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From the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Classroom Poster
The Art of Ancient Mali

Present-day Mali, at nearly twice the size of Texas, is the largest country in West Africa. Mali is bordered by seven other countries: Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, and Mauritania. Most of the northern half of Mali falls within the largest desert on the planet, the Sahara. The central section of Mali is made up of semi-arid land that is part of a larger region known as the Sahel. Sahel is an Arabic word meaning, “shore,” although, in this case, it can be thought of as the shore of the desert rather than the ocean. The Sahel is nearly 3,000 miles long and from 200 to 700 miles wide in a span across the continent of Africa. It is an area that is gradually being taken over by the southward creep of the Sahara Desert. In the southwestern region of Mali, rainfall and rivers are more plentiful and the climate is slightly more hospitable.

Mali's most important geographic feature is the Niger River. The Niger River stretches over 2,500 miles through four countries: Guinea, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria. It arches up alongside the Sahara until it turns south towards the sea. Mali sits at the top of this arc, where the river spreads out and opens into an inland delta.

Only about 2 percent of Mali is arable. In this dry climate, it is the Niger River that provides the main source of subsistence, providing fish, drinking water, and water for farming. Growing food in this region depends on the annual flooding of the Niger River, which has traditionally provided fertile plains along its banks.

Map of Mali
Like the Nile River in ancient Egypt, the Niger River in Mali (both historically and currently) has also been an important causeway for travel, trade, and culture. In the past, the Niger River became an important highway for the trade of goods such as gold, iron, copper, ivory, pepper, salt, fabrics, and eventually slaves. Today, it is still one of the main means of transportation in Mali. The river remains vital to commerce for transporting crops and goods and it is the only way of getting to some of the more remote places.

While the majority of Malians still rely on farming as a means of food and livelihood, agriculture is becoming more difficult to sustain. In the last 30 years there have been two major droughts adding to the continual spread of the desert and the loss of more farmable land. Over the past 50 years the desert has overrun an area roughly the size of France and Austria combined.


Much of what we know of Mali’s past comes from oral histories passed down from one generation to the next by griots, or bards, whose profession it is to memorize and recite events of the past. Known as “keepers of memories,” every village, clan, and royal family had a griot to chronicle lineage and histories. A griot combines history with music, poetry, dance, and drama to entertain and teach his audience. Symbolism and metaphor enliven these oral histories rather than specific dates, names, and details. This can make them difficult to interpret as time goes on. Written histories, mainly authored by Arab historians, provide another source of our knowledge of ancient Mali. One of the first travelers to write an eyewitness account of Africa was Ibn Battuta in the 14th century. He traveled by camel caravan from Morocco to Mali between 1352-54 and gave detailed descriptions of everything from royal government to the masked dancers he saw in the empire of Mali.

Archaeology also provides us with clues to the past. From archaeological research of rock paintings, we know that people lived in the region of present-day Mali as far back as a time when the Sahara Desert had abundant rainfall to support a lush forest, grasses, and animals--long before it became a desert. Other archaeological studies have found little in Niani, believed to have been the ancient capital of Mali. But nearby in Jenne-Jeno or Old Jenne, near present day Djenne, there have been many archaeological finds despite a considerable amount of looting in the past. These finds indicate that Jenne-Jeno was inhabited as early as the 3rd century B.C.

Urban life developed as early as the 1st century BC along the Inland Niger Delta (located between the Bani and Niger rivers in present day southwestern Mali) and for more than 2,000 years it has been a crossroads of culture and trade and has seen the rise and fall of great empires. The succession of West African empires includes Ghana (Wagadu), Mali, and Songhay.

Trade became an essential element in the rise and fall of these great West African empires. By about 300 A.D. camel caravan routes began to be established through West Africa and the Sahara Desert linking West African cities with Europe and the Middle East. There were four major trading routes along which experienced guides would lead caravans. A typical caravan from Arabia to the Sahel took about 40 days to complete. Along most of the route travelers had to endure the heat and sands of the desert and had to beware of thieves or attacks. Although, traders knew that once inside the territory of ancient Ghana, trade routes would be well guarded and they could travel in safety.

