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The Place where the King lives; 1 so means the name and so named is this country, the remnant of an empire as magnificent as its wealth was unimaginable. Stretching from the Atlantic Ocean two thousand miles inland, beyond Timbuktu, and encompassing the mighty Niger River bend, for four hundred years the Mali empire continued, the largest and richest in the history of West Africa.

Sundiata Keita, the Lion Prince2, the founder of the empire, was born a cripple, and therefore his life was spared. The king was suspicious of Sundiata’s father and had eleven of his sons, Sundiata’s brothers, put to death to prevent challenges to his rule. But the king did not fear a cripple, and so Sundiata was spared. Exiled, Sundiata began wearing iron leg braces at age 7, and, after long and painful effort, he became able to walk unaided in his mature years.

His countrymen prevailing upon him to return from exile and deliver his people, Sundiata returned, and, with talented generals and the secret aid of his sister3, overthrew the evil king, Symangurur, and founded the empire that would last four centuries and astonish the world with its accumulated wealth.

A hundred years later, Musa ascended the throne becoming known as Mansa Musa I4. While Islam had been introduced into the region for generation, Mansa Musa I became the first ruler of Mali to truly embrace the religion. In 1324 he embarked on his first, and what has become subsequently world renowned, pilgrimage to Mecca. As noted in the 2019 Smithsonian exhibition, Musa brought with him on his journey 8,000 courtiers, 12,000 slaves, and 100 camels each carrying 300 pounds of gold5 “The streets were littered with gold”, says Thad Morgan, writer for “This is the richest guy anyone has ever seen, that’s the point,” says Rudolph Ware, associate professor of history at the University of Michigan .7

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  1. the word Mali signifies “the place where the king lives” in the local tongue
  2. the lion was the symbol of the Keita clan, and his name translates as either hungering lion or lion prince, either of which seem appropriate in view of his lion-like stature in history
  3. Nana Triban, sister to Sindiata, had been forced to marry Sumanguru. She discovered and stole the secret that his totem which was the source of his strength, and so Sumanguru was at a severe disadvantage in the battle at Krina in 1235 CE. Sundiata and his allies were victorious, and Sumanguru fled for his life, never to be seen again.
  4. mansa or “master”, was the title adopted by the rulers of Mali
  5. . So lavish were his expenditures and so generous were his gifts that it is reported that the economy of Cairo Egypt was disrupted for twelve years following.