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Stories of Mali’s origins were handed down through oral history, many of which were transcribed by the North African scholar Ibn Khaldun circa the 1350s. As an empire Mali flourished in Africa from the first half of the thirteenth century to the early fifteenth century, controlling territory from the mouth of the Senegal River on the Atlantic to the salt mines of Tadmekka in the Sahara.
Preceded by the Ghana Empire and followed by the Songhay Empire, Mali was the second of the three early great empires of the western Sudan and was a dominant power below the Sahara Desert. The ancient heartland of the empire occupied a relatively compact region of the upper Niger River and its tributaries in what is now northeastern Guinea and southern Mali. But at the height of its powers during the fourteenth century, scholars believe, the Mali Empire controlled territory from the mouth of the Senegal River on the Atlantic coast eastward to include the kingdom of Gao and the salt mines of Tadmekka in the Sahara.
By the end of the eleventh century the decline of the Ghana Empire left a vacuum, which made possible the rise of the Soso, a southern group of the Soninke people. According to oral tradition Soso rulers belonged to the Kante clan, under which the Soso extended their authority over their neighbors and reached the height of power during the reign of Sumaworo Kante early in the thirteenth century. The former territories of Ghana at the desert edge and those of the Mande chieftaincies in the upper Niger River region to the south came under Sumaworo’s rule. Toward the middle of the thirteenth century, after a successful rebellion against Soso domination, the Mande chieftaincies unified under the leadership of Sunjata Keita and established what would develop into the Mali Empire. The transfer of hegemony (influence) from Ghana to the Soso and then to Mali marks a gradual shift of the political center of gravity southward from the edge of the Sahara to the more fertile savanna and the waters of the upper Niger River. In addition to gaining control of important long-distance trade routes running from south to north and west to east, Mali had access to extensive sources of both iron and gold in the south and salt mines of the Sahara in the north.
Oral Tradition and Mali’s History
The history of Mali’s origins comes from Muslim scholars of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, but much of what has entered the literature derives from oral tradition for which no independent confirmation exists, and it is therefore problematic in terms of Western academic standards of historiography (the writing of history). The epic narrative of the central hero Sunjata and his contemporaries in Mande oral tradition illustrates the Mande people’s own view of the glorious past. It credits their ancestors with establishing one of the great empires of the medieval world, but the historical accuracy of specific details is impossible to gauge.
The principal Mande clans frame their identities in terms of descent from the founding ancestors, who are recalled by professional bards (jeliw) who narrate oral tradition. For Sunjata, who is credited with establishing the basis of empire, an elaborate genealogy is recited and leads to his father, a member of the Konate clan. The consensus among knowledgeable informants in both Mali and Guinea identifies him as the ruler of Konfara. As Maghan Konfara (king of Konfara) he is said to have ruled from the town of Farakoro, which appears in his more complete name, “Farako Manko Farankonken.” Konfara’s supposed location on the Kokoro River near the present-day border of Guinea and Mali would position it to control the gold fields of Bure and also account for its particular importance among the other pre-imperial Mande chieftaincies. Scholars are not certain that Mali ever had a capital as the term is normally understood. Probably several major commercial entrepots (intermediary centers of trade and transshipment) existed, and the seat of government was wherever the mansa (king) was in residence. At the time of the Mande’s defeat of its Soso oppressors, possibly in the 1230s, a place called “Dakajalan” is said to have been Sunjata’s center of operations. Much later, perhaps during the fourteenth century, the town of Niani on the Sankaran River apparently became an important administrative or commercial center.
In Mande traditional narrative the bards begin with episodes describing how the hero’s mother, Sogolon Conde, and his father, Maghan Konate of Konfara, are brought together to produce Sunjata, the child of destiny. Deadly conflict between Sogolon and a jealous co-wife (whose son Dankaran Tuman is Sunjata’s rival half-brother) eventually drives Sogolon into exile with Sunjata and his siblings. The collective Mande chieftaincies subsequently fall under the tyrannical rule of Sumaworo, king of the Soso. Desperate for a powerful and effective leader, the Mande people send a delegation to bring Sunjata back from exile. With the support of various legendary figures still recognized as important ancestors, Sunjata organizes a rebellion that defeats Sumaworo and his Soso army, unifies the old Mande chieftaincies, and establishes the foundations of empire. Writing during the fourteenth century, the North African scholar Ibn Khaldun was acquainted with the existence of Soso as an intermediate kingdom between Ghana and Mali. He refers to Sunjata as “Mari Jata,” which is one of several names used by traditional bards to praise the hero. Citing oral informants of his day, Ibn Khaldun wrote that Mari Jata conquered the Soso and ruled for twenty-five years.
