On September 17, 1692, the court of Salem, Massachusetts brought forth an 81-year old man named Giles Corey to question him about accusations of witchcraft. Corey had been in prison since April when several confessed “witches” accused him of being one of their number. Corey had lived a long life in Salem and refused to recognize the “legitimacy” of these girls’ claims. Instead, he refused to enter any plea before the court. In response to this, the prison guards led the old man into the prison yard and laid him on the ground and placed a wooden plank on his body. Slowly, they added heavy stones onto the planks pressing Corey into the ground to try to get him to confess. Giles Corey refused to give in to the torture. After almost two days of torture, Giles Corey died of September 19, 1692. He was the only person killed by the practice known as pressing in the New World.
In the dead of winter, Pope Gregory VII was far from the comforts of his palace in Rome. In fact, he was high in the Apennine Mountains in Northern Italy on his way to Augsburg, Bavaria to attend a gathering of dignitaries of the Church meant to solve a dispute with the King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV. Gregory and his entourage stopped to recover from their arduous journey thus far at the Castle of Canossa. This fortress was one of the strongest mountain keeps held by Countess Matilda of Tuscany, nominal vassal of Henry and ally of Gregory in the ongoing dispute. But we are getting a bit ahead of ourselves. Who are these people and what is this dispute? Let’s go to know each of them a little better.
Pope Gregory VII was born Hildebrand of Sovana who became a monk in medieval Tuscany. As his career progressed, Hildebrand rose quickly through the ranks of the Church and soon played a key role in the election of Pope Alexander II. Hildebrand and Pope Alexander were both members of a movement meant to reform the Church, looking to get rid of practices such as clerical marriage and simony, which is the purchase of religious office. Upon Alexander’s death, as the people and clergy of Rome gathered at the St. John Lateran Basilica to mourn their leader, a great cry went up, “Let Hildebrand be Pope!” even though he had not yet even been ordained a priest, let alone a bishop. The Church leaders in Rome recognized in Hildebrand an incredibly popular figure and recognized the people’s proclamation – making Gregory VII one of seven Popes elected by acclamation (out of 266 recognized Popes in history). In the weeks before he donned the papal tiara, Gregory was ordained as a priest and elevated to the bishopric. His zeal for Church reform was only just beginning and now he had the power to really do something!
Henry IV was the third member of his family to become King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor, after his grandfather, Conrad II, and his father, Henry III. His family had traditional been the Dukes of Franconia – a region of modern Germany just north of Bavaria. Henry’s father died when he was young boy just shy of six years old. As such, he was raised to the title of Holy Roman Emperor at a very tender age. Now, the Holy Roman Emperor was certainly a significant power, but the authority was not at all absolute. As soon as he was old enough to assert personal power, Henry IV made it his life’s goal to consolidate the power of his position and his family. The German provinces were a loose confederation of duchies, counties, princedoms, baronies, etc. held together primarily by religion – the “holy” of the Holy Roman Empire. Much of the Holy Roman Emperor’s power came from the influence he held over the bishops of his territory and Henry only wanted to extend that influence!
Matilda of Tuscany was the youngest of three children of the powerful House of Canossa who ruled much of what is now Northern Italy as vassals of the Holy Roman Emperor. Upon the death of her father and two older siblings, Matilda became the last member of her family and, as such, her husband, Godfrey the Hunchback, Duke of Lorraine also became the Margrave of Tuscany. Matilda and Godfrey’s marriage was a rocky one. Their only child died in infancy and Godfrey spent most of his time in Lorraine (in northern Germany) while Matilda was home in Italy. Godfrey was assassinated while on campaign against the Duke of Saxony on behalf of his liege, Henry IV in one of the most embarrassing ways possible. He was run through while “answering the call of nature.” This left Matilda the last remaining option to rule over Northern Italy and she did so brilliantly, becoming La Gran Contessa – the Great Countess. Now a power in her own right, Matilda declared her support, not for Henry, but rather for Pope Gregory, whose reforms struck a chord with the Countess. The stage was now set for one of the great conflicts of the early Middle Ages.
Among Gregory’s first actions once elevated to the papacy was to confirm his predecessor’s edict banning a widespread practice called “lay investiture.” Now, I know that at this point your eyes are probably rolling into the back of your head if you’ve ever heard this term before. It is up there with eye-glazing topics from history such as paradigm shifts and tariffs, but trust me – some people get really excited about these boring concepts and do ridiculous things to support their positions and that is what we have going on here. Lay investiture is the practice in which officials in the Catholic Church were given their position (“invested”) by the ruler of the state in which their diocese was located. While, theoretically, this could be done for any Church official from the lowly parish priest to the most influential bishop, European rulers tended to only focus their time investing men (and it was always men) into the most powerful positions – bishops of important towns and cities, abbots of wealthy monasteries, etc. By filling these positions with men the king or local lord could trust, they ensured the cooperation of the vast majority of Christian leadership within their domain, since all lower members of the clergy reported to this appointee. It’s not a big stretch to see what the Pope, supposedly the head of the Catholic religion across all political lines, would find this to be problematic, a challenge to his authority.
