Along the shores of the great river that ran through his domain in the great city of Timbuktu, the emperor of the greatest power in Western Africa sat with a humble blacksmith. Since time immemorial, blacksmiths were the most renowned of tradesmen in the region – they brought the solid metals taken from the earth and changed them into something new, something useful. This wonders of transition of metals was not something to be taken for granted. By applying heat and using technical expertise these commoners achieved miracles. As such, the other residents of Western Africa viewed them with awe – clearly they had skills that tapped into the world of the supernatural. It was for this reason that this nervous, trembling man sat before his emperor – the wealthiest man in the world, Mansa Musa. Musa was the ruler of the great Empire of Mali and controlled both the gold and salt trades – two of the most in-demand and hard-to-get commodities in the medieval world, and, as such, had built a personal store of wealth unheard anywhere else.
Mansa Musa was planning the most important personal quest of his life – his required pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj. You see, Musa was Muslim and, as any good Muslim knows, completing the Hajj is one of the Five Pillars of the faith. But the Emperor had not called for this blacksmith for his skills in metallurgy, but rather for his connection to the supernatural. Musa wanted to consult the genies that inhabited his realm to find the propitious time for him to begin this most holy of journeys. Yes, that’s right – Mansa Musa was consulting native, supernatural, dare I say, “Pagan” beings about the best time to leave on the Hajj. Clearly, the orthodox monotheistic views of Islam had not quite made their way to Mali at this point in any amount of strength.
This was clearly an abnormal situation for both the Emperor and the blacksmith. In normal circumstances, Mansa Musa would have been seated on his grand throne made of ebony and decorated with ivory. He would have held a golden bow and quiver of arrows – the symbols of royal authority in Mali – and been sheltered by a large parasol topped with a golden falcon. Musa wouldn’t even have spoken to a commoner – he would whisper to his jeli, his chief spokesman, who would pronounce the Emperor’s words to those gathered. Today, however, the throne remained empty as the Emperor watched as the blacksmith sat on the ground and threw a handful of cowrie shells onto a woven straw mat. The diviner then interpreted the pattern the shells made when they landed on the mat and pronounced that the most auspicious time for Mansa Musa to leave on his journey would be the on the Saturday, the 12th. A Saturday, the 12th, would not occur again for another nine months – in February, so the Emperor would have to wait.
While to modern ears, nine months might seem like a long time to wait, for Mansa Musa this was not a big deal. In fact, it was quite nice – he would be able to be sure that everything was in order, both at home and for his journey. During the subsequent months, the royal servants were busy preparing to meet all the needs and wants of a royal procession across the barren Sahara desert that separated Mali from the Muslim holy city of Mecca.
The caravan would include a large number of horses for Mansa Musa and his senior wife, Inari Kanute, to ride – horses were much more expensive in the arid landscape than were camels, and thus were reserved for royalty. Both of the royals took along hundreds of servants each to help them with their daily routines. The procession includes thousands of camels and donkeys each laden with food, water, and other supplies that would be needed for the journey to be a success. Rumor has it that the caravan included 80 camels loaded with nothing but gold dust to use on the journey. Mali’s control of the gold mines of Western Africa meant that the empire had no shortage of the precious metal that was in constant demand in the rest of the world. This ensured that Mali’s emperor was one of the world’s wealthiest and most influential men – it’s the Golden Rule – the one with the gold makes the rules.
On Saturday, February 12, Mansa Musa and his massive entourage started their long and challenging journey across the shifting sands and rocky outcrops of the Sahara desert. Their guides were Sanhaja nomads – the People of the Veil, so named for the cover they wear over their faces nearly constantly. The Sanhaja were camel herders and knew the oases of the deep desert better than anyone. They were required companions on any trans-Saharan journey – be that for trade, religious rituals, or war. Even with these expert guides, the journey was fraught with peril. Sandstorms could blow up from the west very quickly. Entire caravans were known to enter a sandstorm to never be seen again. Thankfully, no such tragedy struck Mansa Musa’s hajj entourage.
The caravan arrived on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt in July after a journey of five months and camped outside of the city near the magnificent ancient pyramids. It was here that the first notable challenge of the journey arose. The Mamluk sultan of Egypt, An-Nasir Muhammad, expected all distinguished visitors to present themselves to him and to prostrate themselves before him. Mansa Musa, however, was not used to be such displays of submission. As such, the caravan stayed outside of the city while the Malian ruler debated how to proceed. After several days of diplomatic back and forth, a solution was reached – Mansa Musa entered into the presence of the sultan and bowed into the sujud – the position of prostration that Muslims enter during their daily prayers and declared, “I make obeisance to Allah who created me.” Thus, both great rulers saved face. Mansa Musa did not need to submit to the Mamluk sultan, nor was the sultan insulted.
