The history of Medieval Mali: some ideas

A lot of people have been asking about my approach to my Mali scheme of work so I thought that I would share some of what I have put together. In this blog post, I wrote about how some of my research led me to create a causation enquiry, ‘Where did Medieval Mali keep its secrets of success?’

Since then, I am now reconsidering this approach. I have become more interested in what a study of Medieval Mali can reveal about African kingdoms in the Medieval period. Consequently, I am now reshaping my enquiry around the idea of historical significance. Here are a few things that I am doing:

  1. I am making the story of Mansa Musa’s hajj more central to the enquiry. This story is a fantastic window into trade, religion, the city of Timbuktu and the rich natural resources at the mansa’s command. Not only that, it is wonderfully engaging. The story – and the man – are sensational. Begin with him sat on his ebony throne, have him stroking the golden strands woven into his horse’s mane as he dreams of his pilgrimage, put bags of gold onto 80 camels, watch him as he risks his life crossing the Sahara desert, see how he makes people in Egypt gape at this marvellous king surrounded by slaves carrying batons of gold, marvel at the 21,000kg of gold that he gives out (and the depression that this causes) and then return with him to Timbuktu and construct the awe-inspiring Djinguereber Mosque. Give Year 7 this story to live inside and let the magic happen.
  2. I am making use of the wonderful images available, not least the Catalan Atlas.
    Catalan AtlasCan you find Mansa Musa? What is he holding? What is he wearing? Why is he drawn like this?




timbuktu I love this image of Timbuktu, by French explorer Rene-August Caillie’s  (1830), shared during a webinar arranged by Nick Dennis.




3. I am exploring the city of Timbuku with pupils in more detail, because it is astounding. Al-Sahilī was given 55 kilograms of gold for designing the Djinguereber Mosque!  It is vast.  It made the city of Timbuktu more exciting and attractive. Timbuktu became home to many scholars, musicians and priests.  The city became a great centre of learning, boasting a university long before universities built in Europe.  The library at Timbuktu became legendary: it held nearly a million books. With access to such a great range of books, the students from Timbuktu’s schools went on to become architects, astronomers, doctors and engineers.

4. I am including more ‘smaller details’ that reveal a lot about Mansa Musa and about Medieval Mali, e.g. 

  • Sources suggest that Mansa Musa once tried to force his goldminers to become Muslim, but they refused. Mansa Musa accepted this and allowed the miners to continue to believe what they liked: what an example of religious tolerance.
  • Mansa Musa’s chiefs (emirs) ruled different parts of the empire on the Mansa’s behalf. Mansa Musa invited his emirs to tell him of any complaints, earning their trust, and he created an honours system to reward loyal service. The highest honour was the National Honour of the Trousers. It was said that ‘the greater the number of a soldier’s exploits, the bigger the size of his trousers.’ Year 7 love this detail! It can tell us about government, but it is also delightful
  • Gold was used everywhere, from the palace in Niani to decoration in horses’ manes. The natural resources of places like the goldfields of Wangara are extraordinary.

5. I am reading Toby Green’s A Fistful of Shells. I always find works of scholarship rather frightening to read in their entirety if it’s not a familiar topic, so I first commited to just the first three chapters. There’s a wealth of extraordinary details there. You won’t regret reading it!

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