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The Mansa Musa Story

Think of the richest people who ever lived. Do the names that come to mind begin with Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Carlos Slim, Aliko Dangote, the sultan of Brunei and the many wealthy Arab sheiks jetting around the world?

What will surprise you is who the richest person in all of history is. It bis the magnanimous King of the revered Mali empire – Mansa Musa I, the tenth Mansa of the Empire of Mali . Mansa is a title like ‘sultan’ or ‘emperor’). 

He was so rich and so extravagant in his spending that he disrupted Egypt’s economy just by passing through. By the time he died around 1337 AD, he had amassed a fortune that is almost too large to calculate. Adjusted for inflation, Mansa Musa I would have been worth over $400 billion today! 

The runner-up- the combined wealth of the Rothschild family is only $350 billion. J.D. Rockefeller – $340 billion; Andrew Carnegie – $310 billion; Muammar Gaddafi -$200 billion; Bill Gates – $136 billion; and Carlos Slim – $68 billion. In other words, none of the men most often associated with vast wealth come even close to the net worth of this famous king of Mali  

Mansa Musa ruled the kingdom of Mali from 1312 C.E. to 1337 C.E.  With an army numbering around 100,000 men, Mansa Musa was able to extend and maintain Mali’s vast empire. He doubled its territory and made it second in size only to the Mongol Empire at the time. 

The famous Journey that brought him to world attention 

Mansa Musa, set off for a visit to Mecca in 1324, a four thousand kilometre journey. When he arrived in Cairo in July of that year , he caused an absolute sensation.  Accompanied by thousands of richly dressed servants and supporters Musa made generous donations to the poor and to charitable organizations as well as the rulers of the lands his entourage crossed. 

When he arrived in Egypt , even the Sultan was astounded by the wealth this West African king had brought with him. In some accounts, each of 100 camels carried 135 kilos or 300 pounds of gold dust. His 500 slaves each brandished a 2.7 kilo (6 pounds) gold staff. In addition, there were hundreds of other camels loaded down with foodstuffs and textiles, horse riders waving the huge red and gold banners of the king, and an impressive human entourage of servants and officials that numbered in the tens of thousands. 

In an extreme gesture of largesse, Mansa Musa would give away so much gold and his entourage spend so much shopping in the markets of the city that the value of gold dinar in Cairo crashed by 20%. It would take 12 years for the flooded gold market to recover

The king of Mali gave 50,000 gold dinars to the sultan of Egypt as a first-meeting gesture. The ruler from Africa’s mysterious interior was treated like the royalty . He was given a palace for his three-month stay. His praised were sung wherever he went. 

Arab historian Al-Makrizi (1364-1442) gave the following description of the king of Mali: “He was a young man with a brown skin, a pleasant face and good figure…His gifts amazed the eye with their beauty and splendour” (quoted in Zerbo, 59)

An indication of the impression Mansa Musa had made is that news of his Cairo visit eventually reached Europe. In Spain, a mapmaker was inspired to create Europe’s first detailed map of West Africa. Created c. 1375, the map, part of the Catalan Atlas, has Mansa Musa sitting regally on a throne, wearing an impressive gold crown, and holding a golden staff in one hand and, somewhat gleefully, a huge nugget or orb of gold in the other. 

It was such tales of gold that would inspire later European explorers to brave disease, warlike tribes, and inhospitable terrain to find the fabled riches of Timbuktu, the golden city of the desert that nobody quite knew where to place on the map even in the 18th century.

The king on his return to Mali, built a dazzling architectural buildings and edifices at Gao and Timbuktu. . The buildings were designed by the famous architect Ishak al-Tuedjin (d. 1346 and also a noted poet) from Andalusian Granada,Spain. He had been enticed following Mansa Musa’s visit there – the inducement included 200 kilos (440 pounds) of gold, slaves, and a swathe of land along the Niger River. A royal palace or madugu was built in the capital city and Timbuktu, along with fortification walls.

The King was also inspired by the universities he had seen on his pilgrimage, and he brought back to Mali both books and scholars making Timbuktu became an internationally famous and sophisticated centre of culture and religious study. His skilful administration left his empire well-off at the time of his death. Well after his death, Mansa Musa remained engrained in the imagination of the world as a symbol of fabulous wealth.  

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