Ancient Ghana rose to power as independent city-states were united under the rule of a Soninke clan ruler named Dinga. Ghana means “warrior-king” which was the title given Soninke rulers. Over time the term came to be used to refer to the king and the land. Before that, the land was known as Wagadu, “place of herds.” A great deal of Ghana’s power was a result of its control of the trade routes from the 4th to the 11th century.

Salt, gold, silver, ivory, honey, jewelry, tools, metal and leather goods, rare birds, livestock, horses, cloth, and even slaves were all important goods in the trans-Saharan trade system. The king of Ghana controlled trading through taxation, especially the export of gold from Ghana and the import of salt from north of the Sahara. West Africa got most of its salt from Taghaza, a settlement in the Sahara Desert where salt was mined by slaves who were either captives from other groups of people or criminals sentenced to work in the salt mines until they died or escaped.

Salt was so important and valued that it was used as currency, traded for equal amounts of gold, and taxed heavily. Salt was used to keep food from spoiling as well as for taste and is also an important dietary supplement in hot, dry climates. Gold was so abundant in West Africa that ordinary people adorned themselves in it making the area famous for its wealth. To protect this wealth the location of the gold mines was kept as a well-guarded secret.

Trade took place far from the gold mines at a place along the Niger River. It was there that traders bartered by “silent trade.” Arab and African traders brought salt from the north and upon arriving at the trading place they would spread out their goods and announce their presence by beating on a drum called a deba. They would retreat and traders bearing gold would arrive laying out amounts of gold dust next to the salt or other goods as payment and then depart. When the first group returned, if the amount of gold was sufficient they accepted it and left. If not, they would leave everything untouched and wait for more gold to be put out.

Along with bringing needed supplies to West Africa, trade through the Sahara linked the ancient empires with the influence of outside cultures. One influence with significant impact on West African culture came through the spread of Islam. In 610-11 A.D. a man named Mohammad is believed to have had a revelation in which he was instructed to write the Qur’an (Koran), the sacred scriptures of Islam. Over the next 22 years Mohammad continued to chronicle his revelations. As a prophet, he taught that Allah was the one and only God of the Universe. Islam means “submission.” The followers of Islam are called Muslims, or those who submit themselves to the will of Allah.

The first contact Ghana had with Islam was through merchants and travelers in about the seventh century AD, shortly after the death of the Prophet Mohammad. Islam was becoming widespread through trade, cultural exchange and sometimes violent conflict. So pervasive was the influence of Islam that Arabic became the first written language of the Soninke people of Ghana.

The end of the Ghanian Empire was marked by outside invasions. In 1050 A.D. Abdullah ibn Yasin, a Muslim teacher and leader of the Almoravids began invasions in Ghana, which was destroyed by 1067. At the same time, internal disputes among the Ghanian states led to the rise of the Susu people, a Mande group that broke free from Ghana and created a new dynasty. It was a time of war and unrest when the Susu warrior king Sumanguru declared himself emperor.

Mandinka had been another Mande state inside the Ghanaian Empire and it was this small city-state that eventually rebelled against Sumanguru rule giving rise to the ancient empire of Mali. Mali, which dated from the early thirteenth century to the late fifteenth century, rose to greatness under the leadership of a legendary king named Sundiata. Sogolon-Djata, or Sundiata-meaning “The Hungering Lion”-was born into the royal Keita clan of the Malinke people. The lion was the symbol of the Keita clan and Sundiata became known in legend as the "Lion King." He is credited with uniting a weak and scattered people and ushering in a period of peace and prosperity.