Gregory’s confirmation and enforcement of the ban of lay investiture infuriated the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, who relied on the loyalty of his bishops to run his empire. Things came to a head when Gregory sent Henry a letter protesting the Emperor’s attempt to influence the installation of a new bishop for the ever-influential city of Milan. The Pope meant to remind Henry that, even though he was an emperor, he was still subject to papal decrees. Henry, of course, disagreed. Gregory wrote, “We marvel exceedingly that you have sent us so many devoted letters…calling yourself a son of our Holy Mother Church and subject to us in faith…and yet in action showing yourself most bitterly hostile to the canons and apostolic decrees in those duties…It would have been becoming to you, since you confess yourself to be a son of the Church, to give more respectful attention to the master of the Church, that is, to Peter, the prince of the Apostles.” If Henry had been cowed by such a letter, this would not be much of a story, and his response struck right at the issue in the salutation in which he said, “Henry, king not by usurpation, but by the pious ordination of God, to Hildebrand, now not Pope, but false monk.” The Emperor clearly states that he does not recognize Gregory’s papacy – in face he even refused to use the Pope’s papal name. Henry argues that, due to Gregory’s unusual election, the Pope is not legitimate and that, therefore, his word carries no weight.
As you can probably imagine, this was not the response Gregory was looking for – so he sent yet another letter to Henry declaring him excommunicated and unfit to receive the Sacraments, which, removed him from the grace of the Church that was integral to salvation. Simultaneously, Gregory called on all good Christians in Henry’s realm to seek to depose such an evil ruler. Henry’s response only escalated the tension further writing to the German bishops urging them to use their influence to unseat “Hildebrand (a monk indeed in habit), so-called pope who…presides in the Apostolic See not with the care of a pastor but with the violence of a usurper and from the throne of peace dissolves the bond of the one catholic peace.” So to summarize, we now have, after a fury of ever escalating letters, the most powerful Church leader and the most powerful temporal leader in Europe having deposed one another. The stage was now set to see who would blink first.
As the year progressed, Henry IV began to feel more and more pressure from his nobles and bishops to give in to the Pope for the sake of his realm. His subjects were being born unbaptized and dying without Last Rites. The Emperor’s intransigence was consigning his people to Hell. So Henry sent off yet another letter (the last one for this story, I promise!) inviting the pontiff to a council in the city of Augsburg over which Gregory would preside and the bishops of Germany would decide the conditions of the Emperor’s surrender. The Pope accepted this offer with glee and set off for the Bavarian city from Rome. It is on this journey that we started our story. Pope Gregory is staying for a short time in a fortress of one of his most faithful supporters, Matilda of Tuscany. It was here at the Canossa Castle deep in the Apennine winter that a fateful, and unplanned (for Gregory, at least) showdown occurred.
Henry slipped away from his realms with a very small group of loyal retainers and made his way across the snow-covered Alps to make his way to Canossa. He hoped to see Gregory and to throw himself upon the Pope’s mercy in the hopes of getting a better outcome at the coming council. It was a classic move of negotiating before the official negotiations so as to have more control over the results. Gregory, however, was not going to make it easy on the Henry.
On January 25, Henry and his attendants arrived at the gates of Canossa Castle in the midst of a raging alpine blizzard. They were shoeless and dressed in the clothes of a penitent, wearing a hair-shirt as a sign of their unworthiness. Pope Gregory learned of their arrival immediately, comfortably ensconced in the Castle and was put into a quite awkward diplomatic situation. He was clearly in a position of power and had his adversary in a very weak spot. He could have sent Henry packing back to Germany with a reminder that they already had an agreement to determine his fate at the coming council. However, Gregory was not just a world leader; he was also the lead pastor of Christendom and one of his charges had taken on the guise of a penitent and was asked forgiveness. As Christ’s representative on Earth, Gregory had more than politics to consider; he also had souls to worry about.
Gregory was not going to bend quickly to this unexpectedly humble move from Henry. For three long days, the pontiff pondered what to do, regularly conferring with his ally, Matilda, who had no love for her nominal overlord, Henry. As the Pope, Countess, and their attendants sat debating in front of the roaring fireplaces and feasted in Canossa, Henry and his few men stayed knelt in prayer in the driving snow wearing only their wretchedly uncomfortable hair shirts and without shoes. For three days and nights, they fasted and unmistakable sign of their penitence. After the three days had passed, Gregory sensibilities as a spiritual leader and shepherd of souls overcame his political nature – Henry was granted entrance to Canossa. Upon entering the fortress, he was treated to full diplomatic niceties – dressed in fine clothing, fed well, and warmed by the welcoming fires. After a series of discussion between Gregory and Henry, in which Henry pronounced his deepest regrets for undermining papal authority, the two men, along with their hostess, celebrated Mass and received Communion – lifting Henry’s excommunication and that of the entire Holy Roman Empire. Gregory, however, refrained from lifting Henry’s deposition. In the eyes of the Church, Henry was no longer damned, but neither was he an emperor.
