Royal beyond royalty: Mansa Musa, the richest man ever in the world

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He might not be among the most elite lot even in the elite kingdom of which he was so extravagant a part but a one time ruler of the Mali empire had to his distinction something that not even the most distinguishably elite of the world could boast of. The tales of royalty, of erstwhile kings and queens, of monarchs and aristocrats have always been one laden heavy with the vast amount of riches that characterise the opulent existence of them. And yet, despite their significant possession of means and masses that were extravagant in their lavish beckonings, none of them could outdo Mansa Musa when it came to amassment of fortune. Indeed, as the richest man to have ever lived on earth, eking out contenders and contemporaries by more than just a narrow margin of wealthy belongings, this particular Mansa who ruled over the West African state for 25 years and during which the empire came to glisten in a profusion of gold still lays his claim to being not just one of the wealthiest historical figures but also the most affluent of all times to have existed on earth.

The ruler of the Mali empire from 1312 to 1337, Musa I had in fact been so wealthy indeed that anecdotes abound of his generous givings not just to his own people but also to empires outside his own. Despite being shrouded in not so much popularity, Mansa Musa however was indeed a great ruler, as persisting evidence of the extent to which Mali flourished during his reign, not just economically but also culturally as well as through other encompassments of civilisation, most particularly education and architecture, points to. The story of Musa’s ascension to the throne itself wasn’t anything particularly eventful, with no struggle for power or such other aspects oft encountered in the royal history of the world character, explaining perhaps his ‘insignificance’ when it came to commanding the attention of historians and inspiring awe among the common folk. Ironically however, it perhaps is this seating in relative obscurity that helped the wealthiest man in and of history further cement his claim to a title that isn’t at the least dubious, even when the matter of wealth has always been something that is continually controversial.

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Born to a family of rulers, Musa was preceded on the throne by his brother Mansa Abu-Bakr who ruled over the empire till 1312, till the time he decided to abdicate his crown in pursuit of a different adventure. Embarking on an expedition to explore the limits of the Atlantic Ocean on his own after a similar previous attempt by his men proved to be futile, Abu- Bakr left therefore his deputy Musa to inherit the kingdom, even as neither him nor the fleet of 2000 ships of men that accompanied him ever returned. Whatever that might be, Musa came to be the next Mansa of the Mali empire, that at which time consisted of the territory of the former Ghana Empire including what is the present day nations of Guinea, Senegal, Mauritania, Gambia and the modern state of Mali. With a territory already so vast, Must went on to annex a further 24 cities and their surrounding districts to his empire, thereby ruling over a land that spanned some 2000 miles across West Africa, from the Atlantic coast to the trading hub of Timbuktu as well as parts of the Sahara Desert to modern-day Niger. This significant conquest by Musa after his ascension to the throne not only lends him historical credibility as the greatest ruler of the Mali empire but also endowed him with a territory vast enough to contain such humongous deposits of gold that which accounted for almost half of the Old World’s total, rendering him immensely wealthy and powerful.

The largest producer of gold in the world at that time, it was only fitting that the ruler of the Mali empire should emerge to be the world’s wealthiest monarch and by standards that far outrun the treasure of his closest contemporaries. But it wasn’t until 1324 that Mansa Musa, who was virtually unknown then outside the expanse of his empire, would come to gain the attention of an entire nation of Egyptians and thereby the world. A devout Muslim, it was Musa’s hajj pilgrimage of 1324–25 that saw him passing along with his entourage through the Sahara Desert and Egypt that presented as an unprecedented spectacle of equally unprecedented standards to have the entire Islamic world gasping.

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As Musa and his caravan of 60,000 men voyaged for some 2700 miles, encompassing within them the entire royal court and its officials, as well as soldiers and merchants, entertainers and slaves, and also goats and sheep, it wasn’t just a group making their flamboyant way through a land not used to such display of lavishness. Clad in the finest Persian silk and all decked up in gold brocade, this city of plentiful riches traversed through the Egyptian trail, with some eighty camels following suit, each laden with hundreds of pounds of pure gold dust, that would be showered aplenty by a generous Musa once they came to be on the streets of the Egyptian capital Cairo.

