Mansa Musa journeyed to the holy city of Mecca in 1324.

Illustration by Niklas Asker

Mansa Musa: The 400-Billion-Dollar Man

The early African emperor Mansa Musa turned his stash of gold into one of the world’s richest empires. So why haven’t you heard of him?

Think of some of the richest people alive today: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, the Queen of England. Believe it or not, all of those big shots’ bank accounts wouldn’t have come close to matching the wealth of African emperor Mansa Musa. The 14th-century ruler still tops many lists as the richest person of all time.

Musa ruled as mansa, or king, of the West African empire of Mali from 1312 to 1337, controlling about 80 percent of the world’s gold. His net worth would have topped $400 billion in today’s dollars (see “The Richest People in History,” below).

Musa’s claim to fame extended far beyond money, however. The emperor was a skilled leader who transformed Mali into one of the largest empires in African history.

Original accounts about Musa and his reign still exist. And lately, many people have drawn parallels between Musa and T’Challa, the wealthy king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda in the movie Black Panther. So why haven’t more people heard of Musa, nicknamed the “Lion of Mali”?

Mainly because he lived hundreds of years ago. Many world history classes don’t discuss events that happened before 1450—especially those in Africa.

Musa’s kingdom, says Richard Smith, an expert on ancient Mali at Ferrum College in Virginia, is a symbol “of once-powerful states in the interior of Africa that were often overlooked by historians until very recent times.”

Think of some of the richest people alive today. Who’s on your list? You’ve probably included Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, and the Queen of England. Yes, they’re all big shots. But, believe it or not, their bank accounts wouldn’t have come close to matching the wealth of African emperor Mansa Musa. That 14th-century ruler still tops many lists as the richest person of all time.

Musa was mansa, or king, of the West African empire of Mali. He ruled from 1312 to 1337. During his reign, he controlled about 80 percent of the world’s gold. His net worth would have topped $400 billion in today’s dollars (see “The Richest People in History,” below).

But Musa’s claim to fame went far beyond money. The emperor was a skilled leader. Under his leadership, Mali became one of the largest empires in African history.

Original accounts about Musa and his reign still exist. And lately, many people have drawn parallels between Musa and T’Challa, the wealthy king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda in the movie Black Panther. So why haven’t more people heard of Musa, nicknamed the “Lion of Mali”?

Mainly because he lived hundreds of years ago. Many world history classes don’t discuss events that happened before 1450. And those that happened centuries ago in Africa might get talked about even less.

Musa’s kingdom, says Richard Smith, an expert on ancient Mali at Ferrum College in Virginia, is a symbol “of once-powerful states in the interior of Africa that were often overlooked by historians until very recent times.”

Jim McMahon

A Skilled Leader

How did Musa get so rich? He was in the right place at the right time, for starters. Mali had an ideal location on the upper Niger River in West Africa. The fertile soil produced abundant crops, and the area teemed with natural resources, including salt and gold.  

Salt was a hot commodity in the ancient world. It could be used to preserve meat and other foods, which was especially important since refrigerators weren’t invented for another 500-plus years. Mali had easy access to the Sahara Desert’s huge salt deposits.

As for gold, “the upper reaches of the Niger River produced more gold in the 14th century than anywhere else,” says Smith. (Gold, which was used as currency and was a status symbol, hadn’t yet been mined in most places, making the metal even more valuable.)

Mali was the second of three great West African medieval empires, coming after the Kingdom of Ghana and before the Songhai Empire. Mali became West Africa’s most powerful state in the 1200s, under the leadership of Sundiata, the first great mansa.

A century later, Musa took Mali to the next level by seizing control of gold-producing regions, reconquering areas of the kingdom that had broken away, and monopolizing important trade routes. The conquests of Timbuktu and other major cities along trade routes in the Sahara were doubly beneficial to Musa: Merchants paid him taxes, and conquered kings gave him gifts of gold and other valuables.

How did Musa get so rich? He was in the right place at the right time, for starters. Mali had an ideal location on the upper Niger River in West Africa. The fertile soil produced a lot of crops. The area was also full of resources, including salt and gold.

