Three bite-size non-fiction reviews tied together with a delicious topical dipping sauce!
The theme: Mansa Musa, Sultan of Mali, was arguably the wealthiest person ever to live. No kidding. You know you’ve reached mythological levels of lucre when you show up on maps made by people living halfway across the known world with an annotation about how much gold you have. Mali was such a rich kingdom because the territory it controls – centered around the city Timbuktu – is situated on the Niger River and in a position to control trade across the Sahara to and from the European subcontinent.The Akan people of Ghana and Ivory Coast are still known for the quality and quantity of their goldwork. A stupefying amount of trade flowed through Timbuktu, with most of it paid for in gold, mined out of ore-bearing seams just to the South. There’s a reason we call the ocean-border of Ghana the Gold Coast. Did I mention the gold?
I like to imagine Sultan Mansa Musa swimming in it like Scrooge McDuck. But that would probably understate how much gold he had. According to legend, Mansa Musa had so much gold, that when he went on the Hajj he took an enormous caravan including camels with sacks of pure gold dust on their backs, and crashed the unsuspecting economies of entire city states with inflation because their markets literally could not handle the influx of gold. Did this actually happen? Historical accounts disagree (with most saying it did happen). However, we do know that the Sultan bankrolled a massive building boom in Mali, with new mosques, libraries, and colleges sprouting up in cities all over the kingdom.Above is a prime example of Malian architecture, the Great Mosque of Djenne. These are not cheap to build. Here’s another one, financed by the Sultan himself. If the style of these buildings look weirdly familiar, like they belong to a desert planet orbiting twin suns in a galaxy far far away, it’s because Star Wars Episode IV: a New Hope was filmed on a relatively tiny budget, largely on location in Tunisia, which has some of the same classically Northwest African architecture. The Skywalker home was an actual house, which is now Hotel Sidi Driss. Bits of Star Wars set are strewn all over parts of the Tunisian desert. Understanding history is all about making connections, after all, so put on that John Williams soundtrack, and read on!
As for the big picture of what (aside from gold) the Kingdom of Mali was built on, and where Timbuktu fit in on the world stage of the international salt trade, Mark Kurlansky’s excellent overview Salt: A World History will put it nicely in context. Salt was first published in 2002, but it’s every bit the excellent true world history it’s ever been.
If, however, what you wanted was a history of the city of Timbuktu – the center, but not the capitol, of Mali – read Timbuktu: the Sahara’s Fabled City of Gold. This book gives a very thorough treatment of the history of the city, especially the establishment of the trade and the Kingdom of Mali, and the heyday of the city as a hub of trade for caravans across the Sahara.
For an even more focused view on the world of Sultan Mansa Musa and how it intersects with our own there’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu. The Kingdom’s wealth and economic connections meant a massive heap of documentation, making the medieval libraries and colleges of Timbuktu a treasure-trove of manuscripts. When Mali’s most recent rebellion broke out in 2012, the race was on to secure and hide the priceless documents before the historic buildings and the knowledge they housed were destroyed by Islamist forces. History is littered with tragic library-burnings – Alexandria, Hanlin Academy – but, this time, the books were saved, and our world is truly richer for it in wealth of knowledge, not gold.
Reviews by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch