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Mali Empire, Decline of the 

The Mali Empire rose as a powerful force in northwest Africa in the middle of the 13th-century. Its first king was the fierce warrior-prince Sundiata Keita (1235-1255). The empire reached its peak during the 13th-century and the early years of the 14th-century. However, the Mali Empire declined during the last years of the 14th-century when the neighboring Songhai state rose to prominence.  These events are recorded on the Biblical Timeline with World History during that time.

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From Sundiata Keita to Mansa Musa

The Mali Empire briefly declined after the death of its Lion Prince, Sundiata Keita, in AD 1255. The empire experienced a revival during the reign of Sakoura Mansa around 1285. His reign was marked by the conquests of neighboring cities, including the Gao region. He also subdued the Tuareg tribes and brought them under the direct control of the Mali Empire. He made a pilgrimage to Mecca but died on the way back home after being robbed in the Sahara.

The Mali Empire reached its height during the reign of Mansa Musa, which lasted from AD 1307 to 1337.  His successors, however, became involved in court intrigues and squandered their empire’s wealth. The royal court of Mali was also divided into rival factions. By 1374, the divided royal family became puppets for various generals. Provincial governors, meanwhile, treated their domains like their own little kingdoms.

The Rise of the Mali Empire’s Powerful Neighbors

Mali terracotta horse figurine, dating between 13th-15th centuries.

The disunity inside the Mali Empire’s played a great part in its collapse during the 1400s. Its neighbors, from the Tuaregs to the Songhai, gradually chipped away at its territories while the empire weakened. The Berbers and Tuaregs were some of the first to wrest away a large part of the empire’s territory.

During the reign of Mansa Musa, some Berber tribes submitted to the Mali Empire. These tribes took advantage of the weakening of the royal power and started to rebel. The nomadic Tuaregs also started a series of raids against the Mali Empire. In 1433, they captured the cities of Timbuktu, Walata, Nema, and Gao from the empire. They briefly dominated the area until the rise of the Songhai Empire led by Sonni ‘Ali.

The Mossi people lived south of the Niger bend during the domination of the Mali Empire. The empire never really conquered the Mossi people, so they, too, took advantage of its weakness. The well-armed Mossi were skilled horsemen. They figured that they could make a living by raiding neighboring tribes, especially those under the rule of the Mali empire. The peasants who lived under the Mali Empire were helpless in the face of invasion. The Mossi raiders, meanwhile, became wealthy because of this, and they even raided as far west as the city of Walata.

Rise of the Songhai State

The rise of the Songhai Empire during the latter years of the 14th-century also played a part in the collapse of the Mali Empire. The Songhai was made up of different peoples including the Do, the Sorko, and the Gow. The Do people worked as farmers, while the Gow people were expert hunters. The strongest of these tribes was the Sorko, and they lived along the banks of the Niger river east of Timbuktu. They worked as fishermen, but their ability to construct war canoes and navigate the Niger river became their greatest strength. Because of their skills, they dominated the Niger river area.

By the 9th century, the three tribes became united, and together they formed the Songhai kingdom. Its capital was Kukiya, and its people traded with the Berber and Egyptian merchants who lived in the city of Gao. Because of the interaction between the Songhai and the Gao, the Songhai rulers eventually converted to Islam. They also made the city of Gao the capital of the Songhai kingdom.

The Mali Empire conquered a portion of the western region of Gao during its heyday. The decline of the Mali Empire during the 1400s eventually led to the rise of the Songhai Empire. The Songhai Empire became the most powerful state in the region during the reign of the Sonni Dynasty king Sonni ‘Ali between 1464 and 1492. He led the capture of Timbuktu from the Tuaregs, as well as the cities of Jenne and the territory of the Mossi people.


Picture by: Franko Khoury [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Conrad, David C. Empires of Medieval West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhai. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009.

Netton, Ian Richard. The Encyclopedia of Islamic Civilization and Religion. London: Routledge, 2008.

Niane, Djibril Tamsir, and Joseph Ki-Zerbo. Africa From the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century. University of California Press, 1997.

Shillington, Kevin. History of Africa. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

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