Salt was in high demand in the ancient world. It could be used to preserve meat and other foods. That was especially important since refrigerators weren’t invented for another 500-plus years. Mali had easy access to the Sahara Desert’s huge salt deposits. 

As for gold, “the upper reaches of the Niger River produced more gold in the 14th century than anywhere else,” says Smith. Gold was used as currency and was a status symbol. It still hadn’t been mined in most places, making the metal even more valuable.

Mali was the second of three great West African medieval empires. It came after the Kingdom of Ghana and before the Songhai Empire. Mali became West Africa’s most powerful state in the 1200s, under the leadership of Sundiata. He was the empire’s first great mansa.

A century later, Musa took Mali to the next level. He did so by gaining control of gold-producing regions and reconquering areas of the kingdom that had broken away. He also controlled important trade routes. The conquests of Timbuktu and other major cities along trade routes in the Sahara were also beneficial to Musa. Merchants paid him taxes, and conquered kings gave him gifts of gold and other valuables.

Musa’s claim to fame extended far beyond money.

By the time Musa’s reign ended, the Mali Empire covered about 440,000 square miles of West Africa, including all or part of what are now nine modern-day countries, from Senegal in the west to Niger in the east (see map). Musa once boasted that it would take a year to travel from one end of his kingdom to the other.  

Musa ruled over 40 million people in his empire and managed to maintain peace during his 25-year reign. He devoted large amounts of time and money to building schools and mosques, both of which benefited his citizens. He was also known for his generosity, handing out millions of dollars’ worth of gold.

Those habits were likely the secret to his great success, says David Tschanz, a historian who has written about Musa.

“If you have a good economy and everybody’s happy,” he says, “nobody gets upset with you.”

By the time Musa’s reign ended, the Mali Empire covered about 440,000 square miles of West Africa. It spanned all or part of what are now nine modern-day countries, from Senegal in the west to Niger in the east (see map). Musa once boasted that it would take a year to travel from one end of his kingdom to the other.

Musa ruled over 40 million people in his empire. He still managed to maintain peace during his 25-year reign. He devoted large amounts of time and money to building schools and mosques. These benefited his citizens. He was also known for his generosity. He handed out millions of dollars’ worth of gold. 

Those habits were likely the secret to his great success, says David Tschanz, a historian who has written about Musa.

“If you have a good economy and everybody’s happy,” he says, “nobody gets upset with you.”

Gary Cook/Alamy Stock Photo

Djinguereber Mosque, which Mansa Musa commissioned in Timbuktu in 1327, still stands today.

An International Celebrity

The world outside Musa’s kingdom got a glimpse of the emperor’s vast riches in 1324, when he went on a trip so extravagant that it wowed people throughout Europe and the Middle East.

Musa’s journey was a 4,000-mile hajj—the traditional Muslim pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. In true centibillionaire fashion, he didn’t go it alone. He traveled with more than 60,000 people, including 12,000 slaves, in a caravan that stretched as far as the eye could see.

Also along for the ride: a mind-boggling amount of gold. About 80 camels carried roughly 300 pounds of gold each, and Musa’s slaves lugged another 24 tons of the precious metal. 

“It was more money than anybody had ever seen anybody ever bring with them,” Tschanz says.

Musa and his entourage crossed the Sahara Desert, stopping for a few months in Cairo, Egypt, where he spent a lot of time shopping at Cairo’s world-famous markets. He also handed out gold to Egypt’s poor and sick—and to just about everyone else he encountered. Historians estimate that the gold he gave away during his hajj alone would be worth more than $100 million today. 

Musa reportedly pumped so much gold into Cairo’s economy that the precious metal decreased in value. It took more than 12 years for gold’s value to bounce back. Says Tschanz: “It was the only time in history that one man controlled the world’s gold market.”

The world outside Musa’s kingdom got a glimpse of the emperor’s vast riches in 1324. That year, he went on a trip so extravagant that it wowed people throughout Europe and the Middle East.

Musa’s journey was a 4,000-mile hajj. That’s the traditional Muslim pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. In true centibillionaire fashion, he didn’t go it alone. He traveled with more than 60,000 people, including 12,000 slaves. His caravan stretched as far as the eye could see.