The quality of Sunjata’s successors was uneven, with Mali enjoying times of prosperity and expansion under capable rulers but periodically enduring dismal leadership and political instability. According to Ibn Khaldun, Mari Jata (Sunjata) was succeeded by his son Mansa Uli, who was described as a great king who made the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia during the reign of al-Zahir Baybars, the Mamluk sultan of Egypt (1260–1277). A later ruler, the insane Khalifa, was assassinated because he shot arrows at his people and killed them for sport. By late in the thirteenth century the royal Keita line had become so weak that the kingship was usurped by a former slave named “Sakura,” who restored Mali to its former power but died while returning from pilgrimage in about 1298. After Sakura the throne reverted to two more descendants of Sunjata successively before passing to Musa, a descendant of one of Sunjata’s brothers.
People have described the twenty-five years of Mansa Musa’s reign as the golden age of the empire of Mali. He consolidated control of lucrative trade routes and established embassies in North Africa. He also expanded the empire to include the kingdom of Gao on the eastern bend of the Niger River and valuable salt deposits in the Sahara. Musa brought wide recognition to Mali through his famous pilgrimage to Mecca of 1324–1325. Accompanied by his wife, Inari Kanute, and more than a thousand subjects, Musa arrived in Cairo in July 1324 and created a sensation through his generous gifts of gold, including fifty thousand dinars (gold coins) to the sultan of Egypt to announce his arrival. After completing his pilgrimage to Mecca, Musa returned to Mali accompanied by an architect from Spain who went to live in Timbuktu (Tombouctou) in Mali, as well as four Muslim dignitaries from the tribe of Quraysh (the Prophet Muhammad’s people) who settled permanently in Mali with their families.
When Mansa Musa died in 1337 his son Mansa Magha succeeded him, but Magha died after four years and was replaced by Musa’s brother Sulayman. Mansa Sulayman was a powerful ruler who held together the vast empire that his brother had consolidated. The North African traveler Ibn Battuta visited Mali during Sulayman’s rule in 1352–1353 and said that travel in the country was safe but that Sulayman’s subjects disliked him. Ibn Battuta met Sulayman and later wrote a detailed description of the splendors of the Malian royal court. Ibn Battuta witnessed an episode when Kasa, the king’s senior wife, apparently plotted with Jata, a son of Mansa Magha (Mansa Musa’s son), to overthrow her husband. Mansa Sulayman averted the coup d’etat but died seven years later in 1360.
Decline of the Empire
The Mali Empire had reached its zenith under the rule of Mansa Musa and Mansa Sulayman, but in 1360, the year of Sulayman’s death, civil war broke out between his family and that of his deceased brother Musa. After much bloodshed Jata, the grandson of Mansa Musa who had plotted the coup d’etat with Sulayman’s wife Kasa, prevailed over his rivals and succeeded to power as Mari Jata II (1360–1373). He proved to be a tyrant, and his despotic rule seriously damaged the empire and ushered in thirty years of governmental dysfunction during which court officials sometimes attempted to restore order by seizing control from incompetent members of the royal lineage. In 1390 power was finally restored to a descendant of the original branch of the dynasty founded by Sunjata, but by that time the great days of the Mali Empire had passed. Early in the fifteenth century Mali lost control over the salt mines in the Sahara and the important trading and intellectual centers of Jenne and Tombouctou, which by the mid-fifteenth century would fall under the control of the expanding Songhay Empire.
- Austen, R. A. (Ed.). (1999). In search of Sunjata: The Mande epic as history, literature, and performance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Conrad, D. C. (1994). A town called Dakajalan: The Sunjata tradition and the question of ancient Mali’s capital. Journal of African History, 35, 355–377.
- Conrad, D. C. (2004). Sunjata: A west African epic of the Mande people. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.
- Hunwick, J. O. (1973). The mid-fourteenth century capital of Mali. Journal of African History,14, 195–208.
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- Suso, B. (2000) Sunjata. New York: Penguin Books.
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