If someone asked you who the richest people in history were, who would you name? Perhaps a billionaire banker or corporate mogul, like Bill Gates or John D. Rockefeller. How about African King Musa Keita I? Ruling the Mali Empire in the 14th century CE, Mansa Musa, or the King of Kings, amassed a fortune that possibly made him one of the wealthiest people who ever lived. But his vast wealth was only one piece of his rich legacy.
When Mansa Musa came to power in 1312, much of Europe was racked by famine and civil wars. But many African kingdoms and the Islamic world were flourishing, and Mansa Musa played a great role in bringing the fruits of this flourishing to his own realm. By strategically annexing the city of Timbuktu, and reestablishing power over the city of Gao, he gained control over important trade routes between the Mediterranean and the West African Coast, continuing a period of expansion, which dramatically increased Mali’s size.
The territory of the Mali Empire was rich in natural resources, such as gold and salt. The world first witnessed the extent of Mansa Musa’s wealth in 1324 when he took his pilgrimage to Mecca. Not one to travel on a budget, he brought a caravan stretching as far as the eye could see. Accounts of this journey are mostly based on an oral testimony and differing written records, so it’s difficult to determine the exact details.
But what most agree on is the extravagant scale of the excursion. Chroniclers describe an entourage of tens of thousands of soldiers, civilians, and slaves, 500 heralds bearing gold staffs and dressed in fine silks, and many camels and horses bearing an abundance of gold bars. Stopping in cities such as Cairo, Mansa Musa is said to have spent massive quantities of gold, giving to the poor, buying souvenirs, and even having mosques built along the way. In fact, his spending may have destabilized the regional economy, causing mass inflation.
This journey reportedly took over a year, and by the time Mansa Musa returned, tales of his amazing wealth had spread to the ports of the Mediterranean. Mali and its king were elevated to near legendary status, cemented by their inclusion on the 1375 Catalan Atlas. One of the most important world maps of Medieval Europe, it depicted the King holding a scepter and a gleaming gold nugget. Mansa Musa had literally put his empire and himself on the map. But material riches weren’t the king’s only concern.
As a devout Muslim, he took a particular interest in Timbuktu, already a center of religion and learning prior to its annexation. Upon returning from his pilgrimage, he had the great Djinguereber Mosque built there with the help of an Andalusian architect. He also established a major university, further elevating the city’s reputation, and attracting scholars and students from all over the Islamic world.
Under Mansa Musa, the Empire became urbanized, with schools and mosques in hundreds of densely populated towns. The king’s rich legacy persisted for generations and to this day, there are mausoleums, libraries and mosques that stand as a testament to this golden age of Mali’s history.