Mansa Musa: The richest man in history?

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King Mansa Musa of Mali is depicted holding a gold coin in the 1375 Catalan Atlas. (Wikipedia pic)

If someone were to ask for the name of the richest person in history, Microsoft founder Bill Gates might come to mind, or Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, whose profit is rising with the boom in online shopping due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Berkshire Hathaway founder Warren Buffet would also be a contender with an investment empire that has stood strong for many years.

But to find the person believed to be the richest person in recorded history, look back about 700 years for King Musa Keita I of Mali, better known as Mansa Musa, “The King of Kings”, who ruled the Mali Empire from 1312 to 1337.

He left a rich legacy, not entirely based on his material wealth.

He came to power at a time when 14th century Europe was engulfed in war and famine, and Africa and the Islamic world were thriving.

Mansa Musa brought prosperity to his country through strategic conquests and economic development.

Much of Mali’s wealth was gained through trade and gold and salt mining. (Pixabay pic)

He took Timbuktu and the city of Gao, on the Niger River about 320 km east-southeast of Timbuktu, which allowed him to exploit the trade routes between the Mediterranean and the West African coast.

The expansion of the Mali Empire’s borders also brought more natural resources under its control. Even today, the region is rich in gold and salt, a luxury back in the day.

Mansa Musa became wealthy beyond dreams and the world would see his grandeur when he performed the Haj in 1324.

As befitted a great king, he travelled in grand luxury to Mecca with a massive caravan of courtiers, servants, soldiers and gold.

Written records do not agree on the specific details, but they all conclude that the expedition was magnificent in scale.

The centuries-old Djingareyber mosque of Timbuktu is one of many built during Mansa Musa’s reign. (Reuters pic)

Historians write of a retinue of tens of thousands of soldiers and servants accompanying their king, with camels and horses carrying gold bars in their saddlebags.

When he passed through Cairo, Mansa Musa gave gold to the poor, built mosques and went on a massive shopping spree for souvenirs. In fact, because of all the gold he was giving away, he may have caused inflation as everyone had a chunk of gold, reducing its value.

Not surprisingly, stories of his great wealth spread throughout the known world, all the way across the Mediterranean to Catalonia.

The 1375 Catalan Atlas is one of Medieval Europe’s most important world maps and Mansa Musa is pictured on the continent of Africa holding a gold coin. One could say Mansa Musa literally put his country on the map.

Apart from being a very wealthy king, he was a devout Muslim. After returning from the Haj he began the development of Timbuktu and built a magnificent mosque there. And it became a city of learning with the construction of a new university that would draw scholars from across the Islamic world.

Schools and mosques were established throughout the empire, some of which still stand today as the living legacy of the richest man in history.

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