Image credit: AllAfrica.com
Long before wealthy people like Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and the royal family of Saudi came to the world, there was a guy called Mansa Musa who is believed to be the richest man to ever exist.
Back in the 13th century, West Africa was an abundant source of gold. Mansa Musa was the king of the Empire of Mali — an ancient empire that covered almost all of West Africa.
This ancient beacon of wealth was lucky enough to inherit a very valuable kingdom. But it was his actions, his determination to hoard gold, and his skills of trade and expansion which morphed his kingdom and in turn himself into a true symbol of elitism.
Following his reign, Mansa Musa left behind a legacy of opulence. Now nearly a millennium later, others have stuffed their treasure chests. Yet no modern man comes close to the former wealth of this long-gone ruler.
The great Musa looked over the empire from 1312 to 1337, so about 25 years in our modern world. Mali is the eighth-largest country in Africa with a population of just under 20 million people but 700 years ago it looked unrecognizably different in the Musa era.
Mali was utterly enormous; it spanned across what we know today as Senegal the Gambia, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso as well as the modern nation of Mali too.
Of course, this meant that at the time, Mansa Musa's empire was geographically one of the largest in the world. If you had tried to walk from one end to the other it’s reported that you would have been on your feet for an entire year.
Despite the Empire of Mali being so vast, it was the efforts of Mansa Musa in his short reign that truly etched this centuries-old civilization into the history books.
But why exactly is that the case? What separated Mansa Musa’s leadership from that of the other rulers who came before and after even though his time as ruler may have been relatively short?
Mansa Musa came to power in 1312 and hit the ground running quickly laying the groundwork to develop cultural centers. He imported famous architects from all across the Middle East and Africa and paid them to design focal points in what would soon become booming cultural and economic hot spots in Africa. Among his accomplishments was the expansion of the city of Gao.
He built huge places of worship. The most notable being the Djinguereber Mosque.
He also commissioned educational and residential buildings and most notably a center for education called Sankore Madras.
By the end of Mansa Musa's reign, the university would become fully staffed showcasing the largest collections of books in all of Africa.
These projects as well as his willingness to facilitate trade fuelled the fire to a functioning economy and allowed Musa to transform the kingdom of Mali into a cosmopolitan cultural and learning beacon for the Islamic world.
At the heart of this world was Timbuktu which served as one of the most important spiritual and trade centers in Northern Africa at the time.
Despite all of his success and progress Musa's role as a leader wasn’t actually planned. The only reason he took the top position was that the previous king Abu Bakr II mysteriously disappeared at sea after setting out on a large fleet to explore the Atlantic ocean.
Sure, Mansa Musa built up the cities and powered a civilization but that’s not why he remained so famous. While the Musa name was already familiar to millions of locals thanks to his position as king one particular event multiplied his fame substantially.
Caravan of Gold
As a devout Muslim, in the 17th year of his reign, Musa set off on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 passing through cities like Cairo and Medina along the way.
He ventured for more than a year but he wasn’t alone. While on horseback himself he was leading some sixty thousand men on foot all inspired by Musa's dedication, power, and wealth. Twelve thousand of those men were carrying four-pound bars of solid gold while wielding golden staffs and dressed in high-quality silks and brocades.
On top of that, some 80 camels were lugging heavy bags full to the brim with gold dust some weighing as much as 300 pounds. Just to put that into perspective based on the value of resources today, each camel would have been holding the equivalent of nine million dollars worth of gold.
While they journeyed, Musa recruited teachers and leaders in the hope of spreading the learnings of his faith. However, that’s not all he was up to. He also gave out gold freely along the way and he didn’t hold back with his generosity.
It is said that because of Musa's freewheeling nature to hand out gold, his massive spending and selfless donations sparked a massive decade-long gold recession.
Realizing that he’d made a mistake by giving so much away upon his return to Mali, he borrowed it all back and as a result, directly controlled the price of gold in the Mediterranean region.
That’s real influence.
So now we know that Musa was hoarding all the gold he could find but how did he find himself in a position to acquire such enormous wealth in the first place?
The majority of his riches spurred from an activity that’s continued to bring stacks of cash to plenty of people to this day — mining.
The kingdom of Mali was booming with significant gold and salt deposits and Musa being the ruler of this kingdom, owned most of it. Not only did he trade and spend the gold, but in true elite fashion, he was completely adorned in it.
Besides the mining revenue back then, the sale of elephant ivory was also a major source of income for him.
Mansa Musa’s Networth
Mansa Musa's networth has been valued by modern-day scholars to be up to 415 billion dollars. That’s nearly half a trillion dollars. That’s more than the entire GDP of Singapore, Norway, South Africa, and Hong Kong.
That insane number propels the historic sultan into the upper echelon of history’s richest men. He surpasses infamous American icons of wealth like John D. Rockefeller (400 billion dollars)and Andrew Carnegie (372 billion dollars) and makes some of the richest names in Hollywood look like peasants.
As of 2020 three of the richest people in the US own empires in their own field. Jeff Bezos the richest man in the world today is worth 184 billion dollars. Not too far away is Bill gates with 119 billion dollars. Mark Zukerberg of Facebook is worth 98 billion dollars. If we add that up, we get 397 billion dollars which don’t stack up to that of the former ruler of Mali.
Despite passing away not too long after returning from his pilgrimage Mansa Musa's legacy lived on for centuries. His administrative talents to create a network of trade, innovate with architecture, and embrace education paved the way for the civilization to prosper.
Of course, nothing will be remembered as much as his reputation for being a man of incomprehensible wealth. A man who’d throw around gold like it was nothing more than sand.