The Empire of Mali – An Empire of Trade and Faith – Extra History – #2


A man stands outside the city walls,
looking into the desert. For the last two decades,
he has traveled across the Islamic world from China to Andalusia, Spain. Along the way, he had been shipwrecked,
kidnapped by rebels and detained by a mad sultan. The year before, he had crossed Arabia
at the height of the Black Plague. But this would be his gratest adventure: a land so remote that few had seen it. But those who did told of its magnificent wealth. Ibn Battuta mounted his camel
and prepared to cross the Sahara. (music) It was 1352. And though Mansa Musa
had been dead for 50 years, stories of the king’s golden pilgrimage train were still
drawing scholars to the Islamic world’s richest empire. We know this
because Ibn Battuta began his trip that year with the simple hope
of secureing the judicial appointment. It would be a hard journey, but
in accomplishing it, Ibn Battuta would end up seeing
almost the entirety of Mali’s trans-Saharan trade routes, a network that had made Mansa Musa so rich that,
as we will see in the next episode, he could give handfuls of gold
to passers-by without a thought. Ibn Battuta would later record this adventure
in his epic book, the Travells producing the only eye-witness account
of the Mali Empire. So, today we’re going to follow him letting his journey teach us
about how trade built the realm. Ibn Battuta’s first stop was
an oasis city on the northern edge of the Sahara. Like all oasis towns,
it was a riot of merchants and cargo shipments. Its square was crammed with the trade goods
of North Africa and the Mediterranean, all going south to exchange for gold. There were textiles, books, jewellery, perfume and the cowry shells Malians exchanged as currency. Herds of Arabian horses waited outside the walls. Among the goods and caravans,
Ibn Battuta found some Berber tradors, the ethnic group
that had controlled the trans-Saharan trade, and he arranged to join their expedition. They traveled in the early morning and late afternoon,
resting during the noonday heat. It took them 25 days to reach their first stop. “It was a village”, he wrote,
“with nothing good about it”. It was a labor camp,
an open-pit mine in the middle of the sand where enslaved people carved blocks of rock salt
out of the earth. The water was brackish
and both houses and mosques were built from salt with stretched camel skin for a roof. All food was imported on camel back. But despite this desolation,
he saw vast amounts of gold change hands. Traders from Mali were buying salt
in order to take it south to sell. Ultimately, this salt would go deep into the rainforests where no naturally occurring salt existed
to help people retain water. Without it, the gold miners would dehydrate and die. After the caravan took on water and salt,
they headed south. The next stretch was 500 miles with only one oasis. But the winter rain had been kind,
and small pools sustained them. Even so, death awaited. One man from the caravan quarreled with his cousin
and lagged behind to sulk. They never saw him again. When at last they arrived at the oasis, they hired a scout
for the final and most dangerous part of the journey. See, no caravan could carry enough water
to cross this last stretch of desert before Oualata. So, they would hire a scout to go ahead of them and contract a party to carry water
4 days north from the city in order to meet them on route. “But this stretch of waste”, Ibn Battuta writes,
“was haunted by demons that disordered men’s minds”. If the scout was disoriented or killed,
there would be no resupply and the entire caravan would perish. Yet the scout did not die
and the party met them with the water. Two long months
after leaving the northern edge of the Sahara, Ibn Battuta’s caravan entered Oualata,
the first oasis city of the Mali Empire. the Berbers declare their goods to the tax officials
and paid what was due. Ibn Battuta was thrilled. As an Islamic scholar,
he loved to visit pious communities across the world to gauge the spiritual health of the Muslim periphery
and exchange ideas with scholars. It had been towns like Oualata
where Islam first appeared in Mali centuries before carried on camel back via the Barber caravans. Though Oualata was only a mud brick town
of a few thousand people, Ibn Battuta would finally meet
his first local scholar there. And that is when his enthusiasm
crashed against the reality of religion in the Mali Empire. See, Mali was actually only partially converted. Islam was the religion of merchants and ruling class, people with cultural, political
or economic links to North Africa. But the working people
who farmed and mined the all important gold still practiced traditional African religion. Furthermore, many tenets of Islamic law
were incompatible with Mali’s culture, so most Muslims ignored them. The rulers of Mali had to walk a fine line fusing Islamic practice with their native traditions
