In celebration of Black History Month, Skyjems would like to introduce you to Mansa Musa, the richest man in the world!
Even though he ruled the Mali Empire in the 14th century, Musa Keita I was “richer than anyone could describe” and is still thought to be the richest person who ever lived! In Money writer Jacob Davidson’s list of the 10 Richest People of All Time, Mansa (the Mandinka word for “king”, “sultan”, or “emperor”) Musa is listed at number one, outranking even Bill Gates and Genghis Khan. His wealth is thought to have been the modern-day equivalent of $400 Billion US dollars, and his generosity is known to have created economic chaos in Cairo as he passed through in 1324.
Musa ruled from 1312 to 1337 during the Mali Empire, which was founded by his great uncle Sundiata Keita in 1240 and flourished through 1645. It is still considered by some to be the largest and wealthiest empire that West Africa has ever experienced. At the time that Musa came into power, in 1312, the empire was rich in copper and was likely the largest producer of gold in the world - at a time when many European countries were experiencing a decline in their production of gold and silver.
During his time in power Mansa Musa further developed the city of Timbuktu, which was already the most important trading city since it was situated in a prime location where major waterways and land routes connected, near the Niger River. His contributions included building libraries, schools, universities, and many mosques. In fact, according to Ethnic Jewels Magazine, he actually built a mosque each week! The most famous of these mosques is Djinguereber Mosque which was built of pounded earth and wood, and still stands in Timbuktu today.
The Djinguereber Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali.
Photo: UN Photo/Marco Dormino
Musa was a skilled military leader as well, according to historian David C. Conrad, having captured 24 cities so that the Mali Empire stretched approximately 2,000 miles to include all, or at least parts of, modern-day Burkina Faso, Chad, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal. His army is said to have included approximately 200,000 men!
Because these areas were home to so many different tribes and ethnicities, Musa separated the empire into provinces and appointed one farba (governor) for each region. With these changes came improved record-keeping, more organized local and trade taxation, and better oversight of Mali’s copper and gold mines. As a result the Mali Empire, and Mansa Musa himself, experienced a time of great wealth that is perhaps unmatched even to this day.
In 1324, Musa was inspired to make a pilgrimage to Mecca in honour of his Islamic faith. Accounts of his 4,000-mile trek sound like the stuff of fairytales: horse riders waving the red and gold banners of the king, countless camels loaded with gold, a caravan of about 60,000 people that included personal musicians, hundreds of slaves carrying gold staves, and 12,000 slave women in silk gowns carrying his equipment and furnishings.
A depiction of Mansa Musa's caravan making pilgrimage to Mecca.
Image: Print Collector/Getty Images (via History.com)
It was his opulent spending and immense generosity along the way that garnered the attention of Cairo’s ruler Al-Malik an-Nasir, who requested a meeting. It is rumoured that Musa started things off on the wrong foot because he was reluctant to kiss an-Nasir’s feet, though he eventually agreed to this custom. Ultimately, an-Nasir offered palace accommodation to Musa’s entire caravan, and Musa left more than just some of his wealth in Cairo.
Local merchants soon saw an opportunity and raised their prices to take advantage of the affluent newcomers. In fact, by giving and spending so much gold in Cairo, Musa is said to have caused devastating inflation that crashed the value of the gold dinar by 20% and would disrupt the economy and take Cairo over a decade to recover. According to Brittanica.com, The historian al-ʿUmarī visited Cairo 12 years after Mansa Musa’s visit to find its economy still in recovery mode and the people still reminiscing about his generosity.
News of Musa's wealth soon reached Europe, and his likeness (holding a large golden orb, of course) was even included in the Catalan Atlas, Europe's first detailed map of West Africa.
Mansa Musa in the Catalan Atlas.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
The Mali Empire would continue to see success for another century, led next by Musa's son Mansa Maghan I and then by Musa's brother Mansa Suleyman. However, around the middle of the 15th century Mali lost its stronghold on trade in the area thanks in part to infighting, civil wars, and Europeans becoming an ever-increasing presence in the area.
Regardless, many historians and financial experts still agree that Mansa Musa remains the richest man to have ever lived.
Skyjems specializes in custom jewellery and we would love nothing more than to make your dreams a reality! In the meantime, here are two of our finished rings in luxurious gold, featuring gemstones from Africa: