's generals and later his kankoro-sigui. Little else is known about the reign of Abubakari I, but it seems he was successful in stopping the hemorrhaging of wealth in the empire.


In 1285, a court slave freed by Sundiata Keita, and who had also served as a general, usurped the throne of Mali.[30] The reign of Mansa Sakoura (also spelt Sakura) appears to have been beneficial despite the political shake-up. He added the first conquests to Mali since the reign of Ouali including the former Wagadou provinces of Tekrour and Diara. His conquests did not stop at the boundaries of Wagadou, however. He campaigned into Senegal and conquered the Wolof province of Dyolof then took the army east to subjugate the copper producing area of Takedda. He also conquered Macina and raided into Gao to suppress its first rebellion against Mali.[30] More than just a mere warrior, Mansa Sakoura went on the hajj during the reign of Al-Nasir Muhammad.[29] Mansa Sakura also opened direct trade negotiations with Tripoli and Morocco.[30]

Sakoura was murdered on his return trip from Mecca in or near present-day Djibouti by a Danakil warrior attempting to rob him.[33] The emperor's attendants rushed his body home through the Ouaddai region and into Kanem where one of that empire's messengers was sent to Mali with news of Sakoura's death. When the body arrived in Niani, it was given a regal burial despite the usurper's slave roots.[33]

The Kolonkan Keita Lineage 1300–1312

The Gbara selected Ko Mamadi Keita as the next mansa in 1300. He was the first of a new line of rulers directly descending from Sundiata Keita's sister, Kolonkan Keita.[19] But seeing as how these rulers all shared the blood of Maghan Kon Fatta, they are considered legitimate Keitas. Even Sakoura, with his history of being a slave in the Keita family, was considered a Keita; so the line of Bilal had yet to be broken.

It is during the Kolonkan Keita lineage that the defining characteristics of golden age Mali begin to appear. By maintaining the developments of Sakoura and Abubakari Keita I, the Kolonkan Keita mansas steer Mali safely into its apex.


The Mali Empire flourished because of trade above all else. It contained three immense gold mines within its borders unlike the Ghana Empire, which was only a transit point for gold. The empire taxed every ounce of gold,cotton and salt that entered its borders. By the beginning of the 14th century, Mali was the source of almost half the Taghaza, for example, salt was exchanged; at Takedda, copper. Ibn Battuta observed the employment of slave labor in both towns. During most of his journey, Ibn Battuta traveled with a retinue that included slaves, most of whom carried goods for trade but would also be traded as slaves. On the return from Takedda to Morocco, his caravan transported 600 female slaves, suggesting that slavery was a substantial part of the commercial activity of the empire.[34]


Gold nuggets were the exclusive property of the mansa, and were illegal to trade within his borders. All gold was immediately handed over to the imperial treasury in return for an equal value of gold dust. Gold dust had been weighed and bagged for use at least since the reign of the Ghana Empire. Mali borrowed the practice to stem inflation of the substance, since it was so prominent in the region. The most common measure for gold within the realm was the ambiguous mithqal (4.5 grams of gold).[19] This term was used interchangeably with dinar, though it is unclear if coined currency was used in the empire. Gold dust was used all over the empire, but was not valued equally in all regions.

Tuaregs were and still are an integral part of the salt trade across the Sahara

The next great unit of exchange in the Mali Empire was salt. Salt was as valuable, if not more valuable than gold in Sub-Saharan Africa. It was cut into pieces and spent on goods with close to equal buying power throughout the empire.[35] While it was as good as gold in the north, it was even better in the south. The people of the south needed salt for their diet, but it was extremely rare. The northern region on the other hand had no shortage of salt. Every year merchants entered Mali via Oualata with camel loads of salt to sell in Niani. According to Ibn Battuta who visited Mali in the mid-14th century, one camel load of salt sold at Walata for 8–10 mithkals of gold, but in Mali proper it realized 20–30 ducats and sometimes even 40.[35] One particular source of Salt commodity in Mali empire were salt-mining sites located in Taghaza. Ibn Battuta had written in Taghaza there were no trees and there is only sand and the salt mines. Nobody lived in the area except the Musafa slaves who working to dug the salts and lived on dates imported from Sijilmasa and the Dar'a valley, camel meat and millet imported from the Sudan. The buildings eve constructed from slabs of salt and roofed with camel skins. The salt was dug from the ground and cut into thick slabs, two of which were loaded onto each camel where they will be taken south across the desert to Oualata and sold. The value of the salt was chiefly determined by the transport costs. Ibn Battuta mentions value of salt increased fourfold when transported between Oualata and the Malian capital[36]


