Great African Empires: The Mali and Mutapa Empires

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By Kamila Yusuf.

The ideas of colonization, slavery, and exploitation often dominate conversations on African history. These themes tend to define the African continent because of the way Africa is portrayed in both academia and mainstream media.

But there is much more to Africa than meets the eye, and its rich and diverse history before the ‘Scramble for Africa’ is a testament to that. From the Nubian Dynasty, the Oyo Empire, and the Solomonic Dynasty to the Kingdom of Ghana and the Empire of Kongo, African empires have painted African history with an exciting brush. This article will only focus on two lesser-known but incredibly significant empires: 14th century Empire of Mali and the Mutapa Empire.

So, join me on a journey through time as I discuss two of some of the greatest African empires of all time.

Mali Empire

The Empire of Mali is one of the most significant but greatly neglected empires of African history. At it’s height, the Mali Empire covered an area larger than Western Europe, including parts of what is now Mali, Niger, Senegal and The Gambia. Sundiata Keita founded it in the early thirteenth century, but the Empire only reached fame and financial prosperity when Emperor Mansa Kankan Musa I came to power several decades later.

According to Time Magazine, Mansa Musa is thought to be the wealthiest man in human history. It was during his rule, from 1312 to 1337, that the Empire of Mali was the largest producer of gold in the world. He was actually so rich that there’s no accurate way to properly describe his net worth. In other words, he was so rich that people couldn’t even imagine how far his coin could go!

Other than enjoying his extreme wealth, Mansa Musa was a devout Muslim who enjoyed giving back (or one could say, showing off). And it was in 1337, when Mansa Musa went on Hajj (the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca) that rumors of the Malian Empire’s wealth spread to Europe and the Islamic world. Europe started paying more attention to Western Africa, with its eyes on the immense amount of gold located there. On his way to Mecca, Mansa brought with him 100 camel-loads of gold, and allegedly travelled with an entourage of more than 60,000 soldiers, civilians and slaves! When he stopped in Alexandria, Egypt, he spent so much money building mosques, houses, and donating to the poor that he caused runaway inflation that took the city years to recover from.

Can you imagine ruining a city’s economy because you spent too much money… during a stopover visit?

But one of the most important historical impacts that Mansa Musa had on the Malian Empire was his interest in making Timbuktu a cultural hub for Islamic studies. He welcomed Islamic scholars and students from all over the world to learn and practice Islam at Sankore University. The construction of this university was authorized by Mansa Musa and is now a UNSECO Cultural Heritage Site. Although the architecture of the mosques and Sankore University are incredible, unfortunately due to the current conflict in Mali, the UNESCO Heritage sites in Mali are also in danger.

Mutapa Empire/Great Zimbabwe

The Mutapa Empire is known for its avant-garde technological advancements in sub-Saharan Africa, its wealth (though not nearly as wealthy as Mansa Musa) and its political power.

This Empire, however, owes a lot of its success to its predecessor, the Shona-speaking peoples of Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe had flourishing societies between the 11th and 14th centuries. Much of the technological advancement of the Mutapa Empire would not have been possible without the foundation of the remarkable stone palaces. These stone structures were 300 feet long, 220 feet wide and 30 feet high. A lot of thought, skill and creativity went into constructing these walls. Some of these structures have survived after centuries in the Great Zimbabwe and are now an UNESCO Cultural Heritage site!

It was in the late 15th century that Nyatsimba Mutota, a Shona warrior prince, created the Mutapa Empire. The ruler was known as “Mwene Mutapa,” which meant “the Great Lord of Mutapa” to his loyal subjects and “the great pillager” to those he conquered and exploited. The Mutapa Empire was largely made up of southern Africa, with the height of the empire eventually stretching from modern-day South Africa and Lesotho, to Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique.

The Mutapa Empire practiced traditional ancestral deistic worship, so the Lords of Mutapa had the divine right to rule and were specifically selected by the creator to do so.

The Mutapa Empire’s legacy, however, would be the extremely effective trade system. They became involved in the Indian Ocean trade network, which connected them to India, Indonesia, and China. They encouraged export trade of gold, ivory, copper, and salt. Foreign trade ultimately strengthened the elites of the empire as they had a stronghold over all economic activity. The Lord of Mutapa had ownership of all the goldmines throughout the empire, and used the death penalty to punish those who revealed their locations.


Although this is only two of Africa’s greatest empires, Africa has its own long history of both prosperity, and hardship. Understanding and preserving African history creates a unity amongst Africans based not on our shared burden of neo-imperialism, but on identity and culture.

Nonetheless, whether it’s the ridiculously affluent Mali Empire, or the trade-efficient Mutapa Empire, these empires have certainly left their mark on African history.