New Exhibition Highlights Story of the Richest Man Who Ever Lived

Read about Mansa Musa, emperor of Mali, who once disrupted Egypt’s economy just by passing through

Mansa Musa
Mansa Musa as seen in the Catalan Atlas. Bibliothèque Nationale de France

The title of richest person on Earth seems to ping-pong between tech titans every few years. But for all their wealth, Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates won’t come close to being the richest human of all time—that would mean besting people like Augustus Caesar who personally owned all of Egypt for a period or Song Dynasty Emperor Shenzong, whose domain at one point accounted for 25 to 30 percent of global GDP. But the wealthiest of them all is believed to be Mansa Musa, the ruler of the Mali Empire.

If you aren’t familiar with the name, a new exhibition opening at Northwestern University’s Block Museum is exploring Musa’s legacy as part of a new exhibition called “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa.” As Stephanie Pappas at LiveScience reports, the show details the impact of Saharan trade routes throughout the medieval world, and illustrates how—contrary to the view of West Africa propagated during and after the slave trade—West Africa and the Sahara were home to strong, vibrant, wealthy and artistic cultures during that time.

“The legacy of medieval trans-Saharan exchange has largely been omitted from Western historical narratives and art histories, and certainly from the way that Africa is presented in art museums,” Kathleen Bickford Berzock, associate director of curatorial affairs at the Block, says in a press release.

“Caravans of Gold,” which has been eight years in the making, pushes back against misconceptions, and demonstrates Africa’s “pivotal role” in world history through 250 artworks and fragments from West African nations, including Mali, Morocco and Niger.

One of these items is a reproduction of the Catalan Atlas, produced on the island of Majorca around 1375, which includes pages depicting the vast trade routes near and through the Sahara. At the center of it is an illustration of Mansa Musa.

The 14th-century king, as Thad Morgan details for, took power at a time when the Mali Empire was already a source of much of the natural resources, such as gold and salt, used by Europe, Africa and the Middle East. But under Musa’s rule, the empire’s territory, influence and wealth increased even more. Eventually, under his rule, the Mali Empire enveloped present-day Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Mauritania.

Despite his vast wealth, the wider world did not know much about Musa until the devout Muslim pilgrimaged to Mecca in 1324. He didn’t exactly travel lightly; for The Chicago Tribune, Steve Johnson reports that in the introduction to “Caravans of Gold,” it details that Musa took "8,000 courtiers, 12,000 slaves, and 100 camels each carrying 300 pounds of gold” with him on the journey.

When Musa passed through Egypt, so much gold flowed, according to Morgan that it actually devalued the metal and led to a currency crisis that took Egypt 12 years to dig itself out of.

There’s probably no accurate way to estimate just how rich Musa was in modern terms. In 2015, the late Richard Ware of Ferrum College in Virginia told Jacob Davidson at Money that people had trouble even describing Musa’s wealth. “This is the richest guy anyone has ever seen, that’s the point,” Ware said. “They’re trying to find words to explain that. There are pictures of him holding a scepter of gold on a throne of gold holding a cup of gold with a golden crown on his head. 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.”

And gold was what made West Africa indispensable to the rest of the world during the Middle Ages. Berzock tells Johnson she wants the Block exhibition to demonstrate “Africa’s role as a kind of fulcrum in that interconnectedness.”

“It’s because of the gold resources and the importance of gold in economies of that period of time,” she continues, “That is the impetus for this trade to really expand. But along with that comes a lot of other things: People move and ideas move and other types of materials move. And what the exhibition does is it traces all of those things, and you begin to see how these networks really extend across a very vast area.”

The story of Musa—and that fact that many people outside West Africa have never heard of him—shows just how much the history of the region and its artifacts have been buried over time. “Why didn't we understand,” Lisa Graziose Corrin, director of the Block Museum asks, “how important Africa was to that period where, you know, the greatest and purest gold reserves in the world sat in Mali and in the hands of the emperor of Mali?”

The exhibition continues at the Block until July 21 before moving to Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum in September and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in April 2020.

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