While in Cairo, Mansa Musa bestowed great gifts on the city. He gave An-Nasir Muhammad 40,000 dinars and the sultan’s deputy and other courtiers 10,000 dinars each. The merchants in the great bazaars of Cairo also gouged the visitors, charging them as much as five times the normal cost for goods. But Mansa Musa and his entourage did not care – they were from Mali, the richest place on Earth. The caravan stayed in Cairo for three months and then proceeded to leave for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The large pilgrimage did not leave just a memory behind. They had spent so much gold and so saturated the market in Egypt that the price of gold was depressed for up to twelve years after they left. Mansa Musa was so generous that he led Egypt into a deflationary depression! Just think about that! How much would you have to spend to bring the value of the dollar down – not just a blip – but of twelve long years?
From Cairo, Mansa Musa and his followers made their way across the Sinai Desert and down the coast of the Red Sea to reach Mecca. Upon arrival to the city, the Emperor and all his attendants entered into a state of ihram – purity – in which they would remain throughout the Hajj. Gone were the ornate robes of royalty; replaced by simple white garments and sandals. Also at this point, the men and women from the caravan would have divided – they would not see each other again until after the Hajj was complete. No matter who the pilgrim was – Emperor or slave – they all looked the same, emphasizing everyone’s unity before Allah. Mansa Musa was now just one of thousands of white-clad pilgrims visiting the holiest site of Islam.
Upon ritually putting on of purity, the Emperor made his way to the Masjid al-Haram, the Great Mosque, and began the Tawaf ritual. He circled the Kabaa seven times touching al-Hajar al-Aswad, the Black Stone, on each pass. The Kabaa was, and still is, the holiest site of Islam – it is here that Muslims face to pray no matter where they are in the world. The Black Stone dates back to the time of Adam and Eve, the first humans and is the eastern cornerstone of the Kabaa. Mansa Musa would then complete the sa’ay – running seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwah. These were the hills upon which the ancient patriarch, Ibrahim (Abraham in the Judeo-Christian tradition) left Hagar, Ibrahim’s second wife (or concubine in the Judeo-Christian tradition) and her son, Ismael.
Mansa Musa then made his way five kilometers outside of the city of Mecca to Mina, the Tent City. Not that five kilometers was anything after travelling over 4500 kilometers (as the crow flies, which in this case, it most certainly did not) from Timuktu to the Holy City. He spent the first night of the Hajj here deep in prayer housed in a humble tent. On the second day of the pilgrimage, the Emperor made his way to the Plain of Arafat a barren stretch of desert some 20 kilometers from Mecca. Here the Emperor listened to Imam’s delivering sermons at Jabal al-Rahmad, the Mount of Mercy, where the prophet Muhammad delivered his last sermon. Mansa Musa stood all afternoon into the evening in the ritual of atonement known as “standing before Allah.”
After dark, Musa travelled back towards Mina to prepare for the morning’s next ritual – the Ramy al-Jamarat – the Stoning of the Devil. Mansa Musa threw seven small stones at one of the three pillars standing at the site meant to keep Satan and temptation away. He then returned to the Great Mosque and circled the Kabaa seven more times to complete his Hajj.
The men and women of the caravan rejoined outside of the city feeling refreshed and renewed by their demonstration of their devotion to Allah. For the vast majority of the people in Mansa Musa’s caravan, this would be their only trip to Arabia and, as such, they continued on to the second city of Islam – Medina. Here they visited the Mosque of the Prophet which contains Muhammad’s tomb.
Despite completing such a holy journey, Mansa Musa’s return home was anything but smooth. First of all, he had spent all his gold and, as such, had to borrow more. Knowing full well that he could afford it, financiers in Arabia and Egypt loaned the Emperor gold at an exorbitant rate of interest. On top of this, Mansa Musa attempted to return to Cairo without hiring a guide and succeed in getting lost in the vast, barren Sinai Desert where they wandered for days without water. The caravan was harried by Bedouin raiders who captured anyone who strayed from the main group to be sold off as slaves. Eventually, Mansa Musa and his entourage arrived at the Gulf of Suez and were rescued. As many as one-third of his caravan had perished or been taken as slaves on this fraught leg of the journey. The rest of the trip, however, has without incident – having picked up guides at Cairo.
“The Hajj.” National Geographic video.
Conrad, David C. Empires of Medieval West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay. Facts on Files: New York, 2005.
Crossen, Cynthia. The Rich and How They Got That Way: How the Wealthiest People of All Time – from Genghis Khan to Bill Gates – Made Their Fortunes. Crown Business: New York, 2000.
Featured Image: “Mansa Musa.” Attributed to Abraham Cresques, Public Domain.
Image 1. “Map of Mali Empire.” By Gabriel Moss – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.
Image 2. “Djinguereber Mosque, Timbuktu.” By Edmond Fortier (1862-1928) – Downloaded from http://www.dogon-lobi.ch/historical2.htm, Public Domain.
Image 3. “Taureg Herders.” By H. Grobe – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Image 4. “Great Pyramid and Sphinx at Giza, Outside Cairo.” By Br0m from Oslo, Norway – sphinx and cheops, CC BY-SA 2.0.
Image 5. “The Kabaa in Mecca.” By Zakaryaamr at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Image 6. “The Hajj.” By User:AsceticRose, CC BY-SA 3.0.
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“A Holy Journey and the New Midas.” by Andy Smyser is licensed under CC By 4.0. https://historyisstrange.com/2016/06/26/a-holy-journey-and-the-new-midas.