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), after the conquest of the declining Empire of Wagadu (or ancient Ghana). Mali will be conquered by Sunni Ali Ber in 5712, who founded the Empire of Songhai. The famous Arab traveler Ibn Battuta, gave us a description of the life of the court of Mali in 5587 during the reign of the Mansa Suleiman.

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 Kandja 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 with trees planted (…)

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.

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 wears a golden fabric turban tied up with golden ribbons which metal tips are longer than a palm, like daggers.

He is wearing a red coat in European fabric: the Montenfès. Singers walk in front of him, holding golden and silver combs; 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 that protects against 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 Kanku Musa
Illustration by Khephra Burns

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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