Mansa Kankan Musa was the tenth mansa or emperor of the Mali Empire during its height in the 14th century. He ruled as mansa from 1312 to 1337. Musa is most noted for his 1324 hajj to Mecca and his role as a benefactor of Islamic scholarship.
Mansa Musa’s birth date is not known. Oral histories recount he was the grandson of Mansa Abubakari I, Sundiata Keita’s half-brother. Musa’s father was a prince named Faga Laye, who never attained the title of mansa.
In the 14th year of his reign (1324), he set out on his famous pilgrimage to Mecca. It was this pilgrimage that awakened the world to the stupendous wealth of Mali. Traveling from his capital of Niani on the Upper Niger River to Walata (Oualâta, Mauritania) and on to Tuat (now in Algeria) before making his way to Cairo, Mansa Musa was accompanied by a caravan consisting of 60,000 men including a personal retinue of 12,000 slaves, all of whom were clad in brocade and Persian silk. He also brought with him 80 to 100 camels loaded with 300 pounds of gold each. The emperor rode on horseback and was directly preceded by 500 slaves, each of whom carried a four-pound staff of solid gold.
Musa’s lavish clothing and the exemplary behavior of his followers created a favorable impression among the peoples his carvans encountered. The Cairo that Mansa Musa visited was ruled over by one of the most powerful of the Mamluk sultans, Al-Malik an-Nasir. The emperor’s noted civility notwithstanding, the meeting between the two rulers might have ended in a serious diplomatic incident, for so absorbed was Mansa Musa in his religious observances that he was only with difficulty persuaded to pay a formal visit to the sultan.
The historian al-‘Umari, who visited Cairo 12 years after the emperor’s visit, found that the inhabitants of this city – with a population that approached one million residents – still spoke in reverential tones about Mansa Musa. So lavish was the emperor in his spending that he flooded the Cairo market with gold, thereby causing such a decline in its value that, over a decade later, the value of specie had still not fully recovered.
During his long return journey from Mecca in 1325, Musa heard news that his army recaptured Gao. Sagmandia, one of his generals, led the endeavor. The city of Gao had been within the empire since before Sakura’s reign and was an important, though often rebellious, trading center. Musa made a detour and visited the city where he received as hostages the two sons of the Gao king, Ali Kolon and Suleiman Nar. He returned to Niani with the two boys and later educated them at his court
Construction in Mali
Musa embarked on a large building program, raising mosques and madrassas in Timbuktu and Gao. In Niani, he built the Hall of Audience, a building communicated by an interior door to the royal palace. It was “an admirable Monument” surmounted by a dome, adorned with arabesques of striking colours. The windows of an upper floor were plated with wood and framed in silver foil, those of a lower floor were plated with wood, framed in gold. Like the Great Mosque, a contemporaneous and grandiose stucture in Timbuktu, the Hall was built of cut stone.
During this period, there was an advanced level of urban living in the major centers of the Mali Empire, especially in comparison with the relative backwardness of much of Europe. Sergio Domian, an Italian art and architecture scholar, wrote the following about this period: “Thus was laid the foundation of an urban civilization. At the height of its power, Mali had at least 400 cities , and the interior of the Niger Delta was very densely populated.”
There are no records about the death of Musa. However, it is generally believed that he died in the decade of the 1330’s.