One of the greatest caravans to ever cross the Sahara was led by Mansa Musa, the legendary ruler of the vast West African empire of Mali. In 1324 Musa embarked on a hajj, a religious pilgrimage to Mecca, traveling with an entourage that included 8,000 courtiers, 12,000 servants and 100 camel loads of pure gold.
“Each night when they stopped, it was like a whole town decamping in the desert,” said Gus Casely-Hayford, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, who spoke at the Caravans of Gold opening in January. “They took with them everything they needed in the desert, including a mobile mosque they would construct so the emperor could pray.”
Fourteenth century Arab historian Shihab al-‘Umari wrote that Mansa Musa “flooded Cairo with his benefactions. He left no court emir nor holder of a royal office without the gift of a load of gold. … They spent gold until they depressed its value in Egypt and caused its price to fall.”
Musa is believed to have been the richest person in history, even by today’s standards. His expansive kingdom included all or parts of modern-day Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Chad.
But “Musa didn’t just want wealth and power,” said Casely-Hayford. “He sought something more. He sought knowledge.”
When the emperor returned from Mecca to Timbuktu, he brought back scholars and an Andalusian architect from Cairo to build a great mosque — Djinguereber — an architectural masterpiece and one of most iconic buildings in Africa.
As the seat of Musa’s empire, Timbuktu drew scholars from all over the Islamic world to study in its libraries and universities. At its peak, the city could accommodate 25,000 students, and its archives held more than 800,000 manuscripts, according to Casely-Hayford.