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One of the greatest African rulers of all time, Mansa Musa (1280–1337) led the Mali Empire at the height of its power and creativity.

He directly controlled the price of gold, and he has been comfortably described as the richest person in human history.

An emperor with an accumulation of wealth often described as “unimaginable” or “incalculable,” his fortune was conservatively estimated to be the modern day equivalent of $400 billion, according to USA Today.

Musa I of Mali was “richer than anyone could describe,” reported Time’s Jacob Davidson: “There’s really no way to put an accurate number on his wealth.”

While the exact figures are so enormous it’s difficult to comprehend, so too is a large part of the Mansa Musa story which remains clouded in mystery.

Musa ruled the Mali Empire beginning in 1312, at a time when gold and salt resources helped the empire expand and flourish.

Musa and the empire owned almost half of the Old World’s gold, BBC reports. Musa is largely credited for funding and encouraging literature, education, architecture and the arts. 

He first caught the world’s attention, and continues to be famous today, for his epic hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, in 1324.

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Mansa Musa: pilgrimage to Mecca

Musa made the pilgrimage of an estimated 4,000 miles (6437.38 km) with a caravan including tens of thousands of soldiers, heralds, civilians, and slaves carrying mass amounts of gold.

His 500 heralds were draped in Persian silk and carried golden staffs. Camels and horses accompanied the people, carrying hundreds of pounds of gold bars.

University of Michigan associate history professor Rudolph Ware explained in Time: “Imagine as much gold as you think a human being could possess and double it, that’s what all the accounts are trying to communicate,” he said. “This is the richest guy anyone has ever seen.”

Accompanied by thousands of richly dressed servants and supporters, Musa made generous donations to the poor and to charitable organizations as well as the rulers of the lands his entourage crossed.

He left behind gifts of gold as he crossed through Egypt, a gift generous in thought but not in actuality.

On his stop in Cairo, Egypt, the Emperor gave out so much gold that he generated a brief decline in its value. Cairo’s gold market recovered over a decade later.

According to BlackPast, upon his return from Mecca, Mansa Musa brought Arab scholars, government bureaucrats, and architects.

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Among those who returned with him was the architect Ishaq El Teudjin, who introduced advanced building techniques to Mali.

He designed numerous buildings for the Emperor, including a new palace named Madagou, the mosque at Gao, the second largest city in Mali, and the still-standing great mosque at Timbuktu, the largest city in the empire.

That mosque was named the Djinguereber.

The Djinguereber mosque at the end of Friday midday prayers. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

El Teudjin’s most famous design was the Emperor’s chamber at the Malian capital of Niani.

Tales of his enormous convoy and generosity continued to be passed on long after his death. Mansa Musa passed in 1337 during his return trip from Mecca. While the cause is unknown, it is speculated that he may have contracted an illness while on the epic journey.

Hailing from Charlotte North Carolina, born litterateur Ezekiel J. Walker earned a B.A. in Psychology at Winston Salem State University. Walker later published his first creative nonfiction book and has...