African Kingdoms: Medieval Warfare Between Ghana and Mali Empires

In 1230 C.E., the western Africa Ghana Empire fell under the warfare leadership of Sundiata Keita, leading to the rise of the Mali Empire in West Africa.

According to the Epic of Sundiata, the national epic poem of the Mali Empire (also referenced as Mandinka, Manding Empire, Manden Kurufa, Mandingo people, Mande language), the Mali federation of nation-states included nearly all of the land between the Sahara Desert to the coastal borders of the modern day nations of Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal. The Mali Empire would control most of west Africa for two centuries.

Sundiata Keita's Medieval Warfare in West Africa

Sundiata Keita, also known as Sogolon Djata or Mansa Sundiata, was from the Keita clan and born in the village of Niani near the modern day borders of Mali and north-east Guinea. The loosely federated Mandinka kingdoms were ruled by the medieval Ghana Empire (cir. 790 C.E., also known as the Wagadou Empire) under King Soumaoro Kanté during Sundiata’s youth. The modern country of Ghana shares no territory with the medieval Ghana Empire, though some of its inhabitants claim ancestral lineage with the inhabitants of the mediæval empire.

Mandika Kingdom-States Battle the Ghana Empire

Sundiata devoted his life to the overthrow of the Ghana Empire and was exiled after waging war against the medieval Ghana Empire by mobilizing the loosely federated Mandinka kingdom-states. In 1230 C.E., Sundiata led a rebellion against King Soumaba Cisse from the then Kangaba kingdom-state in the south-western region of the modern day Mali nation's Koulikoro Region. Kangaba was then an important gold mining region among the Mandinka kingdom-states.

The Battle of Kirina near the Koulikoro Mountains of Bamako, Mali

Medieval West Africa was ruled by three major empire nations, the Ghana, Mali and Songhai. These kingdoms were part of a region historically referred to as the Western Sudan, which extended from the Atlantic Ocean to Central Africa. Trade routes were numerous across the Western Sudan region.

In 1235 C.E., Ghana Empire forces were led by the Sosso region king Soumaoro Kanté, also known in historical accounts as Sumanguru Kanté. Soumaoro converged at the Koulikoro Region of modern day Bamako, Mali in an important battle with the Mandinka forces. The historic African military Battle of Kirina is cited by historians as the final defeat of the mediæval Ghana Empire. Military legend provides that Soumaoro was not killed but disappeared into the Koulikoro mountains of Bamako.

Sundiata was crowned Mansa or "King of Kings.” His three sons succeeded him to the throne of the Mali Empire: Mansa Khalifa Keita, Ouati Keita and Wali Keita. The famous tales of Mansa Musa (b. 1307 C.E.), the son of Sundiata's brother Abu-Bakr, chronicles his travels and trade to distant lands in East Africa and the Middle East. While part of the royal kingdom family of the Mali Empire, Mansa Musa's grandfather Abu-Bakr and father Faga Laya did not ascend the Mali Empire throne as Mansas.

Mansa Musa Rules Mali Empire and Travels to Mecca

According to Ibn-Khaldun's history of the Malian kings, Mansa Musa’s legendary caravan across Africa from Timbuktu to Mecca occurred in 1324 C.E. The historical accounts provide that Mansa Musa traveled with a band of 60,000 people; 12,000 slaves; 500 workers; 300 pounds of gold; and the nation’s foremost poets, artists, and scholars.

While the year of Mansa Musa's death is debated among modern historians, his reign is generally thought to have lasted about 25 years. The recorded rule of Mansa Musa’s son Mansa Maghan was from 1332 to 1336 C.E.. Mansa Suleyman, Mansa Musa’s older brother, ruled the Mali Empire from 1336 to 1360 C.E..

Further reading:

“The Thirteenth and Fourteenth Century Kings of Mali,” by N. Levtzion, The Journal of African History, Vol. 4, No. 3. (1963).

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