Legend foretold of Sundiata’s greatness despite the fact that he was ill as a child and extremely weak. It is said that he could not speak and he did not walk until the age of 7. In his early days, Sundiata was mocked by other members of the royal family especially the king’s first wife. When Sumanguru took power, most of the royal family was killed but Sundiata’s life was spared because he did not seem to be a threat to Sumanguru’s power. Sundiata lived in exile as a slave until one day, with the help of a blacksmith who made braces for his legs, he learned to walk and grew into a strong hunter and leader. Epic songs of Mande griots tell of the “magician” Sundiata who, when the Mandinka could no longer bear the burden of paying taxes to Sumanguru, led them to battle. Sundiata killed Sumanguru and seized the major territories through which gold was traded. He then ruled Mali from 1230-1255.

As king, he was said to have worn hunters’ garments (simbon) instead of royal regalia. At the time of Sundiata’s rule, the empire of Mali extended over 1,000 miles from east to west. Trade was reestablished and Mali controlled gold and salt trade from around 1200 to 1500 A.D. Sundiata is also said to have introduced the cultivation and weaving of cotton into the area.

The rulers of Mali came to be called Mansa; meaning “emperor,” or “master.” Mansa Musa (1307-1332) became the most accomplished and famous of all the emperors of Mali. He was the grandson of Sundiata’s half brother. Musa ruled Mali at its peak, a time of great prosperity when trade tripled. During his rule he doubled the land area of Mali by uniting smaller city-states. At its height during the 14th century, Mali was a larger kingdom than all of Europe at the time and only smaller than the Asian kingdom of Genghis Khan at the time.

Under Mansa Musa’s rule, Mali’s influence expanded over the large city-states of Tombouctou (Timbuktu), Gao, and Djenné, which were all major cities along the trade routes. They became important trading centers for all of West Africa as well as fabled centers of wealth, culture, and learning. It was in these cities that vast libraries were built and madrasas (Islamic universities) were endowed. They became meeting-places of the finest poets, scholars, and artists of Africa and the Middle East. Tombouctou, in particular, had become legendary in the European imagination, representing all the wealth of Africa.

Mansa Musa, who was Muslim-as were other rulers in his line before him-had magnificent Islamic mosques built throughout the empire of Mali much like Djenne’s famous Grand Mosque, built at the end of the 13th century and rebuilt several times since. In 1324 Musa made a pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca, the holy city of Islam. He became famous for his enormous wealth and generosity as he made his hajj with a following of 60,000 people and 200 camels all laden with gold, food, clothing and other goods. Over eight months of travel, Mansa Musa’s entourage saturated the gold market in the Middle East. It was this pilgrimage that brought Mali international acclaim and made Mansa Musa an historical figure in European writing.

After the death of Mansa Musa in 1332, his son became ruler. It was at that time that Ibn Battuta visited Mali and wrote about his travels there. Battuta was a Berber born in Morocco around 1304. He studied Islamic theology and traveled extensively throughout Africa and Asia over a 24-year span. He arrived in the western Sudan around 1353 to witness its grandeur. Mali's power did not last much longer. Mansa Musa’s sons could not hold the empire together and the smaller states of Mali that had been conquered in the past began to break off. Further weakened by outside attacks, Mali gradually lost its hold on trade until the empire crumbled and was taken over by Songhay.

Just as Mali had once been ruled by Ghana, Mali once ruled Songhay. As Mali's power waned, Songhay, which had been an important trade center, asserted its independence and rose to power making Gao its capital. Under the Songhay king Sunni Ali Ber, who came to power in 1464, Songhay became dominant and overtook Tombouctou and Djenne. Later, a leader named Askia Mohammed Toure extended the Songhay kingdom farther than Ghana or Mali had before and brought an organized system of government to the area. Songhay saw its peak in the 15th & 16th centuries.

In the late sixteenth century a Moroccan army attacked the capital. The Songhay empire, already weakened by internal political struggles, went into decline. The end of the Songhay empire also marked the conclusion of the region’s history as a trading center.

In the 1600s, European merchants established sea-trade along the West African coast. The old trans-Saharan trade routes lost their importance and were eventually shut down leaving the once rich cities along the overland routes to decline. Djenné and Tombouctou, once synonymous with fabulous wealth,having became known as ‘lost cities’ and legends of remoteness.