However, in doing his duty and bringing Henry back into the Christian fold, Gregory encountered some unintended consequences. By lifting the excommunication, Gregory removed the largest (and in most cases the only) issue the nobility of the Holy Roman Empire had with Henry. They returned to him in droves, professing their loyalty and only asking that he be careful not to risk their souls again in unnecessary conflict with the Holy See. One of Henry’s most powerful nobles, however, used the opportunity to declare that he was seeking the throne and, in so doing, sparked civil war within the Empire. This man, Rudolf of Rheinfelden, was the Duke of Swabia and brother-in-law to the Holy Roman Emperor – both men being married to sisters from the House of Savoy. Rudolf used his influence throughout Germany and a history of dissatisfaction with Henry’s rule in Saxony to launch a rebellion against his erstwhile lord. As the war dragged on, Gregory decided to once again enter the fray and, siding with the rebel Rudolf, excommunicated Henry yet again, expecting similar results. This time, however, the nobility loyal to Henry were not prepared to abandon their king. Henry was their legitimate ruler and this excommunication due to fighting a rebellious vassal smacked of insincere politics, not religious necessity. Gregory’s excommunication was viewed as invalid across Germany.
Once Henry had dealt with Rudolf and the troubles at home, he once again turned on the Pope, but this time, from a position of much greater power. Henry marched on Rome. Matilda of Tuscany stayed loyal to Pope and, despite being massively outnumbered, her troops harried Henry’s forces as he marched south. But despite Matilda’s attempts, Henry reached Rome and took the Lateran Palace, Gregory’s official residence. The Pope was forced to make an ignoble retreat to the Castel Sant’Angelo on the shores of the Tiber. Now in almost full control of Rome, Henry IV called a council of bishops who were loyal to him and had them name a new pope – Clement III. So, now, we had two popes. The ever-devout Matilda continued to work for Gregory and succeeded in finding him allies among the Normans, a large force of whom made their way to the first city of Christendom and forced Henry to withdraw back to Germany.
So, it seems like Gregory won, despite numerous setbacks, however, one final twist remained. The ever-fickle people of Rome despised the Pope’s Norman allies and forced them to leave the city and, at the same time, exiled Gregory – who fled to the monastery at Monte Casino, south of Rome. It was here that Gregory died less than a year later. On his deathbed, Gregory withdrew all excommunications he had ever made – except those upon Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor and his puppet pope, Clement III.
Featured Image: “Countryside Outside of Canossa.” By Hm8011 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Image 1. “Pope Saint Gregory VII.” By user:GDK – Own work: unknown 11th century manuscript, Public Domain.
Image 2. “Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV.” Public Domain.
Image 3. “Location of Canossa Within Modern Italy.” CC BY-SA 3.0.
Image 4. “Ruins of Canossa Castle.” By Paolo da Reggio – Own work, CC BY 2.5.
Image 5. “Henry IV at the Gates of Canossa Castle.” Public Domain.
Image 6. “Matilda of Tuscany and Henry IV.” Public Domain.
Image 7. “Modern Picture of Castel Sant’Angelo.” By 0x010C – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Morrison, Karl F, ed. The Investiture Controversy: Issues, Ideals, and Results. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1971
Tierney, Brian. The Crisis of Chruch & State: 1050 – 1300. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964.
Wood, Susan. The Proprietary Church In the Medieval West. Oxford University Press, 2006.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
“A King, A Priest, and A Countess Walk Into A Castle.” by Andy Smyser is licensed under CC By 4.0. https://historyisstrange.com/2016/07/22/hsf-a-king-a-priest-and-a-countess-walk-into-a-castle.
On August 13, 1553, an Aragonese (in modern Spain) natural philosopher was arrested in Geneva, Switzerland. This man, Michael Servetus, was accused by religious leader (and de facto head of the Geneva Republic) John Calvin of heresy. Servetus was a leading scientific and religious thinker of his time – a period when the two were not thought of as different. In some of his early work, Servetus questioned a core doctrine of both the Catholic Church and the leading Protestant movements of his time – the eternal trinity. Servetus argued that since Jesus Christ was God-made-man, he, as the Son, could not have existed eternally. Rather, he had been part of God (the Father) originally. As such, the Trinity was flawed. This belief, which may seem a lot like hair-splitting to a modern audience, led Servetus to question the legitimacy of churches that taught this belief.
