Have You Heard of Mansa Musa? Fact: The Africans Knew about the Lunar Cycle and Its Shadows Long before Any European Thought about It. If You Don't Believe It, Ask the BBC's Michael Palin

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In a recent book, Cynthia Crossen, senior editor of the New York-based financial daily, The Wall Street Journal, wrote: "You've heard of the extraordinary wealth of Bill Gates, J.P. Morgan, and the sultan of Brunei, have you heard of Mansa Musa, one of the richest men who ever lived?"

Crossen, sitting in the centre of the foremost capitalist nation in the world, was not being sarcastic when she followed up her question with this comment: "Neither producer nor inventor, Mansa Musa was an early broker, greasing the wheels of intercultural trade. He created wealth by making it possible for others to buy and sell."

The great British historian on Africa, Dr Basil Davidson, suggested that the rulers of Mali were "rumoured to have been the wealthiest men on the face of the earth".

Mansa Musa I (or King Musa) ascended the throne of the Mali Empire in 1312. He was, perhaps, the most colourful personality in West African history. Of this monarch, Dr DeGraft Johnson wrote that:

"It was in 1324 ... that the world awoke to the splendour and grandeur of Mali. There across the African desert, and making its way to Mecca, was a caravan of a size which had never before been seen, a caravan consisting of 60,000 men. They were Mansa Musa's men, and Mansa Musa was with them. He was not going to war: he was merely going to worship at Mecca.

"The large caravan included a personal retinue of 12,000 slaves, all dressed in brocade and Persian silk. Mansa Musa himself rode on horseback, and directly preceding him were 500 slaves, each carrying a staff of gold dust. This imposing caravan made its way from Niani on the Upper Niger to Walata, then to Tuat, and then to Cairo.

"Mansa Musa's piety and open-handed generosity, the fine clothes and good behaviour of his followers, all quickly made a good impression. One might have thought that a pilgrimage to Mecca undertaken with such pomp and ceremony would have ulterior motives, but no such motives have ever been adduced."

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In Egypt, Musa spent so much money in gold that he devastated that nation's economy. "For years after Mansa Musa's visit," wrote Prof DeGraft Johnson, "ordinary people in the streets of Cairo, Mecca, and Baghdad talked about this wonderful pilgrimage--a pilgrimage which led to the devaluation of gold in the Middle East for several years."

Mansa Musa embarked on a large building programme of mosques and universities in Timbuktu and Gao. In Niani, the capital, he built the Hall of Audience, a building communicated by an interior door to the royal palace. It was an "admirable monument" surrounded by a dome, adorned with arabesques of striking colours.

At the height of its power, Mali had at least 400 cities, and the interior of the Niger Delta was very densely populated. One of the cities, Timbuktu rose from obscurity to great commercial and cultural importance. It became a centre of learning, one of the foremost centres of Islamic scholarship in the world.

The mosque of the University of Sankore was highly distinguished for the teaching of Koranic theology and law, besides other subjects such as astronomy and mathematics.

In the 14th century, Timbuktu had an estimated population of 115,000 people. Typically, 25,000 were at university and 20,000 were at school. London, by contrast, had a total 14th century population of 20,000 people.

Similarly, Old Djenne, one of the early cities that date back to 250 BC (the city was part of the old Ghana Empire and passed on to the Mali Empire when Ghana fell), had a population of 20,000 people. …