If you were to list the richest people of all time, who would be in your top five?
We bet the names that immediately spring to your mind are the likes of John D. Rockefeller, Bill Gates, and Carlos Slim. Well, there’s one guy who trumps them all to take the title of wealthiest person in history, and he was from Africa. Meet Mansa Musa I of Mali.
Musa was the king of the Mali Empire in the 14th century, and his land was a treasure trove of natural resources such as gold and salt. At the time of his rule and the years after that, his kingdom is believed to have been the largest producer of gold in the world. With immeasurable quantities of gold at a time when the precious metal was in high demand, Musa’s wealth was so vast that any attempts to quantify it proved futile. As Time reports, “To get caught up in the king’s exact wealth is to miss the point. As Rudolph Ware, an associate professor of history at the University of Michigan, explains, Musa’s riches were so immense that people struggled to describe them.”
The account of the legendary king’s famous pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 gives a better understanding of his influence and wealth. It is said that Musa embarked on this trip with tens of thousands of soldiers and scores of civilians in tow. Add to that, hundreds of heralds and many camels lugging loads of gold. Stopping at cities such as Cairo, the Malian ruler is said to have spent and given away so much gold that he caused mass inflation. This journey reportedly took more than a year, and by the time Musa returned, word of his great wealth had reached several parts of the world, making Mali and its king objects of envy for many nations. Upon his return, he brought with him Arab scholars, scientists, artisans, merchants, and architects to help develop his kingdom.
The fame the Malian king gained from his journey led to his inclusion on the 1375 Catalan Atlas, one of the most important world maps of Medieval Europe. As a devout Muslim, Musa “was determined to travel not only for his own religious fulfillment, but also for recruiting teachers and leaders, so that his realms could learn more of the Prophet’s teachings,” reads an excerpt from the Chronicle of the Seeker, a book by 15th century Malian historian, Mahmud Kati.
During Musa’s 25-year reign, Mali saw a lot of development as the renowned king invested in infrastructure in the cities of Timbuktu and Gao, building libraries, schools, palaces, and mosques. Some of the buildings that still stand today include the famous Djinguereber Mosque, which was built in 1327, and the University of Sankore, which became an important centre for Muslim studies, drawing students from different parts of the world.
After his death in 1337, Musa was succeeded by his son Mansa Maghan, who continued his father’s legacy. Mansa Musa I’s wealth may have vanished by now, but the king of Mali’s legacy has stood the test of time and transcended generations.