Area:  478,841 square miles
Population:  13,796,354 (2010 estimate)
Capital:  Bamako, population: 1,323,200 (2003 est.)
Religion:  Islam (90%), traditional (10%)
Ethnic Groups:  Mande (Bambara, Malinke, Sarakole), 50%; Peul, 17%; Voltaic, 12%; Songhai, 6%; Tuareg and Moor, 10%
Language:  Bambara (80%) and many other African languages; French (official)
Literacy:  46% (2003 estimate)
Life Expectancy:  52 years (2010 estimate)
Industry:  Food processing, gold mining, textiles, plastics, cement, agricultural equipment
Export Crops:  Cotton, peanuts, livestock, seafood
Food Crops:  Millet, sorghum, rice, corn, peanuts

Evidence of human habitation in Mali dates back to 9000 B.C.E. By 500 B.C.E. the agriculturalists of the Niger and Senegal River valleys had developed metal working skills in copper, iron, and gold. Ancient trading centers such as Djenné-Jeno grew and prospered as a result of the production and exchange of these metals. Later the area witnessed the flowering of three powerful medieval states – Ghana, Mali, and Songhai. The first to rise to power was the Kingdom of Ghana (not to be confused with the present-day Republic of Ghana, which is located 1000 miles to the south) in the third century C.E. It was a land of great wealth and pageantry, roughly encompassing what is now Southern Mauritania and the Republic of Mali. Ancient Ghana derived much of its wealth from its trans-Saharan trade in gold and slaves for salt and copper. Between the 10th and 11th centuries, the Kingdom of Ghana suffered a gradual decline due to environmental changes, an invasion by Morocco in 1076, and the subsequent disruption of trade.

The Kingdom of Mali, which replaced the Kingdom of Ghana in 1100 and lasted until 1500 C.E., is considered by many historians to be the greatest of the African kingdoms in West Africa. In this case, the modern state of Mali covers approximately the same territory as Ancient Mali. The history of the founding of the Mali Empire by the great hero-king Sundiata was recited by griots or jeli, official oral historians and professional bards, and passed down from one generation to the next until present times. Several versions of the epic have been recorded and published in book form. Part history, part legend, the epic of Sundiata ranks alongside such great epics as Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Odyssey, and Beowulf.

Ancient Mali reached its pinnacle under Mansa Musa, the great Muslim king who ruled from 1307 to 1337. Reputed to be the wealthiest man in the world, Mansa Musa embarked on a spectacular hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, spreading the fame of Mali throughout the Islamic world and beyond to Europe. On his journey to Mecca, he gave away so much gold in Cairo that the gold market became depressed. Mansa Musa inspired a popular European legend of an El Dorado, a city of gold, in Africa, and the legend of Prester John, a medieval mythical emperor thought to rule a magical kingdom in Africa.

During this time and for several centuries thereafter, the city of Timbuktu flourished as a great center of commerce, culture, and religion. The University of Sankoré, established in the 15th century, became a world-renowned university specializing in law and theology. Writers and scholars produced a wealth of Islamic literature, and families wrote their histories in chronicles known as tarikhs. After a visit to Timbuktu in the 16th century, Leo Africanus, a Spanish Moor, wrote that there were “… a great store of doctors, judges, priests, and other learned men that are bountifully maintained at the king’s expense….There is a big market for manuscript books … and more profit is made from the sale of books than any other merchandise.”

The third empire, Songhai, rose as a well-organized city state around Gao. By the mid-15th century, it had eclipsed the Mali Empire in power and authority. Under the ruler Askia Muhammad, the kingdom expanded to the north and east. An invasion from Morocco in 1591, rebellions within the kingdom, and a decline in the importance of the trans-Saharan caravan routes due to the increased West African coastal trade with Europeans led to its eventual dissolution.

By the late 19th century France gained control of Mali and ruled it as part of French West Africa until 1960 when it gained independence under a socialist government led by Modibo Keita. In 1968 a group of military officers staged a successful coup, renounced socialism, and installed General Moussa Traoré as president. In March 1991, 23 years of military dictatorship ended when coup leaders overthrew General Traoré and promised to bring multiparty democracy to the Malian people. Civilian rule was restored in 1992 when voters elected Alpha Oumar Konaré as president of Mali. Konaré was reelected to a second term in 1997. His adherence to International Monetary Fund guidelines increased foreign investment and helped make Mali the second largest cotton producer in Africa. In 2002 Amadou Toumani Touré, a popular and well respected public figure best known for engineering the 1991 coup that freed the country from military rule, was elected president. He was reelected president in 2007.

In the early 1990s, the Tuareg, nomads of Berber and Arab descent who inhabit the northern desert regions of Mali, began a guerilla-style rebellion against the government as a result of decades-long dissatisfaction with the government. The severe drought of 1968-1974 killed large numbers of Tuareg and their livestock and doomed their ancient nomadic lifestyle. Conditions over the years continued to exacerbate their plight. Between 1990 and 1995, the periodic violence between the Tuareg and the military in Mali forced many Tuareg to abandon their herds and flee to refugee camps in Mauritania. A peace agreement was signed in 1995, and thousands of Tuareg refugees returned to the country. Sporadic violence continued. In June 2006, the government signed a peace treaty to end the Tuareg rebellion that erupted earlier in the year. President Touré promised a significant development and anti-poverty program for the Tuareg.

Mali’s most famous cultural event is the Festival in the Desert, a musical extravaganza of the country’s best musicians, held annually in January amid the sand dunes of Essakane, 82 kilometers from Timbuktu. Malian musicians, Salif Keita, Toumani Diabaté, Oumou Sangaré and many others, are well known around the world for their splendid music. Malian film directors, Souleymane Cissé, Cheick Oumar Sissoko, and Abderrahmane Sissako, are among the world’s most highly respected filmmakers.

Nearly 90 percent of Mali’s population resides in the more fertile southern third of the country, while 10 percent lives in the arid north. About twenty major ethnic groups populate Mali. The largest group, the Bambara (approximately one-third of the population) lives in the central and southern regions. The second largest group, the Malinke, lives in the southwest and west. The Sarakole live in the northwest near Mauritania. Fulani (or Peul), nomadic people of the northern desert, have migrated south and settled in the Mopti region. The Songhai and the Bozo live in the northeast along the Niger River. The Dogon inhabit the Bandiagara Escarpment in the southeastern part of the country. Tuareg live in the northern desert. The economy is based on agriculture and 80 percent of the labor force is employed in it. Lack of water, soil erosion, and desertification remain serious problems.


Appiah, Kwame Anthony, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed. Microsoft Encarta Africana: Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Black History and Culture, Microsoft Corporation, 1993-1999.
Associated Press. “Military Dictator of Mali Ousted; Coup Leaders Vow Democracy,” The Oregonian, March 27, 1991.
Garlake, Peter. The Kingdoms of Africa.  New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1990.
Lifschitz, Edward. The Art of West African Kingdoms.  Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987.
“Mali,” World Factbook,, 2011.
Oliver, Roland and Michael Crowder. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
“Republic of Mali,” Culturgram. David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies, Brigham Young University, 1998.

Compiled by Mary Holmström and updated in February 2011.