• Billionaires Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett are currently the three richest men in the world, according to Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index.
• But 14th century African emperor Musa Keita is widely considered richest person in history.
• It’s impossible to say whether or not Mansa Musa’s wealth was exaggerated by his contemporaries.
• But it certainly had a tremendous impact on global perceptions of Mali – and the economy of Egypt.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is the wealthiest man in the world, with a net worth of $US118 billion. According to Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index, his fellow billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffet rank just behind him. But he’s still far from African emperor Musa I of Mali, who is thought to be the richest person of all time – “richer than anyone could describe,” reported Time.
Literally. His fortune was incomprehensible, Time’s Jacob Davidson writes: “There’s really no way to put an accurate number on his wealth.” Plus, since accounts of his wealth stem from centuries-old testimony, it’s possible that some stories about the “mansa” – Mandinka for “sultan” or “emperor” – were exaggerated.
We do know for a fact that Mansa Musa ruled the Mali Empire in the 14th century and his land was laden with lucrative natural resources, most notably gold. He was also a successful military leader, having captured 24 cities, according to David C. Conrad’s “Empires of Medieval West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay.” But it was his Islamic faith that prompted him to make his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, thus exposing his extraordinary riches to the outside world.
Here’s everything we know about this legendary king:
Musa Keita I came into power in 1312. At the time, much of Europe was struggling and and facing declining gold and silver production, while many African kingdoms were thriving.
While in power, Mansa Musa expanded the borders of his empire tremendously. He annexed the city of Timbuktu and reestablished power over Gao. All in all, his empire stretched about 2,000 miles.
Mansa Musa was in charge of a lot of land. To put it into perspective, he ruled all (or parts) of modern day Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Chad.
The rest of the world caught wind of his great fortune in 1324, when he made the nearly 4,000 mile pilgrimage to Mecca, in order to fulfil one of the five pillars of Islam. He didn’t do it on the cheap.
“Not one to travel on a budget, he brought a caravan stretching as far as the eye could see,” Smith reported.
The numbers vary, but Mansa Musa’s reportedly 60,000-strong caravan was said to include 1,000 attendants, 100 camels loaded with gold, plenty of the emperor’s own personal musicians, and 500 slaves bearing gold staffs.
Contemporary historian Ibn Khaldun later interviewed one of the emperor’s travelling companions. The man claimed that, “at each halt, he would regale us with rare foods and confectionery. His equipment and furnishings were carried by 12,000 private slave women, wearing gowns of brocade and Yemeni silk.”
Mansa Musa wasn’t stingy about his wealth, either. He would frequently bestow gifts upon dignitaries he met with. On his stop in Cairo, he spent so much gold to the poor that he caused mass inflation.
The extravagant journey put Mansa Musa on the map — quite literally. He was included on the 1375 Catalan Atlas, one of the most important world maps of Medieval Europe. Word of his wealth spread across the Mediterranean.
Ultimately, the emperor’s opulent pilgrimage shaped European views of Mali as “a place of splendor, wealth, and sophistication,” historian Chris Strobel writes. But there was a dark side to this newfound attention. Portuguese interest in Mali would ultimately manifest itself in naval raids against the empire starting in the 15th century.
While Mansa Musa’s famous for his gold today, “… his vast wealth was only one piece of his rich legacy,” Jessica Smith reported in a TED-Ed original lesson.
“Material riches weren’t the king’s only concern,” Smith reported. “As a devout Muslim, he took a particular interest in Timbuktu.” He urbanized the city of Timbuktu by building schools, mosques, and a major university.
He also built the legendary Djinguereber Mosque in Timbuktu, which still stands.
After reigning for 25 years, Mansa Musa died in 1337. He was succeeded by his son, Maghan I. “The king’s rich legacy persisted for generations and to this day, there are mausoleums, libraries, and mosques that stand as a testament to this golden age of Mali’s history,” Smith said.
An earlier version of this post was written by Kathleen Elkins.
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