The court life in the empire of Mali

The Empire of Mali was founded by Sundjata Keita in 5476 of the African era (1240 AC) through the conquest of the declining Wagadu Empire (or ancient Ghana). Mali will be conquered by Sunni Ali Ber in 5712 who founded the Songhai Empire. The famous Arab traveller Ibn Battuta gave us a description of the court life in Mali in 5587 during the reign of the Mansa Soleiman.

Mansa Kankan Musa, legendary Emperor of Mali and the richest man of all times; Illustration by Khephra Burns, edited by Leo and Diane Dillon
Mansa Kanku Musa, legendary Emperor of Mali and the richest man of all times; Illustration by Khephra Burns

“On the hearing days, the emperor was sitting in an alcove communicating with the palace through a door; it has three wooden windows covered with silver layers and below it, three other windows trimmed with golden and vermilion strips (we can conclude that the palace had at least one floor). Those windows are trimmed with curtains; a handkerchief decorated with Egyptian pictures tied to a silky cord was glided through the fence that was protecting them on the hearing days. The people were called through horn and drum sounds.

Three hundred soldiers armed with arches and javelins are lined up in two columns on each side of the window where the emperor is supposed to be sitting. Those who hold javelins form the outer ranks and stand, those who have arches sit in front; the four columns are facing each other. Two saddled and restrained horses and two rams are brought: the practice reminds us of Ghana.

Nearly three hundred subjects run for Candja Musa in haste. The Ferraris, the Sheikhs, the preacher (Khatib) and the legal officer have arrived and are sitting in front of the soldiers on the left and right within the space that separates the columns. Dugha the herald stands at the door, dressed with Zerdkhanan clothes; He wears a fringed turban fashioned after the style of the country. He is the only one to have the privilege to wear boots on that day. He has a sword with a golden sheath on his side. He is holding spurs, two golden and silver javelins, with an iron tip. The soldiers and civil servants, the pages, the Mesufits and others stay outside in a broad street planted with trees (…)

When the emperor arrives behind the window, Dugha serves as intermediary, transmits the orders, receives grievances, submits them to the sovereign who makes a decision.

Mansa Kankan Musa; illustration by Kephra Burns, edited by Leo and Diane Dillon
Mansa Kanku Musa; illustration by Kephra Burns, edited by Leo and Diane Dillon

It happens that the hearing is held inside the palace. A silk covered seat is therefore placed and lifted on three terraces; that throne is called ben-bi, a pillow is placed there and the whole thing is covered with a silky parasol in shape of dome with a golden bird as big as a sparrow hawk on the top of it. The Mansa (Emperor) moves out of the palace with an arch in his hand and a quiver on his back. He is holding a golden material turban tied by golden ribbons of which the tips are in metal longer than a palm that makes it similar to daggers.

He is wearing a red coat in European fabric: the Montenfès. Singers walk in front of him, holding golden and silver coombs; they are moving forward slowly, followed by almost 300 armed soldiers and stop from time to time. Before sitting on his seat, he slowly looks around; then horns, trumpets and drums sound as soon as he sits down; again the two horses and the ram which cast bad luck are brought. Dugha is at his usual place, close to the Mansa; the rest of the people are outside; the Ferraris are called, then the session starts under the usual circumstances and like in Ghana.”

Mansa Kankan Musa, Illustration by Angus McBride
Mansa Kanku Musa, Illustration by Angus McBride

By: Lisapo ya Kama

Translated from French to English by Lisapo ya Kama

Source: L’Afrique noire précoloniale (Pre-colonial Black Africa), Cheikh Anta Diop, pages 84 and 85.

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