Episode 61 – Mansa Musa I versus Hammurabi

Today, we find ourselves in the Leaders bracket, where our first contestant has been considered by many to have been the richest man who ever lived, African ruler of the Mali Empire, Mansa Musa I. His opponent, one of the earliest contestants in any bracket, the man who bought us the first codified laws which we learned about in episode 53, Hammurabi.

My primary source for Mansa Musa is The History of the Renaissance World: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Conquest of Constantinople by Susan Wise Bauer and Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization by Paul Kriwaczek.

Mansa Musa
Mansa Musa

Before I get into the life and times of Mansa Musa I, I am going to apologize as this will likely be the shortest episode I’ve produced for Battle Ground History. The cause is the lack of real in-depth information about these two men. One is because of how long ago, almost 4,000 years, that Hammurabi lived and with Musa, we just don’t have a lot of written text about him aside from his great journey of 1324.

Musa Keita was born in 1280 in the Empire of Mali. His father Faga Laye, part of the Keita dynasty. Legend has it that their ancestor, Bilali Bounama, was a Sahabah or companion of the prophet Muhammed. Sundiata Keita, was the founder of the Mali Empire in 1235, and Musa was a descendant of his. The Keita dynasty was to last until the collapse of the empire in 1610.

Succession in the Mali Empire wasn’t necessarily handed down from father to son. If the ruler was to leave the capital, say to fight a war, or go off on an adventure, the king was known as the Mansa, would hand the throne over to someone in the family that they trusted for safekeeping. This is how Musa became Mansa Musa. A mission was put together with 200 ships to sail westward from the coast of Mali on the Atlantic Ocean. Only one ship returned with the captain claiming that the other boats had been caught up in a strong current, one we know today as the North Equatorial Current, which runs from off the coast of Africa to the Caribbean Sea. Mansa Abubakari II decided that he would head a much larger mission, this time with 2,000 ships. As Mansa Musa was to say, “That was the last we save of him, and all those who were with him, and so I became king in my own right.” There is a distinct possibility that Abubakari actually made it, or parts of his entourage arrived in the Caribbean, some 180 years before Columbus, but we have no evidence of this occurring. Something to think about.

The year is 1312, and Mansa Musa was now the ruler of one of the wealthiest countries in the world at the time. He was a very devout and pious Muslim, and Musa wanted not to go west like his uncle, but east towards the holy city of Mecca. This was an equally harrowing journey to undertake as he had to travel through the heart of the Sahara Desert into Cairo then down through Medina. The pilgrimage or Hajj to Mecca is a mandatory religious duty for Muslims that must be carried out at least once in their lifetime by all adult Muslims who are physically and financially capable of undertaking the journey and can support their family during their absence.

According to several sources I’ve come across during my research of Mansa Musa, it has been said that his personal wealth was the greatest in world history, with many saying he was worth the equivalent of 400 billion dollars in today’s money. This would lay the groundwork for the most extravagant road trip in history.

It took twelve years for Mansa Musa to put together a plan to make his pilgrimage a reality. The caravan that was put together to take Musa on this journey was the stuff legends are made of. It is said that there were 60,000 men with 12,000 slaves, with each slave carrying a gold ingot that weighed 4 pounds or 1.8 kilograms. That translates to over 48,000 pounds or 21,600 kilograms of gold. But wait, there is more. There were 80 camels as well carrying between 50–300 pounds or 23–136 kilograms of gold dust. Along the trail, Mansa Musa would hand out gold to travelers he met along the way as well as to town officials.

When he arrived in Cairo, he befriended Ibn Amir Hajib, the governor of the city. According to 14th-century historian al-Umari, “Musa told him that his country was very extensive and contiguous with the ocean. By his sword and his armies, he had conquered 24 cities, each with its surrounding district with villages and estates.” This is where he gained all of his gold.

From Susan Wise Bauer’s book The History of the Renaissance World we have this, “Whatever Mansa Musa told him, the governor came away from the conversation convinced that the gold in Africa grew in the ground, on gold plants, with roots of gold, that simply needed to be pulled up and shaken. He could perhaps be forgiven for the mistake since the Mali contingent’s behavior gave the impression that gold was as common as goat’s milk in the Niger valley.

Now you would think that passing out gold like this would be beneficial to the local economies, but you would be wrong. Mansa Musa handed out so much gold that it caused the value of the metal to drop by over 25% and depressed the financial systems for decades. Another problem arose in that he spent almost all of his gold by the time he made it to Mecca. To fund his trip back to Mali, Musa had to borrow money from the lenders of Cairo at an exorbitant interest rate of 233 percent. 

The four-year journey was to make Mali an international sensation, especially in Europe. Many an emissary from European governments arrived in the country seeking trade agreements and of course, some gold. When Mansa Musa died in 1337, after ruling his country for the better part of 25 years, he left it in a precarious position. His son Maghan ruled competently for four years before dying himself. Unfortunately, his uncle, Musa’s brother Sulayman became Mansa. His 24-year rule was a brutal one and left the country in factions who vied for power when he died in 1359. 

Europe had gone on notice that Mali was a wealthy country for more than gold because of Mansa Musa, it would become a focal point of the slave trade that would consume millions of Africans until the 1800s.


We now turn way back in time to 1810 BCE, the birth year of the sixth king of the First Babylonian dynasty, the member of the Amorite tribe, Hammurabi. We first met him in episode 53 in the battle between the development of the atomic bomb versus the Code of Hammurabi.

Nothing is really known about his early life, but we do know that his father, Sin-Muballit, had begun to consolidate power around the city of Babylon before abdicating his throne in 1792 BCE due to poor health. Hammurabi took the reigns of what was at the time, a minor power in Mesopotamia. The other city-states like Elam, Larsa, Eshnunna, and Mari were all competing for the top spot within the region, all of whom Hammurabi would conquer and subjugate. 

In researching the man, I came across an interesting finding from 4,000 years ago. In the 1930’s French archeologist Andre Parrot along with his team, discovered 23,000 tablets from the era that helps us understand what the world was like during the time of Hammurabi. The king had the palace of the Mari ruler Zimri-Lim burned to the ground and leveled. What they didn’t realize is that the fire helped preserve the clay tablets.

Investiture of Zimri-Lim
Investiture of Zimri-Lim

As Paul Kriwaczek shares with us from his book Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization, the following, “What is particularly striking, over and above the details of political machinations and ever-shifting alliances among the strongmen, warlords and mafia bosses who now dominated Mesopotamia, is that in their letters, you actually hear them talk. They do not couch their correspondence in some formal mode of expression but shoot from the hip and speak from the heart. These are authentic ancestral voices, and mostly they prophesy war.”

Here is an example of that from one of the tablets discovered in the 1930s, “This matter is not for discussion, yet I must say it now and vent my feelings. You are a great king. When you requested of me two horses, I had them conveyed to you. But as for you, you sent me just twenty pounds of tin. 

Undoubtedly, you could not be honorable with me when you sent this paltry amount of tin. By the god of my father, had you planned sending nothing at all, I might have gotten angry, but not felt insulted. 

Among us in Qatna, the value of such horses is ten pounds of silver. But you sent me just twenty pounds of tin. What would anyone hearing this say? He could not possibly deem us of equal might.”

As Kriwaczek writes, “In other words, ‘Show me some respect, man!’”

Code of Hammurabi's stele
Code of Hammurabi’s stele

We know that Hammurabi was to have put down a set of rules by which his lands were to be governed, known as the Code of Hammurabi. What I didn’t mention is what this famous king was to do during his reign. Hammurabi would make Babylon the dominant city, ruling the southern region of Mesopotamia with Ashur, controlling the north.

What Hammurabi created with his laws and consolidation was a new economic system that would bring with it something unique and would carry on to this day, the idea of debt. You could borrow money from someone, have it memorialized on clay, and be forced to pay back that loan with set interest rates. What they did was to set the interest rate at 20%, the only negotiated part of the deal was how long the loan was out for. If it was for five years, the interest rate came out to about 4% per year, two-year loans were at 10%. But imagine if you were loaned the money for a couple of months? It could be an annual interest rate of upwards of 500% or more. Suitable for the lender, horrible for the borrower.

This lending scheme would likely hurt the poor more than the wealthy. If they were unable to pay off their loans, according to the laws set down by Hammurabi, they would have to sell the only thing of value themselves. Previously, a person became a slave when they were captured by a victorious army. Now, they could put themselves into slavery, and their families for generations to come. The Hebrews would incorporate a law that a slave should be released after six years of service. It can be found in the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 15.

For forty-two years, Hammurabi fought numerous wars to bring under his rule all of the fertile lands of Mesopotamia. With it, he was to end the Sumerian influence that we will discuss in episode 71 when the Civilization of Sumer goes up against the Invention of the Internet. The language of Sumer was to be replaced by the Akkadian dialect. Sumerian would no longer be spoken in the streets, but its written language would last for another 2,000 years. 

When Hammurabi died in 1850 BCE, he left his kingdom to his son, Samsu-iluna. Unfortunately, his reign would see Babylon beset with internal warfare and strife, losing a large swath of territory. Still, the land known as Babylonia would continue until it was disbanded in 539 BCE.

Now we head on over to the scorer’s table.

First off, we have the fifteen points for the length of their reign. Mansa Musa ruled over the Mali Empire from 1312 to 1337 for a total of 25 years. Hammurabi was the king of Babylon from 1792 to 1750 BCE for a total of 41 years. The ancient ruler gets 15 points, the African king get 9.

Next up, we have their effect on the rest of the world in their time. Musa devalued gold and depressed the local economies of a number of countries during his pilgrimage to Mecca and opened trade with Europe during his reign. Hammurabi consolidated power by defeating numerous enemies and rivals, making Babylon the center of Mesopotamia. For this, I give each man the full twenty points.

Next up is the 25 points for how they affected world history. Mansa Musa, while opening up Mali and that part of Africa to the slave trade, had little influence beyond the years surrounding and shortly after his rule. Hammurabi, due to his development of a written legal system influences us to this day. For these reasons, Hammurabi gets 25 points, and Mansa Musa receives 15.

Last up is how they affected their country for the better for forty points. Mansa Musa consolidated power and made Mali a force to be dealt with for years to come after his reign was over. Hammurabi, on the other hand, did even more to unite the peoples of Mesopotamia, but he did not leave his country to a competent leader, undoing a lot of his conquests. For these reasons, I am giving both men the full 40 points.

The winner of this battle by a scant six points in Hammurabi, 100 to 94. Next up for the Babylonian king in the second round is the Russian leader who converted his people to Christianity, Vladimir the Great. 

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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