Copper was also a valued commodity in imperial Mali. According to the records of Ibn Battuta,[37][38] Copper which traded in bars was mined from Takedda in the north and traded in the south for gold. Contemporary sources claim 60 copper bars traded for 100 dinars of gold.[19]


The number and frequency of conquests in the late 13th century and throughout the 14th century indicate the Kolonkan mansas inherited and or developed a capable military. Sundjata is credited with at least the initial organization of the Manding war machine. However, it went through radical changes before reaching the legendary proportions proclaimed by its subjects. Thanks to steady tax revenue and stable government beginning in the last quarter of the 13th century, the Mali Empire was able to project its power throughout its own extensive domain and beyond.

Terracotta Archer figure from Mali (13th to 15th century).

The Mali Empire maintained a semi-professional, full-time army in order to defend its borders. The entire nation was mobilized with each clan obligated to provide a quota of fighting age men.[19] These men had to be of the horon (freemen) caste and appear with their own arms. Historians who lived during the height and decline of the Mali Empire consistently record its army at 100,000 with 10,000 of that number being made up of cavalry.[19] With the help of the river clans, this army could be deployed throughout the realm on short notice.[39][40] Numerous sources attest that the inland waterways of West Africa saw extensive use of war-canoes and vessels used for war transport where permitted by the environment. Most West African canoes were of single log construction, carved and dug-out from one massive tree trunk.[41]

Order of Battle

The army of the Mali Empire during the 14th century was divided into northern and southern commands led by the Farim-Soura and Sankar-Zouma, respectively.[19] Both of these men were part of Mali's warrior elite known as the ton-ta-jon-ta-ni-woro ("sixteen slave carriers of quiver"). Each representative or ton-tigi ("quiver-master") provided council to the mansa at the Gbara, but only these two ton-tigi held such wide ranging power.

The ton-tigi belonged to an elite force of cavalry commanders called the farari ("brave men"). Each individual farariya ("brave") had a number of infantry officers beneath them called kèlè-koun or dùùkùnàsi. A kèlè-koun led free troops into battle alongside a farima ("brave man") during campaign. A dùùkùnàsi performed the same function except with slave troops called sofa ("guardian of the horse") and under the command of a farimba ("great brave man"). The farimba operated from a garrison with an almost entirely slave force, while a farima functioned on the field with virtually all freemen.


The army of the Mali Empire used of a wide variety of weapons depending largely on where the troops originated. Only sofa were equipped by the state, using bows and poisoned arrows. Free warriors from the north (Mandekalu or otherwise), were usually equipped with large reed or animal hide shields and a stabbing spear that was called a tamba. Free warriors from the south came armed with bows and poisonous arrows. The bow figured prominently in Mandinka warfare and was a symbol of military force throughout the culture. Bowmen formed a large portion of the field army as well as the garrison. Three bowmen supporting one spearman was the ratio in Kaabu and the Gambia by the mid-16th century. Equipped with two quivers and a knife fastened to the back of their arm, Mandinka bowmen used barbed, iron-tipped arrows that were usually poisoned. They also used flaming arrows for siege warfare. While spears and bows were the mainstay of the infantry, swords and lances of local or foreign manufacture were the choice weapons of the cavalry. Ibn Battuta comments on festival demonstrations of swordplay before the mansa by his retainers including the royal interpreter.[42] Another common weapon of Mandekalu warriors was the poison javelin used in skirmishes. Imperial Mali's horsemen also used mail armor for defense and shields similar to those of the infantry.

