Mansa Musa inherited the throne of the Mali Empire between 1307 and 1312 (Mansa means “sultan” or “emperor” in the Mandinka language) and cemented the empire’s position at the center of a vast medieval trade network that connected Asia, the Middle East and Europe via Africa by annexing 24 cities. A percentage of all the gold mined in the empire was sent as tribute to the king. Some sources say it was as much as 1 to 1.

An elaborate 14th-century map called the Catalan Atlas features a prominent illustration of Mansa Musa seated on a plush throne, crowned in gold, holding a scepter in one hand and a large golden orb in the other.

“This Moorish ruler is named Musse Melly [Mansa Musa]lord of the negroes of Guinea,” reads the map’s description. “This king is the richest and most distinguished ruler of this whole region on account of the great quantity of gold that is found in his lands.”

The 14th-century Arab historian Al-‘Umari provides a secondhand account of Mansa Musa’s opulent throne room, supposedly dripping in gold.

“[The king of Mali] has with him his arms, which are all of gold — sword, javelin, quiver, bow and arrows,” wrote Al-‘Umariwho then described the members of the Malian royal court. “Their brave cavaliers wear golden bracelets. Those whose knightly valor is greater wear gold necklets also. If it is greater still they add gold anklets.”

Historians warn that we should take these ancient accounts with a grain of salt, since they are often biased and almost certainly exaggerated, but they also carry elements of truth.

Kathleen Bickford Berzock is the associate director of curatorial affairs at Northwestern University’s Block Museum, where she curated a stunning exhibit about the trans-Saharan trade network that made Mansa Musa so fabulously rich. She says that the “broad strokes” of the stories surrounding Mansa Musa are factual even if the details were embellished over time.

“Certainly Mansa Musa and other rulers from these West African kingdoms had access to huge amounts of wealth, and the gold itself was considered the purest, most valuable gold of its day,” says Berzock. “Whether he was the richest man in the history of the world, I don’t know.”

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