The Mali Empire or Manding Empire or Manden Kurufa was a medieval West African state of the Mandinka from 1235 to 1645.
The empire was founded by Sundiata Keita and became renowned for the wealth of its rulers, especially Mansa Musa I. The Mali Empire had many profound cultural influences on West Africa, allowing the spread of its language, laws and customs along the Niger River.
The Mali Empire grew out of an area referred to by its contemporary inhabitants as Manden.
Manden, named for its inhabitants the Mandinka (initially Manden’ka with “ka” meaning people of), comprised most of present-day northern Guinea and southern Mali. The empire was originally established as a federation of Mandinka tribes called the Manden Kurufa (literally Manden Federation), but it later became an empire ruling millions of people from nearly every ethnic group imaginable in West Africa.
The naming origins of the Mali Empire are complex and still debated in scholarly circles around the world. While the meaning of “Mali” is still contested, the process of how it entered the regional lexicon is not. As mentioned earlier, the Mandinka of the Middle Ages referred to their ethnic homeland as “Manden”.
Among the many different ethnic groups surrounding Manden were Pulaar speaking groups in Macina, Tekrur and Fouta Djallon. In Pulaar, the Mandinka of Manden became the Malinke of Mali.
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So while the Mandinka people generally referred to their land and capital province as Manden, its semi-nomadic Fula subjects residing on the heartland’s western (Tekrur), southern (Fouta Djallon) and eastern borders (Macina) popularized the name Mali for this kingdom and later empire of the Middle Ages.
The Mandinka kingdoms of Mali or Manden had already existed several centuries before Sundiata’s unification as a small state just to the south of the Soninké empire of Wagadou, better known as the Ghana Empire.
This area was composed of mountains, savannah and forests, providing ideal protection and resources for the population of hunters. Those not living in the mountains formed small city-states such as Toron, Ka-Ba and Niani.
The Keita dynasty from which nearly every Mali emperor came traces its lineage back to Bilal, the faithful muezzin of Islam’s prophet Muhammad. It was common practice during the Middle Ages for both Christian and Muslim rulers to tie their bloodline back to a pivotal figure in their faith’s history. So while the lineage of the Keita dynasty may be dubious at best, oral chroniclers have preserved a list of each Keita ruler from Lawalo (supposedly one of Bilal’s seven sons whom settled in Mali) to Maghan Kon Fatta (father of Sundiata Keita).