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The fame of Sundiata, a ruler of the ancient empire of Mali, is documented in the epic poem "Sundjata." Have students read this story (available in libraries and online) and learn about his rise to power.

Have students identify all the elaborate equipment and adornments--including amulets, jewelry, quiver, leggings, helmet with a chin strap, bridle and bells (around the neck of the horse)--on the equestrian and archer. Identify a local hero. Have students create a contemporary commemorative sculpture with the accoutrements and adornments appropriate for today. What kinds of status symbols and objects would distinguish a local hero?

The epic poem "Sundiata" is part of a musical performance performed by griots playing a kora. Find kora music from West Africa and play it for your class.

After students have identified the various components of these sculptures, have them look at equestrian sculptures located in their community. (Washington, D.C. has many commemorative equestrian sculptures of war heroes placed throughout the city.) How are riders depicted on their horses? How is the horse depicted?

Have students research the origins of the horse. How and when did the horse arrive in Africa?

Many peoples in the rural areas of Mali continue to live in earthen structures that are well adapted to the climate of the area. Using the Internet as a resource, investigate the Dogon architecture. Have students create models of the types of structures peoples built as houses, granaries and meeting places (togu-na).

With the introduction of Islam in the ancient empires, rulers built enormous mosques for worship. Explore the mosques that are still currently in use in Djenne and Timbuktu and determine how they have been maintained and how they have changed over time.

Q. What is the difference between the empire of Mali and the country of Mali?
A. The empire of Mali existed between c. 800-1550. Its boundaries encompassed parts of present-day Mali, Mauritania and reached to the Atlantic Ocean, incorporating present-day Senegal. Until 1958 present-day Mali was known as French Soudan one of eight colonies constituting French West Africa. French Soudan gained its independence in 1960 and changed its name to Mali.

Q. I see both kingdom and empire used. Which is correct?
A. There is no consensus on the use of these terms to describe the ancient kingdoms of Ghana, Mali and Songhay. Kingdom and empire are frequently used interchangeably in the historical literature. Some scholars also use state in reference to Ghana, Mali and Songhay. Given the vast areas Mali and Songhay covered, it is not incorrect to refer to them as empires.

Q. There seem to be multiple dates used when referring to the histories of the West African empires. Which dates are correct?
A. Different historians use different dates depending on the various contexts and situations they describe.Some historians synthesize more broadly; others more narrowly. It is important to understand the complexity of the empires and the economic, political, historical and religious relationships that defined these great empires.

Q. Is it correct to use the term ancient in reference to the Mali Empire, which ended approximately 1550, the same time the Renaissance was beginning to emerge in Europe?
A. This question raises a number of issues. To quote from the Cambridge History of Africa (1977), there is "no scheme of periodization which is valid for Africa as a whole." In other words, the immensity of the continent and the diversity of its histories do not allow for the establishment of a continuous history. Africa's histories are as diverse as its peoples. The term medieval is also frequently applied to these kingdoms. Medieval is obviously drawn from a European context, referring to the Middle Ages prior to the Renaissance. The term has, however, connotations that are not appropriate for the kingdoms under discussion. To avoid the use of these culturally bound terms, perhaps it is better to include actual dates, such as 800-1550 for the Mali empire.

Q. Why has so little survived from the Mali Empire?
A. As in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, works of art were frequently made in perishable materials such as wood and fibers. When these objects deteriorated, artists were commissioned to create new ones. Old and damaged works were abandoned or appropriately discarded, creating a constant need for new works. Objects made of more durable materials, like terracotta or metal, indeed survive.

Further archaeological investigations could provide much information about the history of the ancient empires and the region. Archaeologists have excavated at Kumbi Saleh, a site attributed to the kingdom of Ghana, now in Mauritania, where objects of glass, stone and iron have provided another piece to the history of that ancient kingdom.

Togu-Na and Cheko: Change and Continuity in the Art of Mali

Videotape available for loan. Togu-na is another example of indigenous architecture, a structure used as a meeting place by the Dogon peoples today.
Call 202-357-4600 ext. 222 to order.

Eliot Elisofon Archives, National Museum of African Art

12,000 photographic images of Africa

Portraits of Mali from the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives

General African history

The story of Africa (BBC)

African History (Stanford University)


Mali history

Sites in Mali


Dogon peoples


The Art of West African Kingdoms. Washington, D.C.: Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1987.

Bourgeois, Jean-Louis. "The History of the Great Mosque of Djenne," African Arts 20, no.3 (May 1987): 54-62, 90.

Faces (February 1997). Cobblestone Publishing Company.

Issue devoted to Mali

Footsteps (September/October 1999). Cobblestone Publishing Company.

Issue devoted to Mansu Musa (king of Mali) and the Mali Empire