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ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY
ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY

The Mali Empire

The Mali Empire

Established by King Sundiata Keita, known as the “Lion King,” the Mali Empire brought wealth, culture, and Islamic faith to West Africa.

Grades

5 - 8

Subjects

Ancient Civilizations, Anthropology, Social Studies, World History

Image

Kirina, Mali

Modern day Kirina, this town used to be one of the main strongholds of the Mali Empire. The pivotal battle of Kirina was fought here in 1235 C.E.

Photograph by Werner Forman

From the 13th to 17th century, West Africa was home to the great Mali Empire. Established by King Sundiata Keita, the kingdom united several smaller, Malinké Kingdoms near the Upper Niger River. Protected by a well-trained, imperial army and benefiting from being in the middle of trade routes, Mali expanded its territory, influence, and culture over the course of four centuries. An abundance of gold dust and salt deposits helped to expand the empire’s commercial assets. Mali included the city of Timbuktu, which became known as an important center of knowledge. Mali also developed into a hub for the Islamic faith before poor leadership led to the empire’s ultimate decline in power and influence.

The rise of the Mali Empire can be traced back to Sundiata, or the “Lion King,” as some called him. After seizing the former capital of the Ghana Empire in 1240, Sundiata and his men consolidated control while continuing to expand the Mali Empire. Often times, the officers of his court wielded great power, which was crucial to keeping the empire strong during periods of poor leadership.

Mali had kings, called Mansa. The Mali Empire would reach a height of strength during the reign of Mansa Musa I. Territorial expansion coincided with cultural advancements, particularly in architecture, and the empire flourished. Using his large army, Musa doubled the empire’s territory. This allowed the kingdom to enjoy the benefits of being at the center of trade in Africa. In 1324, Musa undertook a pilgrimage to Mecca during which he spent and gave away all of his gold. As a result, stories of the wealth of the Mali king spread far and wide.

Spanish cartographer Abraham Cresques even featured Musa in the Catalan Atlas, a popular resource for European explorers. Cresques included an image of Musa wearing a gold crown, holding more gold in his hand. This image would be the catalyst for explorers to search for the city of Timbuktu in hopes of finding Musa’s riches. Today, some believe he could have been the richest man in history. Islamic learning centers, schools, and universities, and the grandest library in all of Africa were a direct result of Mansa Musa’s rule and made Mali into a multilingual and multiethnic kingdom.

Following Mansa Musa’s death around 1337, the empire fell victim to declining influence around Africa. Other trade centers developed, hurting the commercial wealth that had once so freely surrounded Mali. Poor leadership set the kingdom on a path of civil wars. The surrounding Songhay Empire would conquer most of the Mali kingdom by the late 15th century, leaving little remaining of the once proud Mali Empire. By the 17th century, the Moroccan Empire occupied the area.

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Director
Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Author
National Geographic Society
Production Manager
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Specialist, Content Production
Clint Parks
Producer
André Gabrielli, National Geographic Society
other
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

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