Compare and contrast Ghana and Mali. In what ways were the two kingdoms similar? How were they different?

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Ghana and Mali were similar in that each kingdom was located in West Africa, and their power depended on control of the gold-salt trade routes stretching east to the Sahara Desert. They were different in that Ghana was an older polity, having collapsed before Mali would rise to power. Additionally, while each kingdom coexisted alongside the great Islamic powers of the time, Mali's rulers converted to Islam whereas Ghana's did not.

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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.

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Both Ghana and Mali were located in West Africa, a region whose economic activity had long been centered around the gold-salt trade stretching east to the Sahara Desert. For both of these kingdoms, controlling those trade routes proved vital to maintaining political power. Ghana was the older of the two kingdoms, collapsing in the eleventh century CE, whereas Mali would rise to dominance in the thirteenth century, with its most famous ruler, Mansa Musa, coming to power in 1312 CE.

Through trade, Ghana was brought into contact with the Islamic world, but while there were some conversions, Islam's spread would remain limited at this time, with most people in West Africa continuing to uphold their traditional beliefs and practices. Later, Ghana's collapse would be shaped in the aftermath of their having been attacked by the Almoravids, a Muslim North African dynasty. That being said, Islam would have a much stronger presence in Mali, whose rulers would eventually convert, forging much stronger ties with the other Islamic powers. For example, consider the city of Timbuktu, which would become one of the significant cultural centers of the Islamic world. Additionally, Mansa Musa's pilgrimage to Mecca can be observed as one of the more iconic images to be found regarding this section of global history.

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  • Both Ghana and Mali grew immensely wealthy from cross-Saharan trade, particularly the trade of gold and salt. While they did not engage in much trade themselves, they charged taxes and tribute from merchants who wished to cross their land.
  • Both kingdoms raised large armies that conquered neighboring areas in order to increase their territory. Conquered peoples had to in turn pay tribute to the king which enriched the royal coffers even more.
  • Both kingdoms had large populations based in urban areas. These cities put a large strain on the local resources which led to frequent droughts and famines when not well managed.


  • While both Ghana and Mali tolerated and accepted Muslim traders from North Africa, the kings of Ghana did not convert while the rulers of Mali eventually became Muslims themselves and made it the official state religion.
  • Ghana had usually been ruled with a centralized form of government based out of the capital of Koumbi Saleh. Mali was more of a federation in which each tribe governed local affairs and sent a representative to the royal court.
  • Mali had more wealth than the Kingdom of Ghana. Ghana merely existed between sources of salt and gold. Mali, with its larger territory, had its own gold mines within its kingdom, as well as a coastline. This allowed it to grow immensely wealthy.
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Ghana and Mali were two important West African kingdoms. Although they were close geographically, the two states were more different than similar.

One difference was geography. Ancient Ghana was located northwest of present-day Ghana. Mali, on the other hand, is still situated in the same area as its ancient ancestors.

The two states were not contemporaneous. Ghana thrived from the seventh to the thirteenth centuries—until its capital was destroyed by invaders from Mali in 1240. Mali reached its peak from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries.

Islam affected the two states in very different ways. Muslim raiders from the Sahara destabilized Ghana. Mali, on the other hand, became a center of Islamic culture and learning. Mali built impressive mosques, and its wonderful religious heritage is still visible in Timbuktu and Djenne.

The economies of the two kingdoms relied heavily on trade—especially gold. The salt trade was significant, too.

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Ancient Ghana was a rich empire in West Africa from the seventh to the thirteenth century. It is usually referred to as the first empire in Africa. The empire traded gold and was comprised of both Muslim traders and Berber people. The modern country of Ghana is not the same place as the ancient empire of Ghana.

Then came Mali, built on the former empire of Ghana, from 1230 to the 1600s. Mali was larger than Ghana had been. Two famous names are important to know in order to learn more regarding Mali, those of Mansa Musa and Ibn Mattuta. Mansa Musa was the leader who helped to turn Mali into a rich kingdom by trading gold, salt, and copper, and he helped to make it a Muslim nation. He made a haj, or a pilgrimage to Mecca, in 1324 and brought with him gold and many of his subjects. Ibn Mattuta was an Arab traveler who chronicled much of what we now know about the ancient world and Mansa Musa. The famous ancient city of Timbuktu was in Mali and is still in existence today, in the modern country of Mali.

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What were the similarities between ancient Ghana and Mali, and how did Mali's differences contribute to its rise to power?

Ghana and Mali were two powerful kingdoms in West Africa. Ghana arose first and shared much of the same territory as its successor, Mali. Both of these kingdoms became exceptionally wealthy as a result of trade routes that crossed their lands. Salt from the northern reaches of the Sahara was brought south to trade for gold. Ghana and Mali would impose a tax in exchange for permission to cross their territory. This became the basis of their wealth.

Both these kingdoms also maintained large armies. The revenue collected from merchants provided enough money to maintain large standing armies. Both kingdoms used their armies to expand their territories. They then demanded tribute from the people they conquered, which enriched them even more.

Ghana and Mali also had large urban populations. While they were prolific city builders, this did not come without its problems. Cities put a strain on the surrounding countryside, and when natural resources ran thin, drought and famine resulted.

Despite their many similarities, Ghana and Mali had notable differences. While Ghana was aware of Islam from the Muslim merchants that passed through, there were fewer conversions among its population. Mali, on the other hand, more firmly embraced Islam. It became the religion practiced by its leaders and eventually the official religion of the entire kingdom. Mali quickly became a major center of Islam. The schools built in Timbuktu attracted Muslim scholars and merchants from all over, who came to do business and live there. This helped Mali rise to even greater heights and increased its prestige.

The organization of the kingdoms also differed. The kingdom of Ghana was ruled by a central government out of its capital in Koumbi Saleh. Mali, being a larger and more diverse kingdom, left many local affairs up to local leaders. The different provinces of Mali had their own leaders who reported to the royal court but still maintained a degree of limited local autonomy.

While both kingdoms were very powerful and wealthy, there was one more difference that accounts for Mali's ascendancy. While Ghana occupied important territory between the sources of salt and gold, Mali actually had gold mines within its own territory. It also had a coastline, granting it access to even more trade-routes. These factors made Mali the wealthiest nation of its time.

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