Ghana and Mali were both rich and powerful West African empires that thrived on the continent before European colonization. Ghana rose first, benefitting from their rich gold resources and becoming a revered trading center. Mali would later grow on the ruins of Ghana, becoming even wealthier and more powerful than Ghana had ever been. Mali would turn into an internationally famous center of Islamic culture and learning. The kingdom's most famous ruler, Mansa Musa, is considered to be the richest man that has ever lived.
These two empires, along with the neighboring kingdom of Songhai, were powerful global influences between the fourth and sixteenth centuries. Historians also point to the fact that these empires prospered before European intervention or colonization of the continent, showing how creative, culturally rich, and innovative Africans have been since the dawn of history. These African kingdoms fly in the face of European colonial rhetoric that characterized Africa as “the dark continent” for its impenetrable environments, cultural unsophistication, and lack of technological progress.
The Kingdom of Ghana developed around 300 A.D. and covered parts of the modern day countries of Mali, Senegal, Mauritania, and Ghana. Ghana’s gold mines made it rich and allowed it to import goods from surrounding areas, such as salt from the Sahara desert. The Berbers of the Sahara traded salt using camel caravans, as camels can survive for long periods of time with little food and water. The rulers of Ghana charged high taxes to traders who traveled through their land, making their kingdom especially wealthy.
Goods such as copper, iron, and ivory were also traded along the strategically located Niger and Senegal Rivers, as well as their smaller tributaries. The capital of the empire, Koumbei Saleh, became a cultural hub. The city was spread over 110 acres and had a central mosque, a public square, rows of houses made of mud-dried bricks, and many well-irrigated fields with bounties of crops. As merchants came through the land, they also spread Islamic ideas. Historians think that leaders may have become slowly more tolerant of Islam to aid in their trade relationships. Even though the kings and queens of the empire were polytheistic, Islam began to take root in the region. Eventually a people known as the Almoravids invaded the empire, causing it’s decline at the beginning of the eleventh century.
The kingdom of Mali emerged after the fall of Ghana in the eleventh century. Built upon the ruins of Ghana, Mali’s leaders took advantage of the region’s rivers and rich resources, soon establishing themselves as a large and formidable trading center. Mali traded gold with other countries and empires for items like salt, precious stones, and slaves. Mali’s famous king, Mansa Musa (reign from 1312 A.D.–1337 A.D.), is said to have been the richest man who ever lived. King Musa was a devoted Muslim and famously made a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. On his way, he brought a long caravan of gold and other riches. Legend has it that when he voyaged through Egypt, he spent so much gold in the markets of Cairo that their economy crashed, causing currency to lose 20% of its value.
Unlike the Ghana kings and queens, many of Mali’s rulers were devoted Muslims, spreading the religion far and wide. In fact, Mansa Musa doubled Mali’s size, spreading his Muslim faith and Islamic learning wherever he went. On his many travels, he was inspired by libraries and universities. He created the center of Timbuktu in Mali, which was an Islamic center of learning, complete with ornate mosques, libraries, and Koranic schools that travelers flocked to from far and wide. Mali’s power declined in the mid-fifteenth century when other areas to the South discovered gold resources.