Endowing the impoverished people of Cairo with a shower of gold, Musa went about his voyage in a manner characteristic of someone who even bathed his slaves in an opulence of the golden glitter. In fact, so overly generous was the Mali ruler with his givings that an excessive inflow of gold would come to destabilize the Egyptian economy for more than a decade, even as he indeed did try to rectify it on his return journey, by borrowing all of the gold he could carry from money-lenders in Cairo at high interest. Not just in Cairo however, Musa was equally splurging away the riches all along the way, giving gold to the poor and also trading what was the most highly valued source of wealth in the medieval world for souvenirs. A deeply religious Musa likewise also made ample allowance for his piety by contributing to building a mosque every Friday throughout his year long journey.

However, even for someone who viewed Islam as “an entry into the cultured world of the Eastern Mediterranean”, Musa’s hajj pilgrimage has been refuted by many historians as a conscious attempt to gain what he indeed managed to do. In his ample show of wealth and generosity, the ruler of Mali stomped further the authority of his richness in such measures that landed himself and Mali on the Catalan Atlas of 1375, through the depiction of Musa sitting on a golden throne atop Timbuktu, holding a piece of gold scepter and a gold nugget in his hand.

Even beyond the physical assertion of his might, the historical journey to Mecca and particularly the gold showering on Cairo might also have been a clever tactic by Musa to further direct the riches into his kingdom. As the only time recorded in history that one man directly controlled the price of gold in the Mediterranean, Musa’s sojourn in what was the leading gold market of that time might have been a purposeful way of affecting the economy of Cairo, to make the markets in his areas of Timbuktu or Gao, that he acquired during the course of the journey itself, emerge as even more prominent centers of the gold trade.

However, not everything about Mansa Musa’s famed pilgrimage had the element of ostentatiousness about his wealth associated to it. Returning from Mecca with several Islamic scholars as well as with architects from Cairo and Spain’s Andalusia, what this voyage brought about for the Mali empire was also such amassments of wealth that was intangible but no less valued. Most prominently, the distinguished personalities that followed the Mansa of Mali into his empire were direct descendants of the prophet Muhammad and the Andalusian poet and architect Abu Es Haq es Saheli, widely credited with designing the famous Djinguereber mosque and for which he was paid a whopping 200 kgs of gold. Even the grand palace in Timbuktu was built by one of the men who had accompanied Musa back into Mali.

Beyond the architectural riches of it, Timbuktu also expanded to emerge as a center of trade and culture as well as a new area for Islamic scholarship. The ancient center of learning Sankore Madrasah or University of Sankore came up in Timbuktu as did similar such institutions in the cities of Djenne and Segou. As a center of learning and culture, the Sankore University started drawing Muslim scholars from around Africa and the Middle East, giving birth therefore to a tradition of education in West Africa widely attributable to Musa. By the end of Musa’s reign, the Sankoré University had been converted into a fully staffed University with jurists, astronomers, and mathematicians in its ranks. With a capacity of some 25,000 students and housing the largest collections of books in Africa since the Library of Alexandria to become one of the largest libraries in the world with roughly 1,000,000 manuscripts to its claim, the Sankore University came to attain worldwide fame.

While Mansa Musa’s thrust on education meant that he even made efforts to educate sons of the Gao king, Ali Kolon and Suleiman Nar at his court after receiving them as hostages, equally encouraging was Musa’s attitude towards science and the arts alike, patronising such spheres of enlightenment as literature and architecture, as well as attempting to revive scientific movements in his country and send scholars to Morocco. What comes across then in an account of the world’s richest man to ever have been, Mansa Musa stands out in his treasures that while are a gargantuan amassment of the resources, no less spectacular is his standing in the pursuit of other valued explorations of life. As someone who has been one of the greatest rulers ever in his striving to bring about holistic development of his empire and its people, this forgotten figure of history needs to be more known about, even if it is for the sheer magnificence of the wealth that he possessed.


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