Empire of Mali
The Mali Empire or Mandingo Empire or Manden Kurufa was a West African empire of the Mandinka from c. 1230 to c. 1600. The empire was founded by Sundiata Keita and became renowned for the wealth of its rulers, especially Mansa Musa I. The Mali Empire had many profound cultural influences on West Africa, allowing the spread of its language, laws and customs along the Niger River. It extended over a large area and consisted of numerous vassal kingdoms and provinces.
The Mali Empire grew out of an area referred to by its contemporary inhabitants as Manden. Manden, named for its inhabitants the Mandinka (initially Manden’ka with “ka” meaning people of), comprised most of present-day northern Guinea and southern Mali. The empire was originally established as a federation of Mandinka tribes called the Manden Kurufa (literally Manden Federation), but it later became an empire ruling millions of people from nearly every ethnic group in West Africa.
There are a few references to Mali in written literature of roughly contemporary age. Among these are references to “Daw” and “Malal” in the work of al-Bakri in 1068, the story of the conversion of an early ruler, known to Ibn Khaldun (by 1397) as Barmandana, and a few geographical details in the work of al-Idrisi.
There has also been archaeological work done especially at Niani, reputed to be the capital of Mali, by Polish and Guinean archaeologists in the 1960s which revealed the remains of a substantial town dating back as far as the 6th century.
Modern oral traditions also related that the Mandinka kingdoms of Mali or Manden had already existed several centuries before Sundiata’s unification as a small state just to the south of the Soninké empire of Wagadou, better known as the Ghana Empire. This area was composed of mountains, savannah and forest providing ideal protection and resources for the population of hunters. Those not living in the mountains formed small city-states such as Toron, Ka-Ba and Niani. The Keita dynasty from which nearly every Mali emperor came traces its lineage back to Bilal, the faithful muezzin of Islam’s prophet Muhammad. It was common practice during the Middle Ages for both Christian and Muslim rulers to tie their bloodline back to a pivotal figure in their faith’s history. So while the lineage of the Keita dynasty may be dubious at best, oral chroniclers have preserved a list of each Keita ruler from Lawalo (supposedly one of Bilal’s seven sons who settled in Mali) to Maghan Kon Fatta (father of Sundiata Keita).