in order to keep society together. And, here’s the thing about Ibn Battuta. He was kind of the 14th century version
of obnoxious tourist. No matter where he went, he expected people
to behave like they were Islamic scholars from Tangier. And if they didn’t,
he got judgemental real quick. And unfortunately,
this trip to Mali shows Ibn Battuta at his worst. The first problem occurred
when he met the local governor. As the representative of the sacred Mansa, the man spoke to Ibn Battuta
through a herald rather than directly, which the traveler took as an insult. And though the meal of yogurt and millet
the governor served was standard for welcoming guest to the Mali, Ibn Battuta considered it insufficient
for a man of his rank. He had expected a monetary welcome gift
like scholars received in much of the Islamic world. But here, yogurt and honey? REALLY? And the culture clash only got worse
when he visited the local scholars and judges and discovered that even the Islamic upper class
didn’t abide by Muslim laws about gender relations. Here, even pious women went unveiled
and women had a high degree of autonomy. On one occasion, Ibn Battuta informed a scholar that he’d seen the man’s wife
chatting with another man on the courtyard. When the scholar patiently explained that friendship between men and women was
considered good conduct and engendered no suspicion, The traveler was so horrified that he fled the house. What troubled Ibn Battuta about these deviations
was that he admired the empire’s piety. The people observed prayer times,
kept scrupulously clean for mosque and in a society where books were rare and expensive,
insisted that children memorize the Quran. Admittedly, they used methods
that would be frowned upon today, but still. And as he traveled toward the capital,
he marveled at the country’s security. Once within the boundaries of the empire,
he could travel alone without fear of bandits. This was by design. Mali possessed a strong capable military, which existed mostly to enforce taxes and ensure the banditry didn’t endanger
the all important trade routes. According to Ibn Battuta,
their justice system was fair and disciplined. If a foreigner died in Mali,
instead of pillaging the man’s trade goods, the government turned everything over to a trustee
until the man’s relatives claimed it. However, upon reaching the capital, Ibn Battuta was disturbed to find how deeply
African religion and culture influenced the court. Young women like the mansa’s daughters
walked about topless in the palace. Festivals included folk dances
and masked performances that he considered absurd and pagan. It rankled him that courtiers washed themselves
with dust when the mansa spoke to them. And that soldier stood in front of the emperor
to tell their service in battle while others twanged their bows to confirm that they had witnessed the heroic deed. But he did finally get a welcome gift from the emperor. Three bread cakes, a piece of beef
and a calabash of sour curds. At this, he burst out laughing. “Wow, the Mansa’s legendary generosity!” “That’s it. Screw this. Battuta out.” But, even Battuta’s touristy reactions
do tell us something interesting about Mali. Due to its geographic separation,
Mali had assimilated Islam rather than been absorbed by it,
creating a religeously tolerant, pluralistic society. It was a proudly West African empire
with its own identity. And it wasn’t going to just leave its traditions behind
to adopt this new religion. Indeed, Mali seems to have
intentionally kept foreign influence at arm’s length. Ibn Battuta never got to visit the gold mines
and that was intentional. The Malian government kept foreigners away
from its most precious resource bringing gold to be exchanged at trading hubs
rather than exposing the location of their mines. It was state security. Mali’s economy ran on gold
producing around two thirds of the world’s supply with its economy supported entirely by demand
from Islamic states and christian Europe, which had recently abandoned silver
in favor of this fancy new metal. But before he left, Ibn Battuta would have
one more journey along the trade routes east along the Niger River to the city of Timbuktu. A developing hub between the desert caravans
and river traffic. He likely spent this trip amid a whole lot of exports
Mali sent north along with its gold: ivory, kola nuts, ostrich feathers, raisins
and enslaved people. And of course, the gold Ibn Battuta had finally received
after complaining to the mansa’s face. As he watched the river slid by, he no doubt thought back
on the stories he heard in Cairo about Mansa Musa’s generousity and piety. The unimaginable wealth of his pilgrimage train. Had those just been tales this whole time? Find out next week.

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