The Gao Mansas

Ko Mamadi Keita was crowned Mansa Gao Keita and ruled over a successful empire without any recorded crisis. His son, Mansa Mohammed ibn Gao Keita, ascended the throne five years later and continued the stability of the Kolonkan Keita line.[19]

Abubakari Keita II

The last Kolonkan ruler, Bata Manding Bory Keita, was crowned Mansa Abubakari Keita II in 1310.[19] He continued the non-militant style of rule that characterized Gao and Mohammed ibn Gao Keita, but was interested in the empire's western sea. According to an account given by Mansa Musa Keita I, who during the reign of Abubakari Keita II served as the mansa's kankoro-sigui, Mali sent two expeditions into the Atlantic. Mansa Abubakari Keita II left Musa Keita as regent of the empire, demonstrating the stability of this period in Mali, and departed with the second expedition commanding some 4,000 pirogues equipped with both oars and sails in 1311.[43] Neither the emperor nor any of the ships returned to Mali. Modern historians and scientists are skeptical about the success of either voyage, but the account of these happenings is preserved in both written North African records and the oral records of Mali's djelis.

The Laye Keita Lineage 1312–1389

Abubakari Keita II's 1312 abdication, the only recorded one in the empire's history, marked the beginning of a new lineage descended from Faga Laye Keita.[19] Faga Laye Keita was the son of Abubakari Keita I. Unlike his father, Faga Laye Keita never took the throne of Mali. However, his line would produce seven mansa who reigned during the height of Mali's power and toward the beginning of its decline.


The Mali Empire covered a larger area for a longer period of time than any other West African state before or since. What made this possible was the decentralized nature of administration throughout the state. According to Joseph Ki-Zerbo, the farther a person traveled from Niani, the more decentralized the mansa's power became.[44] Nevertheless, the mansa managed to keep tax money and nominal control over the area without agitating his subjects into revolt. At the local level (village, town, city), kun-tiguis elected a dougou-tigui (village-master) from a bloodline descended from that locality's semi-mythical founder.[45] The county level administrators called kafo-tigui (county-master) were appointed by the governor of the province from within his own circle.[30] Only when we get to the state or province level is there any palpable interference from the central authority in Niani. Provinces picked their own governors via their own custom (election, inheritance, etc.). Regardless of their title in the province, they were recognized as dyamani-tigui (province master) by the mansa.[30] Dyamani-tiguis had to be approved by the mansa and were subject to his oversight. If the mansa didn’t believe the dyamani-tigui was capable or trustworthy, a farba might be installed to oversee the province or administer it outright.

Farins and Farbas

Territories in Mali came into the empire via conquest or annexation. In the event of conquest, farins took control of the area until a suitable native ruler could be found. After the loyalty or at least the capitulation of an area was assured, it was allowed to select its own dyamani-tigui. This process was essential to keep non-Manding subjects loyal to the Manding elites that ruled them.

Barring any other difficulties, the dyamani-tigui would run the province by himself collecting taxes and procuring armies from the tribes under his command. However, territories that were crucial to trade or subject to revolt would receive a farba.[46] Farbas were picked by the mansa from the conquering farin or family members. The only real requirement was that the mansa knew he could trust this individual to safeguard imperial interests.

Duties of the farba included reporting on the activities of the territory, collecting taxes and ensuring the native administration didn’t contradict orders from Niani. The farba could also take power away from the native administration if required and raise an army in the area for defense or putting down rebellions.[46]

The post of a farba was very prestigious, and his descendants could inherit it with the mansa's approval. The mansa could also replace a farba if he got out of control as in the case of Diafunu.


Approximate extent of the Mali Empire, c. 1350.