Because of this, Servetus quickly came to the attention of the Spanish Inquisition, which no one wants to have happen to them since you never know when to expect them! Servetus fled to one of the only places in Europe he thought he would be safe – the Protestant haven of Geneva. While there, Servetus eventually came to Calvin’s attention for teaching ideas that ran counter to Calvinism – Servetus was now a condemned heretic by two Churches! Before his arrest, however, Servetus was able to publish one last work that would guarantee his place his history. In his work The Restoration of Christianity, Servetus described, for the first time, the circulatory nature of blood-flow. Exactly what you were expecting from a theologian, right? Servetus was executed by burning at the stake in Geneva in October 1553 at only 29 or 30 years of age.
Featured Image. “Michael Servetus.” By Christian Fritzsch (author) born in about 1660, Mittweida, Bautzen, Sachsen, Germany. – http://mcgovern.library.tmc.edu/data/www/html/people/osler/MS/P000d.htm, Public Domain.
Source: The Michael Servetus Institute.
Most of us know Harvard University as one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in the world. A degree from Harvard opens doors like those from few other schools. And while this has long been true, early in its history Harvard was much more limited than it is today – focusing primarily on preparing young men for careers in the ministry of the Unitarian Church. On July 15, 1838, one of their most successful alumni returned to deliver a speech to the new graduates. This man was the up-and-coming literary figure, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He had been a Unitarian minister, like most of his classmates, but unlike many of them, he resigned from his position because he could not carry out Holy Communion in “good faith.” He went on to become a renowned writer in the newly emergent Transcendentalist movement.
Emerson’s “Divinity School Address” proved to be not at all what the conservative Harvard faculty had expected and, thus, caused immense controversy. In his speech, Emerson railed against dogma and instead argued for the importance of “religious sentiment,” or what we would call spirituality today. His speech questioned the emphasis placed on Jesus Christ’s authority as a religious figure and called for a stress to be placed on moral virtue and reverence for nature. Needless to say, the powers-that-be at Harvard were not pleased by what their alumnus had said. In fact, Emerson would not set foot on the campus of his alma mater for another 30 years.
Emerson’s speech, however, would have lasting impact both on its author and its audience. For Emerson, the speech launched him to a leadership role within the New England Transcendentalist movement much to the dismay of generations of American high school students who have had to read Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” or Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.” For Harvard, Emerson’s speech started a slow-moving push towards secularizing parts of the University and led to the founding of numerous schools that focused on educating men and women for the many careers, not just the Unitarian ministry.
Featured Image: “Ralph Waldo Emerson.” By Schoff, Stephen Alonzo, 1818-1904, engraver. Rowse, Samuel Worcester, 1822-1901, artist. – Library of Congress, Public Domain.
Popova, Maria. “35-Year-Old Emerson’s Extraordinary Harvard Divinity School Address on the Divine Transcendence of Nature.” BrainPickings.
Walsh, Colleen. “When Religion Turned Inward.” Harvard Gazette. 16 February 2012.
On July 10, 1925, a great Silence began in India by a man of Persian Zoroastrian descent, Merwan Sheriar Irani, better known as Meher Baba. Early in his life, he studied under several leaders of religious group around India and at the age of 22 began gathering followers to himself as a “Perfect Master.” On this date, Meher Baba began a period of Silence that would last for almost 44 years until his death in 1969. He did, however, continue to communicate with his followers using an alphabet board and a complex system of hand signals. Among the many people he influenced were Pete Townsend, lead guitarist of the Who, and Bobby McFerrin. Townsend named one of his most well-known songs, Baba O’Reilly, partially after Meher Baba. McFerrin was inspired by a poster from Meher Baba’s group with the phrase, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
Source: Meher Baba Biography. Avatar Meher Baba Trust.
Featured Image: “Meher Baba.” By Unknown – http://web.archive.org/web/20120115090531/http://ambppct.org/gallery/1940-7.php, Public Domain.
On June 27, 1844, in a Carthage, Illinois jail cell, sat the leader of the new Mormon Church, Joseph Smith. He had just declared his intention to run for the Presidency of the United States. This announcement had led to increased anti-Mormon sentiment among their Illinois neighbors and to clashes between the Mormon residents of nearby Nauvoo and those of Carthage. Illinois state authorities had sided with the Carthaginians and had arrested Smith and his brother Hyrum. While they were imprisoned, a mob of angry residents stormed the jail and murdered the brothers. To find out more about the early history of Mormonism, take a listen to The History Buffs’ episode on America’s Second Great Awakening.
Featured Image: “Joseph Smith.” By Unknown – Unknown, Public Domain.
“Mormon Leader Killed by Mob.” History.com.
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.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
“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.