Series 1: Mali

Flag of the Mali Empire
Possible Flag of Medieval Mali

The Medieval Mali Empire was founded around 1240 by Sunjata Keita, prince of a royal Malinke family. Building on the legacy of the older Empire of Ghana, Mali ruled much of inland West Africa during the 13th through 16th centuries.

A rich trade kingdom visited by travelers as far away as Arabia, Mali was famous as a source of gold in Europe and throughout the Islamic world. Our first series will cover this great civilization, starting with the disintegration of Ghana all the way to Mali’s own collapse in 1599.


What would a history podcast be without plenty of maps? All are licensed under Creative Commons from Wikipedia. Link to original file on each image.

Ghana Empire Map
Map of Ancient Ghana in West Africa
Medieval Mali Empire Map
Map of Imperial Mali circa 1350
Songhay Empire Map
Songhay Empire circa 1500
Precolonial African Empires Map
Map of Precolonial African Empires. Note the overlapping Sahel Empires of West Africa. Blank areas do not represent uninhabited spaces, just locations without named kingdoms or states. Map is also missing a number of known entities in East and Southern Africa. Take non-West Africa with a grain of salt.
West African Trade Routes
Map of the Trans-Saharan Trade Routes. Goldfields shaded in brown.
Topographic map of Mali and neighboring countries
Topographic map of Modern Mali and Neighboring Countries. Note the Guinea Highlands in the Southwestern Corner.


Hand of Fatima - Sahel Landscape
Landscape of the Sahel in Hombori, Mali, close to the Niger Bend.
Sahel Village of Telly
The Village of Telly in the Sahel
Niger River
Banks of the Niger River in southern Mali
Timbuktu Manuscripts
Astronomical Manuscripts from the Libraries of Timbuktu written in the Sudanese Arabic font. Timbuktu first rose to prominence after the Hajj of Mansa Musa, but peaked during its golden age of the 16th century under Askia al-Hajj Muhammad of Songhay.
Mud Brick Mosque
Mud brick mosques such as this are typical of the Sudano-Sahelian architecture of the Middle Niger.
Djinguereber Mosque
Djinguereber Mosque in Timbuktu, built by al-Sahili, an Andalusian poet and architect invited to Mali by Mansa Musa on his Hajj.
Sona Jobarteh Kora
Female jeli Sona Jobarteh playing the Kora, a harp-like instrument made from a Calabash gourd. Female jeliw who act as bards are uncommon, but exist throughout Mande society past and present.
Jenne Equestrian Figure
Terracotta figures such as this have been uncovered throughout the Middle Niger near Jenne, dating to around the 13th to 15th centuries, contemporary with Imperial Mali. European travelers in the 1400s describe locals of this region placing sculptures such as this in the center of their homes,, representing famous heroes of the past.
Terracotta Archer
Terracotta archer in the Jenne style, 1300-1500.
Tuareg, such as this family, roamed the deserts of West Africa and acted as the main conduit of the Trans-Saharan Trade, carrying gold and other goods between the towns of the Sahel and Morocco.
Houses in Lake Debo
Houses on the central island of Lake Debo, a wide section of the Niger River in the heart of the Inland Delta, the rich fertile wetlands near Jenne.
Catalan Atlas
The Catalan Atlas of 1374 shows a seated figure in West Africa holding a nugget of gold. He is labeled "Musa Melly" and represents the Mansa of the rich gold-trading Empire of Mali. His presence on this map demonstrates that Mali's fame had reached Europe and the Christian world at this point.