The Mali Empire reached its largest size under the Laye Keita mansas. Al-Umari, who wrote down a description of Mali based on information given to him by Abu Sa’id ‘Otman ed Dukkali (who had lived 35 years in Niani), reported the realm as being square and an eight-month journey from its coast at Tura (the mouth of the Senegal River) to Muli (also known as Tuhfat). Umari also describes the empire as being south of Marrakesh and almost entirely inhabited except for few places. Mali's domain also extended into the desert. He describes it as being north of Mali but under its domination implying some sort of vassalage for the Antasar, Yantar'ras, Medussa and Lemtuna Berber tribes.[47] The empire's total area included nearly all the land between the Sahara Desert and coastal forests. It spanned the modern-day countries of Senegal, southern Mauritania, Mali, northern Burkina Faso, western Niger, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, the Ivory Coast and northern Ghana. By 1350, the empire covered approximately 439,400 square miles (1,138,000 km2). The empire also reached its highest population during the Laye period ruling over 400 cities,[48] towns and villages of various religions and elasticities. During this period only the Mongol Empire was larger.

The dramatic increase in the empire's size demanded a shift from the Manden Kurufaba's organization of three states with twelve dependencies. This model was scrapped by the time of Mansa Musa's hajj to Egypt. According to al'Umari, who interviewed a Berber that had lived in Niani for 35 years, there were fourteen provinces (really tributary kingdoms). In al-'Umari's record, he only records the following thirteen provinces and five states.[49]

  • Gana (this refers to the remnants of the Ghana Empire)
  • Zagun or Zafun (this is another name for Diafunu)[50]
  • Tirakka or Turanka (Between Gana and Tadmekka)[49]
  • Takrur (On 3rd cataract of the Senegal River, north of Jolof)
  • Sanagana (named for a tribe living in an area north of the Senegal river)
  • Bambuck or Bambughu (A territory in eastern Senegal and western Mali which was very rich in gold sources)
  • Zargatabana
  • Darmura or Babitra Darmura
  • Zaga (on the Niger, downriver of Kabora)
  • Kabora or Kabura (also on the Niger)
  • Baraquri or Baraghuri
  • Gao or Kawkaw (province inhabited by Gao Empire which predated the Songhai)[51]
  • Mali or Manden (capital province for which the realm gets its name)

Musa Keita I

Sankore Mosque

The first ruler from the Laye lineage was Kankan Musa Keita (or, Moussa), also known as Mansa Musa. After an entire year without word from Abubakari Keita II, he was crowned Mansa Musa Keita. Mansa Musa Keita was one of the first truly devout Muslims to lead the Mali Empire. He attempted to make Islam the faith of the nobility,[30] but kept to the imperial tradition of not forcing it on the populace. He also made Eid celebrations at the end of Ramadan a national ceremony. He could read and write Arabic and took an interest in the scholarly city of Timbuktu, which he peaceably annexed in 1324. Via one of the royal ladies of his court, Musa transformed Sankore from an informal madrasah into an Islamic university. Islamic studies flourished thereafter. That same year a Mandinka general known as Sagmandir put down yet another rebellion in Gao.[30]

Mansa Musa Keita's crowning achievement was his famous pilgrimage to Mecca, which started in 1324 and concluded with his return in 1326. Accounts of how many people and how much gold he spent vary. All of them agree it was a very large group, the mansa kept a personal guard of some 500 men,[52] and he gave out so many alms and bought so many things that the value of gold in Egypt and Arabia depreciated for twelve years.[53] When he passed through Cairo, historian al-Maqurizi noted "the members of his entourage proceeded to buy Turkish and Ethiopian slave girls, singing girls and garments, so that the rate of the gold dinar fell by six dirhams."

Musa spent so much that he ran out of money and had to take out a loan to be able to afford the journey home. An alternative explanation is that he borrowed gold from Cairo's money-lenders at high interest to attempt to correct the depreciation of gold in the area due to his spending.[54] Musa's hajj, and especially his gold, caught the attention of both the Islamic and Christian worlds. Consequently, the name of Mali and Timbuktu appeared on 14th century world maps.

