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(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 value.

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 substantial size.


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 home, Kangaba.