Mansa Musa Keita I of Mali
Although I never really learned anything about him in school, the 10th Mansa of the Mali Empire was an incredibly powerful and very important sultan named Musa Keita I. He was the wealthiest person to ever live. In fact, his fortune was so inconceivably vast that there is no good way of determining a proper modern equivalent. Nonetheless, in attempting to adequately adjust for inflation, his net worth can be determined to be roughly equal to about half a trillion dollars. That far exceeds even the King of E-Commerce, Jeff Bezos with little more than a tenth of a trillion. Unbeknownst to much of history, Musa I of Mali was richer than anyone’s wildest dreams, and he wasn’t afraid to show it.
In the early part of the 14th century, Abu Bakr II ruled over the Mali Empire. During that time the ninth sultan, also known as Mansa Qu, decided to sail his fleet west out into the Atlantic. He was determined to navigate the globe, but he never made it back. So, having been the vizier who was left in charge, Musa I became the new Mansa in the following year. This was very important because at that point in history, Europe was undergoing a severe economic crisis that had been driven by plummeting precious metal production. Meanwhile gold was becoming incredibly abundant in Africa, so Mali quickly became the greatest superpower in the world.
Once Mansa Musa rose to power he wasted no time at all in consolidating his administration and developing the trade routes in and out of his kingdom. Then, he started up a brand new military campaign to expand the empire east, looking to claim important cities like Timbuktu and Gao in the process. Musa I then spread an Islamic theocracy far and wide throughout the land. Like Mansa Qu before him, Mansa Musa set his sights on global conquest. He was a very ambitious sultan that went to great lengths to try and accomplish some rather lofty goals.
Because Mansa Musa was such a highly devout Muslim, so much of what he did was in the service of Allah. To him, Islam was far more than just a political tool, it was central to an unwavering faith in God that he felt everyone should have. In line with this, the Mali Empire was steeped in Arabic writing, Sharia law, and Middle Eastern administrative practices. Furthermore, given that things like taking a pilgrimage to Mecca and that of being charitable to the poor are pillars of the Islamic faith, in the year 1324 Mansa Musa set out on the most extravagant Hajj that the world has ever seen. This was undoubtedly the greatest pilgrimage in the history of humanity. The trip literally put Mali on the map. It was as much a religious journey as it was a publicity stunt.
According to legend, Musa’s glittering procession through the desert put the very Sun to shame. Supposedly his extravagant caravan was so long that it literally took more than a full day for everything and everyone to pass by. His retinue is said to have included tens of thousands of people led by hundreds of heralds carrying golden staves. As part of this, some historic accounts claim that Mansa Musa traveled with 12,000 silk adorned servants at his disposal. Musa I was also accompanied by his wife and her 500 personal attendants. They were all followed by a baggage train of dozens and dozens of camels each carrying 300 pounds of gold.
To fulfill his spiritual obligations as a Muslim, Mansa Musa I shared a great deal of his own personal wealth with the poor. He went around giving handfuls of gold flecks to every beggar he could find. He even went on a spending spree visiting huge bazaars in places like Cairo buying more over-priced souvenirs then he could possibly bring home. The emperor of the Mali Empire spent so much money in fact that he flooded the market and crashed the value of precious metals. He spread his wealth around so much that money almost became worthless. This led to more than a decade of severe depression in the Middle East.
Regardless, during that opulent adventure across the land, Mansa Musa I ordered the construction of a new mosque every Friday of the Hajj. It was all part of an extensive infrastructure plan that included the renovation of cities like Gao. His most famous architectural project was that of the Great Mosque in Timbuktu. The mosques were all designed by the architect Abu Ishaq Al-Sahili, who had been personally commissioned for the pilgrimage by the sultan himself. He ordered the Gao mosque to be built of burnt bricks, which had not been used as a kind of building material in West Africa up to that point.
Later, on the trip home from Mecca to the Malian capital city of Niani, Musa I picked up a number of Arab scholars along the way. He brought those well educated bureaucrats back with him in the hope of building up a global following. Mansa Musa I wanted nothing less than for Mali to become the cultural center of everything on Earth. He took the scholars to all the major cities along the Niger River, including Timbuktu, Gao, and Jenne. The Arabians even beheld some of the renowned gold and salt mines from which Musa’s acclaimed wealth had been generated. As a result, the world grew quite impressed by the Mali Empire in virtually no time at all.
The greatest minds of the world even came to realize that Mansa Musa was so well respected that he had been able to leave his son in charge for more than a year while on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He had left the kingdom including the bulk of his soldiers under someone else’s command and was never deposed in the process. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, in Timbuktu a new royal palace was built along with libraries and universities. This resulted in a massive education boom, and the influx of artisans brought increased commerce. This dramatically altered the course of history up until the end of Musa’s twenty five year reign. Then, in 1337 he died, and the Mali Empire never fully recovered.