(adapted from Ari Nave)
Mali arose as a small kingdom along the upper Niger River.
Oral accounts state that the kingdom came into existence before
the year 1000 C.E.; however, if this is true, it must have been
a vassal of the empire of Ghana. Mali probably gained independence
with the breakup of Ghana in the early 12th century. During
the 13th century, Mali conquered several of its neighbors.
The empire reached its zenith during the 14th century when it
ruled over a vast West African domain stretching from the Atlantic
coast to the middle Niger below Gao. Beginning during the 15th
century, Mali began a slow decline. It ceased to exist by the
early 18th century.
After the collapse of ancient Ghana, the kingdom of Mali, ruled
by the Keita Dynasty, arose among the Mandinka (Malinke) people
in the region of Kangaba, spanning the borders of present-day
Mali and Guinea. During the 12th century, Mali fell under the
dominance of the kingdom of Soso (also known as Susu or Sosso,
names carried today by a Guinean people). In 1230 a king named
Mari Diata came to the throne and threw off the oppressive Soso
yoke. According to the Arab geographer Ibn Khaldun, Mari Diata
waged a war of expansion between 1230 and 1234. He conquered
Soso and its dependent states with the aid of an alliance of
Mandinka chiefs. Celebrating his success and bravery, people
began to call him Sundiata, or "lion prince"; Mali's
power increased after Sundiata gained control of vital trans-Saharan
trade routes and the gold mines of Bouré; on the banks
of the Tinkisso River (in present-day Guinea.) Revenues from
the gold trade supported the growth of Mali.
The Mandinka alliance coalesced into a federation. The early
Mali empire may have had a number of capitals. Ibn Khaldun stated
during the 14th century that the empire's capital was a city
named Mali, while the 16th-century Arab geographer, Leo Africanus,
named Niani (in present-day Guinea) as the capital. Some historians
claim that Kangaba was the original capital of Mali, prior to
Niani. Others maintain that the original capital of Mali was
Djariba (or Dioliba), also in present-day Guinea. Scholars remain
uncertain about whether the empire maintained several capitals
simultaneously for defensive reasons, or if it occupied a succession
of capital cities.
A complex system of lineages and other kin groups, organized
geographically, formed the basis of the empire's social and
political organization. Slave labor produced the food surpluses
that underlay the power of Mali's rulers and lineage chiefs.
Slaves lacked kinship ties, and Mali's ruling elite prized slaves
for their loyalty. Slaves played an important role in Mali as
royal administrators and soldiers. Indeed, a court slave, Sakura,
ruled the empire for a decade, from 1298-1308.
Apart from Sakura, a series of unspectacular monarchs carried
the title of mansa, or king, after Sundiata died in
1260. Mali's most famous and powerful king, known as Mansa Musa
I, ruled from 1307 to 1337. During his reign, Mali reached its
height of power and its greatest geographical extent. Mansa
Musa's spectacular hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, spread
the fame of Mali throughout the Islamic world — and even
in Europe, where Mali appeared on contemporary maps for the
first time. On his way to Mecca in 1324, he spent so much gold
in Cairo that the precious metal suffered a serious loss in
Following the death of Mansa Musa in 1337, Mali began to decline
in power. The Arab geographer and historian Ibn Battutah recorded
divisive succession struggles during his visit to Mali in the
mid-14th century. A series of ineffective and autocratic rulers
depleted the state's treasury and weakened its military prowess.
The empire's internal weakness inspired outlying provinces and
neighboring peoples to challenge its power. About the time of
Mansa Musa's death, the empire's easternmost province, Songhai,
broke away, and over the following two centuries conquered much
of Mali's former territory. Meanwhile, the Mossi attacked Timbuctu.
Despite this, Mali persisted into the 16th century as a powerful
kingdom within its original Mandinka homeland in the upper Niger
basin. Portuguese explorers of the 15th century continued to
record the existence of a Mali whose power continued to extend
to the Atlantic coast. Likewise, Leo Africanus visited the region
in the early 16th century, depicting a Mali of reduced but still
However, in 1542 the Songhai invaded the city of Mali, forcing
its rulers to flee temporarily. While Mali kings returned to
power, the Bambara kingdoms of Segu and Kaarta gradually absorbed
much of Mali's remaining territory during the 17th century.
By the 18th century, Mali had ceased to exist, but the Keita
Dynasty continued to rule as provincial chiefs in their ancestral