BBC History Magazine

Was Mansa Musa the richest man ever?


It’s impossible to know this for certain. However, here is what the historical sources do tell us: in 1324, Mansa Musa, ruler of the medieval Mali empire, which stretched across west Africa (not to be confused with today’s Mali), set off on pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, two holy cities of Islam.

He undertook a lengthy trip across the Sahara, journeying from the banks of the Niger river towards the Nile and Red Sea. His party included thousands of soldiers and hundreds of enslaved people carrying salt, gold and other riches. During his trip he stopped in Cairo, where he reportedly injected so much gold into the local economy that the metal’s value dropped throughout Egypt, earning him his reputation as the richest man of all time.

Mansa Musa’s spectacula­r pilgrimage signalled to the world the capabiliti­es of a powerful west African state, and the aspiration­s of its ambitious ruler. In the pilgrimage’s wake, the cities of Timbuktu and Jenne in Mali grew into major hubs for the trade in humans, commoditie­s, natural resources and books, welcoming local scholars and intellectu­als from throughout the Islamic world.

Mansa Musa’s fortune was certainly colossal by any historical or contempora­ry standards. However, numbers floating around estimating it in hundreds of billions of today’s dollars are pure speculatio­n. Moreover, these sky-high estimates obscure the fact that there remains a lot that scholars don’t know about the economy, politics and organisati­on of the empire.

Madina Thiam, doctoral candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles, who specialise­s in Mali and the Sahel

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