While on the hajj, he met the Andalusian poet and architect Es-Saheli. Mansa Musa brought the architect back to Mali to beautify some of the cities. But more reasoned analysis suggests that his role, if any, was quite limited. the architectural crafts in Granada had reached their zenith by the fourteenth century, and its extremely unlikely that a cultured and wealthy poet would have had anything more than a dilettante's knowledge of the intricacies of contemporary architectural practice.[55] Mosques were built in Gao and Timbuktu along with impressive palaces also built in Timbuktu. By the time of his death in 1337, Mali had control over Taghazza, a salt producing area in the north, which further strengthened its treasury.

By the end of Mansa Musa's reign, the Sankoré University had been converted into a fully staffed University with the largest collections of books in Africa since the Library of Alexandria . The Sankoré University was capable of housing 25,000 students and had one of the largest libraries in the world with roughly 1000,000 manuscripts.[56][57]

Mansa Musa Keita was succeeded by his son, Maghan Keita I.[30] Mansa Maghan Keita I spent wastefully and was the first lackluster emperor since Khalifa Keita. But the Mali Empire built by his predecessors was too strong for even his misrule and passed intact to Musa's brother, Souleyman Keita in 1341.

Souleyman Keita

Mansa Souleyman Keita (or Mansa Suleiman) took steep measures to put Mali back into financial shape developing a reputation for miserliness.[30] However, he proved to be a good and strong ruler despite numerous challenges. It is during his reign that Fula raids on Takrur began. There was also a palace conspiracy to overthrow him hatched by the Qasa (Manding term meaning Queen) and several army commanders.[30] Mansa Souleyman's generals successfully fought off the military incursions, and the senior wife behind the plot was imprisoned.

The mansa also made a successful hajj, kept up correspondence with Morocco and Egypt and built an earthen platform at Kangaba called the Camanbolon where he held court with provincial governors and deposited the holy books he brought back from Hedjaz.

The only major setback to his reign was the loss of Mali's Dyolof province in Senegal. The Wolof populations of the area united into their own state known as the Jolof Empire in the 1350s. Still, when Ibn Battuta arrived at Mali in July 1352, he found a thriving civilization on par with virtually anything in the Muslim or Christian world. Mansa Souleyman Keita died in 1360 and was succeeded by his son, Camba Keita.

The North African traveler and scholar Ibn Battuta visited the area in 1352 AD and, according to a 1929 English translation, said this about its inhabitants:

"The negroes possess some admirable qualities. They are seldom unjust, and have a greater abhorrence of injustice than any other people. There is complete security in their country. Neither traveler nor inhabitant in it has anything to fear from robbers or men of violence."[58]

Mari Djata Keita II

After a mere nine months of rule, Mansa Camba Keita was deposed by one of Maghan Keita I's three sons. Konkodougou Kamissa Keita, named for the province he once governed,[19] was crowned as Mansa Mari Djata Keita II in 1360. He ruled oppressively and nearly bankrupted Mali with his lavish spending. He did however, maintain contacts with Morocco, sending a giraffe to King Abu Hassan of the Maghreb. Mansa Mari Djata Keita II became seriously ill in 1372,[30] and power moved into the hands of his ministers until his death in 1374.

Musa Keita II

The ruinous reign of Mari Djata Keita II left the empire in bad financial shape, but the empire itself passed intact to the dead emperor's brother. Mansa Fadima Musa Keita, or Mansa Musa Keita II, began the process of reversing his brother's excesses.[30] He did not, however, hold the power of previous mansas because of the influence of his kankoro-sigui.

Kankoro-Sigui Mari Djata, who had no relation to the Keita clan, essentially ran the empire in Musa Keita II's stead. He put down a Tuareg rebellion in Takedda and campaigned in Gao. While he met success in Takedda, he never managed a decisive victory in Gao. The Songhai settlement effectively shook off Mali's authority in 1375. Still, by the time of Mansa Musa Keita II's death in 1387, Mali was financially solvent and in control of all of its previous conquests short of Gao and Dyolof. Forty years after the reign of Mansa Musa Keita I, the Mali Empire still controlled some 1.1 million square kilometres of land throughout Western Africa .

