In Europe, the 1300s were dark days — a period of religious insularity and superstition made even worse by the arrival of the Black Death, an outbreak of bubonic plague that killed an estimated 50 million people on the continent alone. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in sub-Saharan Africa, the Mali Empire was experiencing a medieval flourishing of culture and learning fueled by unimaginable wealth.
At the center of it all was a West African king named Mansa Musa, who reigned over a vast Muslim empire stretching 2,000 miles (3,219 kilometers) from the Atlantic Ocean to modern-day Niger. But more important than the size of Mansa Musa's empire was the richness of his natural resources — two highly productive gold fields renowned for producing the purest and most coveted gold in the world.
If the stories told about Mansa Musa are true — that he and his court were bedecked in pure gold, and that he spent so much gold on a pilgrimage to Mecca that he devalued the price of gold for decades — then he may have been the richest man to ever live. The website Celebrity Net Worth says he was worth $400 billion in today's dollars, making Mansa Musa nearly four times as rich as Jeff Bezos.
The Gold King
Mansa Musa inherited the throne of the Mali Empire between 1307 and 1312 (Mansa means "sultan" or "emperor" in the Mandinka language) and cemented the empire's position at the center of a vast medieval trade network that connected Asia, the Middle East and Europe via Africa by annexing 24 cities. A percentage of all the gold mined in the empire was sent as tribute to the king. Some sources say it was as much as 1 to 1.
An elaborate 14th-century map called the Catalan Atlas features a prominent illustration of Mansa Musa seated on a plush throne, crowned in gold, holding a scepter in one hand and a large golden orb in the other.
"This Moorish ruler is named Musse Melly [Mansa Musa], lord of the negroes of Guinea," reads the map's description. "This king is the richest and most distinguished ruler of this whole region on account of the great quantity of gold that is found in his lands."
The 14th-century Arab historian Al-'Umari provides a secondhand account of Mansa Musa's opulent throne room, supposedly dripping in gold.
"[The king of Mali] has with him his arms, which are all of gold — sword, javelin, quiver, bow and arrows," wrote Al-'Umari, who then described the members of the Malian royal court. "Their brave cavaliers wear golden bracelets. Those whose knightly valor is greater wear gold necklets also. If it is greater still they add gold anklets."
Historians warn that we should take these ancient accounts with a grain of salt, since they are often biased and almost certainly exaggerated, but they also carry elements of truth.
Kathleen Bickford Berzock is the associate director of curatorial affairs at Northwestern University's Block Museum, where she curated a stunning exhibit about the trans-Saharan trade network that made Mansa Musa so fabulously rich. She says that the "broad strokes" of the stories surrounding Mansa Musa are factual even if the details were embellished over time.
"Certainly Mansa Musa and other rulers from these West African kingdoms had access to huge amounts of wealth, and the gold itself was considered the purest, most valuable gold of its day," says Berzock. "Whether he was the richest man in the history of the world, I don't know."
Mansa Musa Goes to Mecca
A devout Muslim, Mansa Musa wanted to complete the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest city in Islam. So, in the year 1324, the Malian king set out for modern-day Saudi Arabia with a caravan of mythic proportions.
According to Al-'Umari, the Islamic scholar who was born a decade after the famous hajj, Mansa Musa's caravan swelled to 60,000 people, including 12,000 slaves and countless court officials, soldiers and singing poets called griots. As for traveling money, Al-'Umari said that Mansa Musa brought a "hundred loads of gold" for the trip. If a single load equals 100 pounds (45 kilograms) of gold, as some estimate, that's a lot of bullion.
The journey to Mecca and back took a full year with long layovers in Cairo. According to Al-'Umari, Mansa Musa went on an epic spending spree in the Egyptian capital, handing out gold like it was candy.
"The man flooded Cairo with his benefactions," wrote Al-'Umari. "He left no court emir... no holder of a royal office without the gift of a load of gold. The Cairenes made incalculable profits out of him and his suite in buying and selling and giving and taking. They exchanged gold until they depressed its value in Egypt and caused its price to fall."
That's right. The exchange rate for gold fell throughout the Middle East because of the shopping habits and courtly bribes of a single man. And according to some sources, gold prices stayed down for a decade.
Salt Above Gold
Mansa Musa was so crazy wealthy because he sat atop the medieval world's most vibrant trade network. The hunger for West African gold was so great that traders were willing to cross the Sahara Desert to get their hands on it.
"That journey by camel caravan took three to four months, with stretches of 10 days or more between stops," says Berzock. "It was a really demanding and arduous journey, with some considerable risk."
But the risk was worth the reward. West African gold was literally the "gold standard," and kingdoms across the world wanted to mint their gold currency with the purest material. Surprisingly, the commodity that was most prized in gold-glutted Mali was salt. It was even used as a currency there. So, caravans would stop along the way to Mansa Musa's empire and trade their textiles and spices for large slabs of Saharan salt.
The medieval Arab writer Ibn Battuta claimed that the Saharan outpost of Teghaza was so rich with desert salt that its buildings were made of pure rock salt. Once in Mali, some sources say that heavy slabs of salt could be traded for their weight in gold.
Berzock says that the lucrative salt-gold trade supported a much larger trans-Saharan trade network with "entrepôts" — intermediary trade hubs — in cities like Sijilmasa in Morocco, Niamey in Niger and Tadmakka in Mali.
"On the heels of this gold and salt trade come all these different commodities: glass beads, glass vessel ware, books, textiles, spices, enslaved people," says Berzock. "It's a very complex economy that developed out of this essential trade of gold for salt."
The Overlooked History of Africa
Berzock says that a larger-than-life figure like Mansa Musa highlights the central and influential role of sub-Saharan Africa in medieval global trade, a story often overshadowed by what came after it: centuries of transatlantic slave trade and European colonialism.
Before and after the reign of Mansa Musa, the Mali Empire was not only wealthy, but a capital of Islamic learning. The fabled Malian city of Timbuktu was home to one of the largest libraries of Islamic scholarship in the medieval world.
"We want to reshape how African history is taught and to reinvest it with the true agency and the true import it deserves," says Berzock. Her exhibit, "Caravans of Gold," is set to open at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art in 2020 at a date to be determined.