To the people in the African kingdoms, the word “mansa” means king or leader. Because the Empire of Mali was so big, the king of Mali, Mansa Musa could not possibly hear the complaint or concern of each citizen or village.
Government: Under Mansa Musa, the empire was broken into provinces, each ruled by a governor. Each province was composed of many villages. Each village had a mayor. This allowed for controlled but swift management of local problems, leaving Mansa Musa and his advisors free to handle the management of the empire.
Gold for Salt: The Kingdom of Mali was rich. The army guarded the gold mines. They also guarded the section of the Trans-Sahara Trade Route that passed by Mali. Legend says there were usually 90,000 warriors on foot, 10,000 warriors on camels, and few on Arabian horses, who worked together to kept the trade route safe for travel. Traders always stopped at Mali. They knew they would find safety, culture, and richly rewarding trade.
Traditional African Religion: Although most village people could not read or write, they received education and training orally. They were free to choose their religion as well as their occupation. Most villages followed the traditional religions of Africa. The people believed in many gods, in witchdoctors, and in magic charms. Education was encouraged and choice of religious belief was a freedom. The people were happy.
Growth of Islam: Although Mansa Musa allowed his people religious freedom, he was a devout Muslim. Mansa Musa worshiped one god – Allah. He was the one who actually ordered an impressive university to be built at Timbuktu. He wanted scholars to come to Mali and they did.
The Muslim scholars who came to Mali were somewhat started at the appearance of the people who called themselves Muslims. The climate was very hot. Rather than being heavily veiled in black garments, the woman were unveiled and wore cool, colorful clothing. This was not the look to which they were accustomed. But Mansa Musa was such a good host, and such a devout Muslim, that the scholars who came to the kingdom brought with them not only learning but also understanding. Having never left Mali, Mansa Musa really did not know that the appearance of his people was anything out of the ordinary in the Muslim world.
Kingly Behavior: Mansa Musa did things his people expected a very rich king to do. When he left his palace, 300 guards and his special musicians who played music wherever they went always accompanied him. His people would gather along the road and chant: “Hail Mansa Musa, King of Mali!” There was every evidence that the people were happy.
The people had every reason to be happy. They were very bright and creative people. They worked hard. They played hard. They were not poor. The common people were given some luxury goods. Goods were given to the elders and distributed as they saw fit. Mansa Musa was a great believer in spreading wealth around.
Journey to Mecca: Since things were going so well at home, Mansa Musa decided now was the time to see the holy city of Mecca. Muslim law requires that all the faithful visit Mecca at least once. With a huge number of guards and attendants, along with camels carrying comforts, luxury, and bagsful of gold nuggets, Mansa Musa set out across the desert towards Mecca. Along the way, everywhere he went, he freely gave away gold. You can imagine the excitement he generated as he traveled from one oasis to the next.
His caravan stopped in Cairo, in Egypt. Word of his incredible wealth spread quickly though the city. Mansa Musa was amazed at how expensive things were. They were expensive because merchants quickly increased their normal prices. Mansa Musa did not care. Even though he had given away so much gold on the trip to Cairo, he had bagsful left to spend. And spend he did. Mansa Musa left so much gold behind him in Cairo that it was rumored it took 12 years for prices in Egypt to get back to normal. (This is probably an urban legend, but certainly it took some time for things to get back to normal.)
He distributed so much gold on his way to Mecca that he had to borrow money for his return trip home. Everyone with money was eager to be of service to such a wealthy man. True to his nature, Mansa Musa repaid the loans most generously.
His journey took about a year. He traveled around 3000 miles by camel. No one attempted to take over his kingdom while he was gone. Mansa Musa was a very smart man. To reduce the likelihood of a takeover, he had brought with him on his trip most of the powerful people in his kingdom. He left the army in charge. They did a great job.
His people were impressed. They thought it amazing that he was willing to make such a long trip, with so many dangers, just to see a far away holy place. His trip had other results. Scholars poured into Timbuktu, making it the most prestigious university in the land. Trade became even more brisk.
Mansa Musa literally put Mali on the map – on European maps and Moslem maps!