Maghan Keita II

The last son of Maghan Keita I, Tenin Maghan Keita (also known as Kita Tenin Maghan Keita for the province he once governed) was crowned Mansa Maghan Keita II in 1387.[19] Little is known of him except that he only reigned two years. He was deposed in 1389, marking the end of the Faga Laye Keita mansas.

The Obscure Lineages 1389–1545

From 1389 onward Mali will gain a host of mansas of obscure origins. This is the least known period in Mali's imperial history. What is evident is that there is no steady lineage governing the empire. The other characteristic of this era is the gradual loss of its northern and eastern possession to the rising Songhai Empire and the movement of the Mali's economic focus from the trans-Saharan trade routes to the burgeoning commerce along the coast.

Sandaki Keita

Mansa Sandaki Keita, a descendant of Kankoro-Sigui Mari Djata Keita, deposed Maghan Keita II becoming the first person without any Keita dynastic relation to officially rule Mali.[30] Sandaki Keita should not however be taken to be this person's name but a title. Sandaki likely means High Counselor or Supreme Counselor, from "san" or "sanon" (meaning "high") and "adegue" (meaning counselor).[59] He would only reign a year before a descendant of Mansa Gao Keita removed him.[60]

Maghan Keita III

Mahmud Keita, possibly a grandchild or great-grandchild of Mansa Gao Keita, was crowned Mansa Maghan Keita III in 1390. During his reign, the Mossi emperor Bonga of Yatenga raids into Mali and plunders Macina.[30] Emperor Bonga does not appear to hold the area, and it stays within the Mali Empire after Maghan Keita III's death in 1400

Musa Keita III

In the early 15th century, Mali was still powerful enough to conquer and settle new areas. One of these was Dioma, an area south of Niani populated by Fula Wassoulounké.[19] Two noble brothers from Niani, of unknown lineage, went to Dioma with an army and drove out the Fula Wassoulounké. The oldest brother, Sérébandjougou Keita, was crowned Mansa Foamed or Mansa Musa Keita III. His reign saw the first in a string of many great losses to Mali. In 1430, the Tuareg seized Timbuktu.[61] Three years later, Oualata also fell into their hands.[30]

Ouali Keita II

Following Musa Keita III's death, his brother Gbèré Keita became emperor in the mid-15th century.[19] Gbèré Keita was crowned Mansa Ouali Keita II and ruled during the period of Mali's contact with Portugal. In the 1450s, Portugal began sending raiding parties along the Gambian coast.[62] The Gambia was still firmly in Mali's control, and these raiding expeditions met with disastrous fates before Portugal's Diogo Gomes began formal relations with Mali via its remaining Wolof subjects.[63] Alvise Cadamosto, a Venetian explorer, recorded that the Mali Empire was the most powerful entity on the coast in 1454.[63]

Despite their power in the west, Mali was losing the battle for supremacy in the north and northeast. The new Songhai Empire conquered Mema,[30] one of Mali's oldest possessions, in 1465. It then seized Timbuktu from the Tuareg in 1468 under Sunni Ali Ber.[30]

In 1477, the Yatenga emperor Nasséré made yet another Mossi raid into Macina this time conquering it and the old province of BaGhana (Wagadou).[64]

Mansa Mahmud Keita II

Mansa Mahmud Keita II came to the throne in 1481 during Mali's downward spiral. It is unknown from whom he descended; however, another emperor, Mansa Maghan Keita III, is sometimes cited as Mansa Mahmud Keita I. Still, throne names don’t usually indicate blood relations. Mansa Mahmud Keita II's rule was characterized by more losses to Mali's old possessions and increased contact between Mali and Portuguese explorers along the coast. In 1481, Fula raids against Mali's Tekrur provinces begin.

The growing trade in Mali's western provinces with Portugal witnesses the exchange of envoys between the two nations. Mansa Mahmud Keita II receives the Portuguese envoys Pêro d'Évora and Gonçalo Enes in 1487.[19] The mansa loses control of Jalo during this period.[65] Meanwhile, Songhai seizes the salt mines of Taghazza in 1493. That same year, Mahmud II sends another envoy to the Portuguese proposing alliance against the Fula. The Portuguese decide to stay out of the conflict and the talks conclude by 1495 without an alliance.[65]

Mansa Mahmud Keita III

Mali Empire and surrounding states, c. 1530.

The last mansa to rule from Niani is Mansa Mahmud Keita III also known as Mansa Mamadou Keita II. He came to power around 1496 and has the dubious honor of being the mansa under which Mali suffered the most losses to its territory.

Songhai forces under the command of Askia Muhammad I defeat the Mali general Fati Quali Keita in 1502 and seize the province of Diafunu.[30] In 1514, the Denanke dynasty is established in Tekrour. It isn’t long before the new kingdom of Great Fulo is warring against Mali's remaining provinces. To add insult to injury, the Songhai Empire seizes the copper mines of Takedda.

In 1534, Mahmud Keita III received another Portuguese envoy to the Mali court by the name of Pero Fernandes.[66] This envoy from the Portuguese coastal port of Elmina arrives in response to the growing trade along the coast and Mali's now urgent request for military assistance against Songhai.[67] Still, no help is forthcoming and Mali must watch its possessions fall one by one.

Mansa Mahmud Keita III's reign also sees the military outpost and province of Kaabu become independent in 1537.[65] The Kaabu Empire appears every bit as ambitions as Mali was in its early years and swallows up Mali's remaining Gambian provinces of Cassa and Bati.[68]

The most defining moment in Mahmud Keita III's reign is the final conflict between Mali and Songhai in 1545. Songhai forces under Askia Ishaq's brother, Daoud, sack Niani and occupy the palace.[69] Mansa Mahmud Keita III is forced to flee Niani for the mountains. Within a week, he regroups with his forces and launches a successful counter-attack forcing the Songhai out of Manden proper for good.[70] The Songhai Empire does keep Mali's ambitions in check, but never fully conquers their old masters.

After liberating the capital, Mahmud Keita III abandons it for a new residence further north.[70] Still, there is no end to Mali's troubles. In 1559, the kingdom of Fouta Tooro succeeds in taking Takrur.[65] This defeat reduces Mali to Manden proper with control extending only as far as Kita in the west, Kangaba in the north, the Niger River bend in the east and Kouroussa in the south.

Late Imperial Mali

Mansa Mahmud III's reign ended around 1559. There seems to have been either a vacancy or unknown ruler between 1559 and the start of the last mansa's reign. A vacancy or rule by a court official seems the most likely since the next ruler takes the name of Mahmud IV. By 1560, the once powerful empire was really only the core of the Manden Kurufaba. The next notable mansa, Mahmud IV, doesn’t appear in any records until the end of the 16th century. However, he seems to have the distinction of being the last ruler of a unified Manden. His descendants are blamed for the break-up of the Manden Kurufaba into north, central and southern realms.

Mansa Mahmud Keita IV

Mansa Mahmud Keita IV (also known as Mansa Mamadou Keita III, Mali Mansa Mamadou Keita and Niani Mansa Mamadou Keita) was the last emperor of Manden according to the Tarikh al-Sudan. It states that he launched an attack on the city of Djenné in 1599 with Fulani allies hoping to take advantage of Songhai's defeat.[71] Moroccan fusiliers, deployed from Timbuktu, met them in battle exposing Mali to the same technology (firearms) that had destroyed Songhai. Despite heavy losses, the mansa's army was not deterred and nearly carried the day.[71] However, the army inside Djenné intervened forcing Mansa Mahmud Keita IV and his army to retreat to Kangaba.[67]


Mali Empire and surrounding states, c. 1625.