By the late 18th century, Mali was in a semianarchic state. Two empires emerged that opposed French invasion, Tukolor empire of al- Hajj Umar (1794-1864) and the Somori Toure (1870-98). During this time the region saw a resurgence of Islam. But in 1898 Mali was conquered and became the French Sudan, part of the Federation of French West Africa.

Mali’s Independence

In the French constitutional referendum of 1958, French Sudan voted to join the French Community as the autonomous Sadanese Republic. This new republic joined with Senegal in 1959 to form the Mali Federation. This union was quickly disbanded and was renamed the Republic of Mali, a fully independent region in 1960. President Keita led the country during the next eight years, a time marked by instability. President Moussa Traoré led Mali from 1968 to 1991. During this time the country suffered from periods of internal and external strife as well as from severe drought in the 1970s and 1980s. Moussa Traoré was eventually overthrown in 1991 when the military took control. Mali held its first democratic election in 1992 when Alpha Konaré of the Alliance for Democracy (ADEMA) was elected president. Throughout the early 1990’s Malians battled against the Tuareg ethnic group in the north, who rebelled against alleged government takeover of its land and the suppression of its culture and language. A peace agreement was reached and in 1995 thousands of refugees returned to Mali. Konaré was easily reelected in 1997.

Flag of Mali
Mali Flag

Mali Today

Thanks to its rich and ancient past, Mali has become a country of great ethnic diversity with nearly two dozen different ethnic groups living within its borders. The main groups are the Mande (including the Bambara, Malinke, Soninke, Mandinka, Mende, Susu, Dialonke, and Dyula), Peul (or Fulani), Voltaic, Songhay, Tuareg, and Moor. Some other groups include the Dogon, Bozo, and Bobo. The single largest ethnic group is the Bambara also known as Bamana. This name recalls the era when the influence of Islam was spreading through Africa, yet this group of rural farmers refused to convert to a new religion and kept alive their traditional way of life. Bambara means “infidel” or barbarian as they were called by Moslems and Banmara, which they used to refer to themselves, means “accept no master.” Today, Islam is the main religion in Mali, accounting for around 90 percent of the population.

While lifestyles are changing for many people in Mali, there are still those who practice a traditional way of life in West Africa where professions are hereditary-as they have been since ancient times. Because of this, many of the ethnic groups in Mali can still be described by the traditional way of life they lead. For example, the Fulani are nomadic cattle herders who wear their wealth in the form of elaborate gold jewelry.

The Tuareg, descended from the Berbers who fled south from North Africa, are called the “blue people of the desert” because of the distinctive indigo robes and turbans they wear (the color often rubs off on the skin). They are an ancient nomadic people who still live on what the desert provides.

The Dogon are mainly subsistence farmers, living on the edges of the inland river delta. the United Nations Economic, Scientific and Cultural Organization has designated the Dogon's homeland a World Heritage site because of its cultural importance. Among some of the smaller groups, the Bozo are nomadic fisherpeople, while the Songhay are mostly farmers and traders living along the edge of the Niger River.

In addition to ethnic diversity, there are many different languages and dialects spoken in Mali. The people of Mali are largely from the Mande, a group of related West African languages and a general name of the culture common among those speaking these similar languages. The official language of present-day Mali is French, but the most widely spoken language is Bambara even among people from different ethnic groups. Songhay, Tuareg, and Arabic are common languages within those groups. The Dogon have at least 48 dialects. Unfortunately, literacy is low, only about 30 percent of people in Mali can read and write. Other spoken languages include French, Malinke, Bwa, Tamacheg, and Ful.

Today, the Republic of Mali consists of 478,819 square miles and is home to 9,945,383 people. Bamako is the capital where currency is exchanged in French francs. The city of Tombouctou is still used for trade by camel caravans crossing the Sahara Desert. Mali’s natural resources include iron ore, manganese, lithium, salt, limestone, and gold. About 80 percent of the people of Mali farm (millet, sorghum, corn, rice, sugar, cotton, peanuts, and livestock) and fish, while 10 percent of the people are nomadic.

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