Mansa Musa I ascended the throne of Mali in 1312 AD. He was, perhaps, the most colourful personality in West African history. Of this monarch, Dr DeGraft-Johnson, a Ghanaian historian, wrote that: "It was in 1324 … that the world awoke to the splendour and grandeur of Mali. There across the African desert, and making its way to Mecca, was a caravan of a size which had never before been seen, a caravan consisting of 60,000 men. They were Mansa Musa's men, and Mansa Musa was with them. He was not going to war: he was merely going to worship at Mecca. The huge caravan included a personal retinue of 12,000 slaves, all dressed in brocade and Persian silk. Mansa Musa himself rode on horseback, and directly preceding him were 500 slaves, each carrying a staff of gold weighing about six pounds (500 mitkal). Then came Mansa Musa's baggage-train of eighty camels, each carrying 300 pounds (three kantar) weight of gold dust. This imposing caravan made its way from Niani on the Upper Niger to Walata, then to Tuat, and then on to Cairo. Mansa Musa's piety and open-handed generosity, the fine clothes and good behaviour of his followers, all quickly made a good impression. One might have thought that a pilgrimage to Mecca undertaken with such pomp and ceremony would have ulterior political motives, but no such motives have ever been adduced." In Egypt, Musa spent so much money in gold that he devastated that nation's economy. "For years after Mansa Musa's visit [continues Professor DeGraft-Johnson], ordinary people in the streets of Cairo, Mecca, and Baghdad talked about this wonderful pilgrimage - a pilgrimage which led to the devaluation of gold in the Middle East for several years."
In a recent book, Cynthia Crossen, senior editor of the prestigious financial newspaper Wall Street Journal, wrote: "You've heard about the extraordinary wealth of Bill Gates, J. P. Morgan, and the sultan of Brunei, but have you heard of Mansa Musa, one of the richest men who ever lived?" Continuing this theme, Mrs Crossen comments that: "Neither producer nor inventor, Mansa Musa was an early broker, greasing the wheels of intercultural trade. He created wealth by making it possible for others to buy and sell". Dr Davidson suggested that the rulers of Mali were "rumoured to have been the wealthiest m[e]n on the face of the earth".
During his return journey from Mecca, Musa heard news that his army captured Gao in 1325. Sagmandia, one of his generals, led the victorious invasion. The captured city of Gao was a great prize. Al-Idrissi, the distinguished author mentioned earlier, described it as a "populous, unwalled, commercial and industrial town, in which were to be found the produce of all arts and trades necessary for its inhabitants". Tim Insoll from St. John's College, Cambridge University, carried out important excavations in Gao. Some of his finds were on display at the British Museum at the time of one of our visits. Particularly intriguing was an exhibit entitled: "Fragments of alabaster window surrounds and a piece of pink window glass, Gao 10th - 14th century." Musa made a detour and visited the captured metropolis. In this city, he received the two sons of the Gao king as hostages, Ali Kolon and Suleiman Nar. He returned to Niani with the two boys and later educated them at his court.
Musa I embarked on a large building programme, raising mosques and universities in Timbuktu and Gao. In Niani, he built the Hall of Audience, a building communicated by an interior door to the royal palace. It was "an admirable Monument" surmounted by a dome, adorned with arabesques of striking colours. The windows of an upper floor were plated with wood and framed in silver foil, those of a lower floor were plated with wood, framed in gold. Like the Great Mosque, a splendid monument of Timbuktu, the Hall was built of cut stone. During this period, there was an extraordinary level of urban living. Sergio Domian, an Italian art and architecture scholar, wrote the following about this period: "Thus was laid the foundation of an urban civilisation. At the height of its power, Mali had at least 400 cities [sic], and the interior of the Niger Delta was very densely populated".