  • Almoravids
    A Berber empire in Morocco, Spain and West Africa founded in the early 11th century by members of the nomadic Berber Sanhaja confederation. An Almorvaid invasion is often attributed for bringing down the Ghana Empire.
  • Bambuk
    One of the two main goldfields in imperial Mali. Smaller than its twin site of Bure, Bambuk produced a significant amount of gold for the Mansa nonetheless. The modern fields of Bambuk are still being mined, though their production is nowhere near as intense as they once were.
  • Berbers
    An ethnic group native to North Africa and the Sahara. Nomadic Berbers, including the Tuareg, carried goods between the Sahel and the Maghreb throughout the last 1400 years. Settled Berber states in the Maghreb, including Morocco, also played an important role in West African history, including the famous 1592 invasion of Songhay.
  • Bure
    The largest goldfield of imperial Mali. According to the Soninke legends, the head of Bida the snake rests in this site and was the source of Mali’s wealth. Bure produced the majority of Mali’s gold and, indeed, was the largest single source of gold in the Old World during the 14th century.
  • Caste
    A caste is a hereditary social group defined by occupation. Members of castes are usually required to marry only within their caste and often can only perform certain jobs in a society. Castes in West Africa likely started with the Malinke and spread with the empire. Malinke castes include the Jeliw, Blacksmiths and Leatherworkers.
  • Ghana (AKA Wagadu, Kaya-Magha)
    The first named empire in West African history. The Ghana Empire flourished sometime between 500 and 1200 AD. It was the first empire Arab authors wrote about and was the source of gold for the Trans-Saharan trade during this period. It may have been destroyed following an Almoravid/Takruri invasion in 1077, but may have lingered for another century afterwards.
  • Hajj
    The Hajj is the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca required of all Muslims who can afford it. The first kings in West Africa to undertake the Hajj came from Mali and were famous throughout their empire. Later, during the reign of Mansa Musa, the Hajj became a PR tool used by the Mansa in order to legitimize their authority.
  • Inland Delta
    The region along the Middle Niger river, close to modern Jenne, where the Niger breaks off into many tributaries. The riverbanks flood regularly and the area is home to many lakes. Due to the flooding and wetland environment, rich soils are deposited in this region and the area, known locally as Macina, is very fertile.
  • Jeli/Jeliw
    The caste of bards among the Mande peoples. Jeliw are tasked with remembering histories, genealogies, poems and songs for the entertainment and legitimization of their liege, generally a local noble. Jeliw are born into their positions and many famous families are attached to specific clans, such as the Keita.
  • Jula
    The merchant class of the Malinke. The jula traveled across West Africa to establish trade connections with producers of salt and gold, and then carried these minerals north to exchange with Arab and Berber merchants in Jenne and Timbuktu. The Jula were instrumental in spreading Mande civilization and, following Mali’s collapse, founded several independent states of their own in Guinea, Ghana and The Gambia.
  • Kafu
    The original political system of the Malinke. A kafu is composed of a series of networked villages under the command of a single chief or king. Kafus were generally small and rarely possessed a population beyond the 10,000s. Following the collapse of the Mali Empire, the Malinke reverted back to the Kafu system that they had used before the foundation of the empire.
  • Keita
    The Keita are the royal family of Mali. Many popular etymologies exist to explain the name, including one that claims it means “Seize your destiny” and was given to Sunjata following his return from Mema. The Keita claim descent from Bilal ibn Rabah, the first muezzin in Islam.
  • Maghreb
    The Mediterranean coast of North Africa, generally considered to be everything between the mountains and desert and west of Egypt. The Maghreb is fertile and shares a climate with much of Southern Europe. Settled kingdoms in the region interacted regularly with Mali and were often the origin point of caravans to the Empire.
  • Mali
    The medieval Empire for which the modern nation is named. Mali was a kingdom lasting from roughly 1240-1599 and became famous the world over due to its massive quantities of gold. Beyond gold, the empire was also home to a thriving scholarly community and left an important legacy for the political and social structures of the region.
  • Malinke
    The ethnic group which founded the Mali Empire. The Malinke come from the region of the Guinea Highlands. Malinke means “People of Mali”. Other names for the Malinke include Mandingo, Mandinka, Maninka and others.
  • Mande
    A language group throughout West Africa. The Mande peoples are those who speak the Mande languages. The Mande include ethnicities such as the Soninke, Malinke, Bozo and Bambara. Due to their connection to Ghana and Mali, the Mande were the first major state-builders in this region. Their culture and social structures influenced those of their neighbors and those as far afield as the Akan in modern Ghana.
  • Manden
    The legendary homeland of the Malinke, generally found in the area around modern Kangaba all the way down to the modern village of Niani.
  • Mansa
    The title of the kings of Mali. Originally just the title of the lord of a Kafu, Mansa became tied with the king of all the Malinke alone following Sunjata’s unification of the country in the 13th century.
  • Mema
    A successor state to Ancient Ghana. Some have speculated that it was to Mema Arab authors referred when they talked about “Ghana” after 1077 and the Almoravid invasion. Mema offered aid and arms to Sunjata during his war with Soso and became an influential power within the Empire of Mali as a result.
  • Niani
    The purported capital of the Mali Empire. Archaeologists have found little evidence at the site to suggest the village was once an imperial capital. Moreover, recent interpretations of Arabic records suggest that the previous reading of the capital as “YNY” may have been mistaken, suggesting instead that the capital was somewhere near the Inland Delta.
  • Sahel
    The semi-arid grasslands between the savannah and Sahara in West Africa. The Sahel was the location of West Africa’s first civilization, Ghana, and was the primary site of cross-cultural exchange throughout the medieval and early modern period in this region.
  • Songhay
    The empire which succeeded Mali in West Africa. The Songhay are an ethnic group native to east of the Niger Bend. The Songhay Empire was a major rival to the declining Mali Empire in the 16th century, but never managed to completely destroy them. Songhay was destroyed in 1592 following an unexpected Moroccan invasion from the north.
  • Soninke
    The Soninke are a Mande people who founded the Ghana Empire. Once concentrated around the northern Sahel, they are today dispersed throughout the region, having scattered following the collapse of Ghana.
  • Soso
    The Soso were a Soninke people who founded the kingdom of Soso. Led by their king Sumaworo, Soso nearly conquered all the lands of old Ghana and almost destroyed the Malinke as well. Their war with the Malinke, led by the prince Sunjata, forms the backdrop of the Epic of Sunjata.
  • Sunjata
    Sunjata Keita was the founder of the Mali Empire. Born, according to legend, immobile he learned to walk despite his disabilities and became a champion hunter and warrior. His defeat of the Soso king Sumaworo led to the foundation of the Mali Empire.
  • Takrur
    Takrur was a kingdom in the Senegal river valley. One of the first Muslim kingdoms in Africa, Takrur may have played a part in the destruction of Ghana in 1077.
  • Tuareg
    The Tuareg are a subgroup of nomadic Berbers who speak their own language and live in a massive territory spanning modern Mali, Morocco, Algeria, Chad and Niger. Known for the blue veils their men wear, they historically made a living herding animals and carrying goods across the desert, as well as raiding their neighbors.



  • Levtzion, Nehemia. Ancient Ghana and Mali. London: Methuen. 1980.
  • Gomez, Michael. African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2018.
  • Hopkins, J.F.P., Levtzion, Nehemia. Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History. Princeton: Markus Wiener. 2000.
  • Translated by David Conrad. Sunjata: A New Prose Version. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing. 2016.


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