The Mali Empire

Mali is a country located in West Africa

It was founded by Sundiata, The Lion King. He ruled for 25 year from 1235 to 1260. However the empire was strongest under his grandson, Mansa Musa who reigned from 1312 to 1337. He made Timbuktu the center for cultural learning, and seeing how it was ruled by Muslims, Islamic people from all over Africa flocked there to study. Mali owes its prosperity to its large abundance of gold and salt.


Mali is made up of three zones. These are the southern cultivated Sudanese zone, central semiarid Sahelian zone, and northern arid Saharan zone. The terrain is primarily savanna in the south and flat to plains or high plateaus in the north. There are rugged hills in the northeast, with elevations of up to 1,000 meters. 65% of Mali is covered by desert or semi arid land. The Niger River creates a large and fertile which goes northeast till it eventually emptyies into the Gulf of Guinea.


Northern Mali is arid and deserted. A true desert, part of Sahara, few people live there. Southern Mali is wetter, and natural vegetation is abundant, most people live there.

Winters are dry while summers are rainy. Rains arrive first in the south with great amount and later in smaller amounts in the north. Rainfall is not dependable and it is spotty, heavy in one area but light few miles away. During the dry winter day temperature is around the mid-70s F but it get extremely cold at night. The lack of clouds allows the heat that has built during the day to escape from the surface of the earth, which is called radiation cooling. During the April to the June dry season, day time temperature becomes more than 90s F as hot, dry winds blow from northeast. These winds are known as the harmattan. During the wet season the day temperature is around the mid-80s F.


Pastoralism--herding of cattle, goats, sheep, and some camels--predominated in the dry, sparsely populated north. Crop agriculture predominated in the wetter south.

Despite generally infertile soils, two types of crops are grown today:

  • Food crops: millet, sorghum, corn, rice, cassava, yams

  • Cash crops: cotton, rice, peanuts, tobacco; plus kola nuts in the southern forest zone

The wealth of ancient Mali was based on trade, particularly the trans-Sahara trade.

Control and taxation of trade pumped wealth into the imperial treasury and sustained the Mali Empire's existence. The most profitable commodities traded were gold and salt.

  • Gold. Gold was mined first at Bambuk on one of the tributaries of the upper Senegal River. Later, it was mined at Bure on the headwaters of the Niger River. The location of the gold mines moved as the mines in the west became exhausted and new sources were discovered further east. The mansa (King) claimed all the gold nuggets, but gold dust was available for trade. Gold is still mined today in Mali.

  • Salt. Salt was mined deep in the Sahara, near the towns of Taghaza and Taoudeni. Slabs brought by camel can still be found in the market of Timbuktu, Mopti, and other Niger River towns.


Linguistic diversity was a characteristic of the ancient Mali Empire, just as it is of modern Mali. In fact, the political structure of the Mali Empire perpetuated that linguistic diversity: peoples were organized into kingdoms that retained their own leaders provided they paid tribute and swore loyalty to the mansa, or leader, of the Mali Empire. Most of the indigenous languages of Mali belong to the Niger-Congo language family, making them distant cousins.

The Arabic language was introduced to the Western Sudan as a result of trade.

Arab (and Arabized Berber) traders from the north brought their Arabic language with them, and their alphabet, too. With the Arabic alphabet, writing was introduced to the indigenous cultures, and a written history evolved as a companion to the long-established oral history of the region. Because Arabic is the language of the Koran (the holy book of Islam), it is still heard in the mosques of Mali and whenever the Koran is read or recited. Arabic is a member of the Afro-Asiatic language family, and thus completely unrelated to Mali's indigenous languages.

The Bambara language is the most widely understood indigenous language in modern Mali.

In modern Mali, about 80 percent of the population speak, or at least understand Bambara. The Bambana ethnic group is the largest in modern Mali, although they make up only 23 percent of Mali's population. The Bambara language is almost identical to Dioula, the market language of neighboring Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, and Burkina Faso.

The official language of the Republic of Mali is French.

Between 1890 and 1960, Mali was under the control of France. It was during that time that the French language was taught in the schools and became the medium of governmental administration. Even after independence, French remained the official language. All education and government activities are conducted in French. Despite the negative association with colonialism, French is today considered a neutral language among the many ethnolinguistic groups in the country. French is in the Indo-European language family.