“If a man has wealth, he has to make a choice, because there is the money heaping up. He can keep it together in a bunch and then leave it for others to administer after he is dead. Or he can get into action and have fun, while he is still alive.” – George Eastman, American inventor
It is certain that George Eastman’s philosophy has been shared been men and women alike for ages. People have often justified their irresponsible spending habits by declaring that you “can’t take it with you” when you die. Of course, not everyone who takes this idea to heart spends their money irresponsibly. Many people know what to do to make the most of their money and enjoy it while they can. The man we are featuring in this article was not one of those super responsible spenders. But he sure did know how to have a good time with his riches. We’re talking about Mansa Musa, the king of the Mali Empire during the mid-1300s. And while he may not have been the most frugal ruler of all times, he was certainly innovative in how he managed to obtain his riches. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Snippetz invites you to buckle up and come along with us as we journey back in time to the 14th century and follow the life of Mansa Musa!
WHO WAS MANSA MUSA?
Mansa Musa, also known as Musa Keita, was born in 1280 and died in 1337. He was the 10th sultan or king (which is what mansa translates to in English) of the affluent West African Mali Empire. Musa was a strong leader who conquered cities surrounding his empire and managed to grow his realm in wonderful fashion during his reign. But that’s not what Musa is most known for; his “claim to fame” really came from his pilgrimage to Mecca. But again, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s back up.
Musa came to power in 1312 and ruled until his death in 1337. As we mentioned before, Musa was extremely successful in expanding his empire and thus, his power. His realm extended from the Atlantic coast across Africa and into western Sudan. Because of his empire’s ever-expanding boundaries, Musa found himself in control of the trans-Sahara trade routes, which netted him a massive amount of wealth. The trade routes passed directly through Timbuktu, and sort of by default, the city became the center of much of the commerce happening in northwest Africa. In all, Musa’s empire covered about 2,000 miles. One Italian scholar of art and architecture, Sergio Domian, said, “At the height of its power, Mali had at least 400 cities, and the interior of the Niger Delta was very densely populated.”
Besides becoming a nexus of the trade industry, Musa also helped morph the ancient city of Timbuktu into one of the greatest centers for Islamic education and culture. He trekked in Arab scholars from Mecca to assist in building libraries, mosques, and universities, eventually transforming Timbuktu into a haven for Muslim writers, artists, and the like from all across Africa and the Middle East. In fact, the Sankore mosque and university in the city was built by Musa and still stands as a main point of interest today.
THE PILGRIMAGE THAT BROKE THE CAMEL’S BACK
According to history records, Musa embarked on his obligatory hajj, a pilgrimage of sorts that each devout Muslim must make at least on in their life. If the hajj is something that each Muslim has in common with each other, Musa’s certainly set him apart from the masses. Why, you ask? Because Musa did his hajj in crazy emperor style. Accompanying him on his 4,000 mile journey was a caravan of courtiers and various subjects, each dressed in expensive Persian silk. Among them were 12,000 personal servants for Musa himself. Yes, 12,000 servants for ONE MAN. In all, about 60,000 people total made the trek with Musa to Mecca.
Aside from the ridiculous amount of people he brought with him, Musa also decided it was necessary to drag along 4,000 pounds of gold. It took a caravan of 80 camels each carrying 300 pounds of gold to cart the majority of the hoard, with an additional 500 servants carrying 4-pound solid gold staffs.
Now, you might be wondering where Musa happened to get his hands on two tons of gold. Remember how he so skillfully expanded his empire across Africa? Well, as part of that expansion, Musa acquired the Taghaza salt deposits in the north and the Wangara gold mines to the south. Those mines actually produced half of the world’s gold that was in circulation at the time. So since Musa was the king and all, he could basically do whatever he wanted with anything that was considered part of his empire and that included dragging 4,000 pounds of gold with him on his hajj to Mecca.
When one travels with an entourage of 60,000 people and various assorted animals, the food bill is not going to be a small one. Musa paid for all the food and necessities his caravan needed during their travels. But he didn’t stop there.
Now, the next bit of history can be seen as both good and bad and here’s why: Musa, feeling especially generous during his trek, handed out gold alms to just about anyone that he encountered on his journey who asked for it. Each Friday, wherever the caravan ended up, Musa left behind a stash of gold to pay for the construction of a mosque.
That all sounds well and good, right? But the truth is that Musa basically single-handedly caused the value of gold to plummet to the point that it would be more than a decade before it achieved its former value. No place was this devaluation felt more harshly than Cairo, Medina and Mecca. Literally no one but the pharaohs had thrown around their wealth to the same degree as Musa. The price for typical goods skyrocketed and essentially devastated the economy in those three cities.
By the time Musa had reached Mecca and was headed back home, he had spent or given away every last bit of gold he had taken with him. He found himself with no money to get back home! However, it’s said that Musa got wind of the inadvertent distress he caused the cities of Cairo, Medina and Mecca during his travels and decided he wanted to attempt to rectify the situation. He borrowed as much gold as he could possibly carry from the money lenders in Cairo, at a crazy-high interest rate.
Musa’s expedition soon gained a certain level of notoriety, earning him a prominent place on the 1375 Catalan Atlas. It’s considered one of the most important world maps of Medieval Europe. On the map, Musa is depicted as a black African king with a gold crown on his head, holding a golden scepter in his left hand and a golden nugget in his right. Although Musa’s likeness is most obviously placed on the Catalan Atlas, cartographers began using it in various ways as early as 1339, just two years after his death.