The mansa's defeated actually won Sundiata Keita the respect of Morocco and may have saved it from Songhai's fate. It would be the Mandinka themselves that would cause the final destruction of the empire. Around 1610, Mahmud Keita IV died. Oral tradition states that he had three sons who fought over Manden's remains. No single Keita ever ruled Manden after Mahmud Keita IV's death, resulting in the end of the Mali Empire.[72]

Manden Divided

The old core of the empire was divided into three spheres of influence. Kangaba, the de facto capital of Manden since the time of the last emperor, became the capital of the northern sphere. The Joma area, governed from Siguiri, controlled the central region, which encompassed Niani. Hamana (or Amana), southwest of Joma, became the southern sphere with its capital at Kouroussa in modern Guinea.[72] Each ruler used the title of mansa, but their authority only extended as far as their own sphere of influence. Despite this disunity in the realm, the realm remained under Mandinka control into the mid-17th century. The three states warred on each other as much if not more than they did against outsiders, but rivalries generally stopped when faced with invasion. This trend would continue into colonial times against Tukulor enemies from the west.[73]

The Bamana Jihad

Then, in 1630, the Bamana of Djenné declared their version of holy war on all Muslim powers in present-day Mali.[74] They targeted Moroccan Pashas still in Timbuktu and the mansas of Manden. In 1645, the Bamana attacked Manden seizing both banks of the Niger right up to Niani.[74] This campaign gutted Manden and destroyed any hope of the three mansas cooperating to free their land. The only Mandinka power spared from the campaign was Kangaba.

Sack of Niani

Mama Maghan, mansa of Kangaba, campaigned against the Bamana in 1667 and laid siege to Segou-Koro for a reported three years.[75] Segou, defended by Biton Coulibaly, successfully defended itself and Mama Maghan was forced to withdraw.[75] Either as a counter-attack or simply the progression of pre-planned assaults against the remnants of Mali, the Bamana sacked and burned Niani in 1670.[74] Their forces marched as far north as Kangaba where the mansa was obliged to make a peace with them, promising not to attack downstream of Mali. The Bamana, likewise, vowed not to advance farther upstream than Niamina.[76] Following this disastrous set of events, Mansa Mama Maghan abandoned the capital of Niani.

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  • Niane, D.T. (1994). Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali. Harlow: Longman African Writers.  
  • Niane, D.T. (1975). Recherches sur l’Empire du Mali au Moyen Âge. Paris: Présence Africaine. 
  • Stiansen, Endre & Jane I. Guyer (1999). Credit, Currencies and Culture: African Financial Institutions in Historical Perspective. Stockholm: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet.  
  • Stride, G.T. & C. Ifeka (1971). Peoples and Empires of West Africa: West Africa in History 1000–1800. Edinburgh: Nelson.  
  • Taagepera, Rein (1979). Social Science History, Vol. 3, No. 3/4 "Size and Duration of Empires: Growth-Decline Curves, 600 B.C. to 600 A.D.". Durham: Duke University Press. 
  • Thornton, John K. (1999). Warfare in Atlantic Africa 1500–1800. London and New York: Routledge. pp. 194 Pages.  

Further reading

  • Conrad, David C. (1994). "A town called Dakajalan: the Sunjata tradition and the question of Ancient Mali's capital". Journal of African History 35 (3): 355–377.  
  • Hunwick, John O. (1973). "The mid-fourteenth century capital of Mali". Journal of African History 14 (2): 195–206.  
  • Levtzion, Nehemia (1973). Ancient Ghana and Mali. London: Methuen.  

External links

  • African Kingdoms Mali
  • Metropolitan Museum – Empires of the Western Sudan: Mali Empire
  • The Story of Africa: Mali — BBC World Service
  • Ibn Battuta: Travels in Asia and Africa 1325–1354 — excerpts from H. A. R. Gibb's translation
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