Although the reign of the Soso was short-lived, their momentary dominance set the stage for the emergence of a greater empire whose struggle is still commemorated in thriving oral traditions. In the early thirteenth century, the exiled prince Sundiata Keita (“the hungering lion”) led a Mande revolt against the powerful Soso king Sumanguru Kante that marked the ascension of the Mali empire. Both a real historical personage and a cultural hero, Sundiata’s rise to power is still celebrated in the Mande-speaking world by jalis (often translated as “griots”). Individuals who inherited and acquired special knowledge about history, genealogies, and music, jalis have historically performed a variety of social and political roles and continue to do so today. Their praise songs, now aired over television and radio in addition to live performance, are an important component of contemporary weddings and religious and national holidays.
After Sundiata, the most famous ruler of the Mali empire is Mansa Kankan Musa I, who came to power several decades after the death of his legendary predecessor. Musa was not the first emperor of Mali to embrace Islam; unlike the Soninke and the Soso, Mande royalty adopted the religion relatively early. However, Musa’s hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) of 1324–25 drew the attention of both the Islamic world and Europeans, who were unprepared for the lavish wealth and generosity that the Malian king displayed during his stopover in Egypt. Accompanied by an enormous entourage, Musa apparently dispensed so much gold in Cairo that the precious metal’s value plummeted and did not recover for several years thereafter. The Mali empire, previously little known beyond the western Sudan, now became legendary in the Islamic world and Europe. The image of Mansa Musa bearing nuggets of gold was subsequently commemorated in maps of the African continent (Bibliothèque Nationale de France).
The fourteenth-century traveler Ibn Battuta visited ancient Mali a few decades after Musa’s death and was much impressed by the peace and lawfulness he found strictly enforced there. The Mali empire extended over an area larger than western Europe and consisted of numerous vassal kingdoms and provinces. Following Mansa Musa’s death, Mali went into a long decline, shrinking to the size of its original territory by 1645.