Mansa Musa: The Richest Man in History

Aug 26, 2021 0 comments

In 1324, Mansa Musa, the legendary ruler of the vast West African empire of Mali, set off for a pilgrimage to Mecca. Like many other devout Muslim rulers before him and after, Musa did not travel alone. He brought along with him one of the largest caravans ever to cross the Sahara—a traveling entourage of 60,000 men, including 12,000 servants, 8,000 courtiers and one hundred camels, each loaded with sacks of pure gold, while the slaves carried more gold in the form of bars, nuggets and staffs.

King Mansa Musa as depicted in the Catalan Atlas.

King Mansa Musa as depicted in the Catalan Atlas. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“Each night when they stopped, it was like a whole town decamping in the desert,” said Gus Casely-Hayford, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art. “They took with them everything they needed in the desert, including a mobile mosque they would construct so the emperor could pray.”

On the way to Mecca, Mansa Musa lavished gifts of gold to whoever he met. From the impoverished people who crossed his path, to the royal officers in Cairo. When Musa met the Sultan of Egypt for the first time, the king of Mali gifted him 50,000 gold dinars. Musa spent and gave away so much gold that he wrecked the local economy.

The source of Mansa Musa’s immeasurable wealth was, as you’ve guessed, the vast gold fields in Mali, which was at that time the largest producer of gold in the world. Mali was one of the richest kingdoms of Africa, and Mansa Musa was among the richest individuals in the world. His expansive kingdom stretched for about 2,000 miles, from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to modern-day Niger, taking in parts of what are now Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea and Ivory Coast. Mali’s vast empire was only second in size only to that of the Mongol Empire at the time.

Medieval Mali Empire

The Medieval Mali Empire at the end of Mansa Musa's reign (1337 CE). Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Mansa Musa came to power in 1312 and inherited a kingdom that was already wealthy, but his work in expanding trade made Mali the wealthiest kingdom in Africa. His riches came from mining significant salt and gold deposits in the Mali kingdom. Elephant ivory was another major source of wealth.

When Musa went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, he made it a point to showoff his immense wealth and power. By some accounts, each of 100 camels carried 135 kilos or 300 pounds of gold dust, while 500 slaves each brandished a 2.7 kilo (6 pounds) gold staff. In addition, there were hundreds of other camels loaded down with precious silk and other materials. Musa's massive spending and generous donations introduced so much gold into the market that the price of the precious metal plummeted, leading to increase in the prices of other good and wares. It took Egypt’s economy 12 years to recover.

On his way back home, Mansa Musa passed through Egypt again, and according to some, he tried to help the country's economy by borrowing back the gold from money-lenders in Cairo at extortionate interest rates.

Mansa Musa’s caravan on the way to Mecca.

Mansa Musa’s caravan on the way to Mecca.

Stories of the fabulous wealth of Mansa Musa eventually reached Europe, inspiring Spanish map makers to create Europe's first detailed map of West Africa. Created in 1375, the map called the Catalan Atlas, shows Mansa Musa sitting on a throne, wearing an impressive gold crown, and holding a golden staff in one hand and a huge orb of gold in the other.

When the emperor returned from Mecca, he brought back scholars and an Andalusian architect Abu Es Haq es Saheli from Cairo to build a great mosque, the Djinguereber, in Timbuktu. Musa reportedly paid Saheli 200 kg of gold for designing and building the mosque. Under the patronage of Mansa Musa, Timbuktu soon became the center of trade, culture, and learning and scholars travelled from around the world to study at what would become the Sankore University.

Modern historians have been trying to quantify the riches that Musa had during his lifetime. Unfortunately, there is no accurate way to estimate just how rich Musa was in modern terms.

Catalan Atlas

Detail from the Catalan Atlas showing the Western Sahara and Mansa Musa. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Richard Ware of Ferrum College in Virginia told Time that people had trouble even describing Musa’s wealth. “This is the richest guy anyone has ever seen, that’s the point,” Ware said. “They’re trying to find words to explain that. There are pictures of him holding a scepter of gold on a throne of gold holding a cup of gold with a golden crown on his head. Imagine as much gold as you think a human being could possess and double it, that’s what all the accounts are trying to communicate.”

The vastness of Mansa Musa’s wealth and material holdings is incomprehensible today, but if you insist on a figure, some say it could be as large as US$ 400 billion, making him the richest person in history.

Djingareyber Mosque, Timbuktu

Djingareyber Mosque, Timbuktu. Photo: United Nations Photo/Flickr

# World History Encyclopedia
# Naima Mohamud, Is Mansa Musa the richest man who ever lived?, BBC
# Stephanie Kulke, A Golden Age: King Mansa Musa’s Reign, Northwestern Magazine
# Jacob Davidson, The 10 Richest People of All Time, Money
# Wikipedia


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