Also along for the ride was a mind-boggling amount of gold. About 80 camels carried roughly 300 pounds of gold each. Musa’s slaves lugged another 24 tons of the precious metal. 

“It was more money than anybody had ever seen anybody ever bring with them,” Tschanz says.

Musa and his entourage crossed the Sahara Desert. They stopped for a few months in Cairo, Egypt. During their stay, Musa spent a lot of time shopping at Cairo’s world-famous markets. He handed out gold to Egypt’s poor and sick. He also gave some to just about everyone else he met. Historians estimate that the gold he gave away during his hajj alone would be worth more than $100 million today. 

Musa reportedly pumped so much gold into Cairo’s economy that the precious metal decreased in value. It took more than 12 years for gold’s value to bounce back. Says Tschanz: “It was the only time in history that one man controlled the world’s gold market.”

‘Mali began to appear on European maps as a land of gold.’

Tales of Musa’s incredible wealth and charity quickly spread to North Africa, Europe, and the Arab world through traders and travelers he encountered during his journey. Musa had good reason to show off his fortune.

“The lavish display of wealth was designed to advertise his kingdom as a trade destination, and to a large extent, it worked,” Smith says. “Henceforth, Mali began to appear on European maps as a land of gold.” 

Indeed, after Musa’s hajj, he and his empire were included in the 1375 Catalan Atlas, the most important world map in medieval Europe.

Tales of Musa’s incredible wealth and charity quickly spread to North Africa, Europe, and the Arab world. Traders and travelers he came across during his trip helped pass the stories along. Musa had good reason to show off his fortune.

“The lavish display of wealth was designed to advertise his kingdom as a trade destination, and to a large extent, it worked,” Smith says. “Henceforth, Mali began to appear on European maps as a land of gold.” 

Indeed, after Musa’s hajj, he and his empire were included in the 1375 Catalan Atlas. This atlas was the most important world map in medieval Europe.

Spreading Islam

As evidenced by his hajj, Musa took his Islamic faith very seriously, making it the official state religion. Fridays are holy days for Muslims, and every Friday during his hajj, Musa reportedly ordered that a mosque be constructed wherever he happened to be.

After the trip, he devoted himself to turning Timbuktu into a center for Muslim learning and culture. He brought Islamic architects and artists to the city and also built a major college, Sankore University, with a library collection that dwarfed those of European libraries at the time. (Invaders destroyed the school a few centuries later.)

Musa wanted his people to learn to read and write Arabic so they could understand the Koran, the Muslim holy book. To that end, he oversaw the construction of schools and mosques to promote the study of Islam. One of Musa’s mud-brick-and-wood structures, Djinguereber Mosque, could hold 2,000 people. It still stands in Timbuktu today.

Musa’s hajj shows that he took his Islamic faith very seriously. In fact, he made it Mali’s official state religion. Fridays are holy days for Muslims. Every Friday during his hajj, Musa reportedly ordered that a mosque be built wherever he happened to be.

After the trip, he devoted himself to turning Timbuktu into a center for Muslim learning and culture. He brought Islamic architects and artists to the city. He also built a major college, Sankore University. The college’s library collection dwarfed those of European libraries at the time. Invaders destroyed the school a few centuries later.

Musa wanted his people to learn to read and write Arabic. It was his desire for them to have the ability to understand the Koran, the Muslim holy book. That’s why he oversaw the construction of schools and mosques to promote the study of Islam. One of Musa’s mud-brick-and-wood structures, Djinguereber Mosque, could hold 2,000 people. It still stands in Timbuktu today.

‘An Economic Decline’

When it comes to wealth, it’s not even a contest between today’s billionaires and Musa. Jeff Bezos, currently the world’s richest person, had a net worth of $139 billion in January. Bill Gates was second with about $96 billion. Musa’s net worth was more than four times Gates’—an amount unfathomable to most people.

“Imagine as much gold as you think a human being could possess and double it,” Rudolph Ware, a history professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara told Time. “This is the richest guy anyone has ever seen.”

So what happened to Musa and the kingdom of Mali? Musa died around 1337, at about age 55. His empire lived on for only 100 or so more years, partly because Musa’s successors didn’t share his talent for leadership. Outsiders conquered Gao, one of the empire’s most important trading hubs, around 1365.

The rest of the kingdom started crumbling in the 1400s, with Timbuktu falling to invaders. By 1500, almost all of Musa’s empire, along with his gold and riches, had disappeared, and Mali hasn’t been the same since (see “Mali Today”).

“This part of West Africa went into an economic decline,” says Smith, “from which it never fully recovered.”

When it comes to wealth, it’s not even a contest between today’s billionaires and Musa. Jeff Bezos is currently the world’s richest person. He had a net worth of $139 billion in January. Bill Gates was second with about $96 billion. Musa’s net worth was more than four times Gates’s. That’s an amount unfathomable to most people.

“Imagine as much gold as you think a human being could possess and double it,” Rudolph Ware, a history professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara told Time. “This is the richest guy anyone has ever seen.”

So what happened to Musa and the kingdom of Mali? Musa died around 1337. He was about 55 years old. His empire lived on for only 100 or so more years. That’s partly because Musa’s successors didn’t share his talent for leadership. Outsiders conquered Gao, one of the empire’s most important trading hubs, around 1365. 

The rest of the kingdom started crumbling in the 1400s, with Timbuktu falling to invaders. By 1500, almost all of Musa’s empire had disappeared, along with his gold and riches. Mali hasn’t been the same since (see “Mali Today”).

“This part of West Africa went into an economic decline,” says Smith, “from which it never fully recovered.”

Mali Today

A look at how Mali has changed since Mansa Musa’s reign

DeAgostini/Getty Images

Women in Mali pound an ancient grain called millet.

Islam is still the dominant religion in Mali, but that may be the only aspect Mansa Musa would recognize about the country today. The peace Mali enjoyed under Musa is a thing of the past. For a few centuries, other African empires ruled Mali. In 1898, during the period of European colonization of Africa, France seized control of the area. Mali gained its independence in 1960 but has since suffered droughts, rebellions, and a military dictatorship.  

As for all those riches, the area’s gold deposits were mostly used up before the 19th century. Today, about half of Mali’s 19.4 million people live in poverty, and only about one-third can read. Although Mali has a democratically elected president, the nation has become a breeding ground for terrorism. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (also called ISIS) remain active there, and Mali is plagued by violence and political instability.

Islam is still the dominant religion in Mali, but that may be the only aspect Mansa Musa would recognize about the country today. The peace Mali enjoyed under Musa is a thing of the past. For a few centuries, other African empires ruled Mali. In 1898, during the period of European colonization of Africa, France seized control of the area. Mali gained its independence in 1960 but has since suffered droughts, rebellions, and a military dictatorship. 

As for all those riches, the area’s gold deposits were mostly used up before the 19th century. Today, about half of Mali’s 19.4 million people live in poverty, and only about one-third can read. Although Mali has a democratically elected president, the nation has become a breeding ground for terrorism. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (also called ISIS) remain active there, and Mali is plagued by violence and political instability.

The Richest People in History

The top moneymakers of all time after adjusting for inflation

$400 Billion

CPA Media - Pictures from History/The Granger Collection

1. Mansa Musa, Emperor of Mali, (c. 1280—c. 1337)

1. Mansa Musa, Emperor of Mali, (c. 1280—c. 1337)

$350 Billion

David M. Benett/Getty Images for The Serpentine Gallery (Nathaniel Rothschild); Niki Nikolova/FilmMagic (Jacob Rothschild)

2. Rothschild Family, Bankers (above, Nathaniel & Jacob), (1744—today)

2. Rothschild Family, Bankers (above, Nathaniel & Jacob), (1744—today)

$340 Billion

The Granger Collection, New York

3. John D. Rockefeller, American oil tycoon, (1839—1937)

3. John D. Rockefeller, American oil tycoon, (1839—1937)

$310 Billion

The Granger Collection, New York

4. Andrew Carnegie, Steel businessman, (1835—1919)

4. Andrew Carnegie, Steel businessman, (1835—1919)

$300 Billion

Xavier ROSSI/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

5. Tsar Nicholas II, Russian ruler, (1868—1918)

5. Tsar Nicholas II, Russian ruler, (1868—1918)

$230 Billion

CPA Media - Pictures from History/The Granger Collection