Barron’s suggests Mansa Musa, the Emperor of Mali in the 1300s, was the richest man who ever lived.
Since I firmly believe that I am richer today than John D. Rockefeller was back in 1916, I would also insist that I am, right now, richer than Mansa Musa was in 1324. But that isn’t the point of the story. I’ll mention travel costs momentarily.
The 7/23 article from Barron’s gives a glimpse into ancient finances by wondering Who Was the Richest Person Who Ever Lived? / The Emperor of Mali lived on top of a 14th century Goldmine so prolific that it probably made him the richest person who ever lived.
Musa Keita I is referred to as Mansa, or Emperor, Musa. He was born somewhere around 1280 and died somewhere around 1337. He was the ruler of the Mali Empire which stretched across Western Africa.
Consider the economic resources in the area: gold and salt.
In that century, the article says Mali produced half of the gold mined in the world. There were three very productive areas. Even today, Timbuktu has a lots of productive gold-mining. You can find the district and city of Tombouctou on the map at top of this post.
Salt was a highly valued commodity at the time. One area near Taghaza was so productive that slabs of salt were used to construct buildings. Taghaza is near Taoudenni on the map above. When hauled to a distant market on the side of a camel, two slabs of salt were extremely valuable.
The journey to Mecca for hajj
As a devout Muslim, Mansa Musa desired to make a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca, which is called a hajj. This is a highlight in the life of a Muslim. He was able to make the trip in 1324.
Article says the trip from Timbuktu to Cairo was 2,347 miles with another 800 miles to Mecca. The trip by camel could only cover 15 or 30 miles a day, according to the article. If such a pace could be sustained for a large group it would’ve taken somewhere between 104 and 210 days each direction. Estimated travel time was about a year each way.
Skepticism is needed for assessing numbers reported in ancient times, but article says the reports are he had 500 personal bodyguard plus more soldiers to guard the entire caravan. There would have been a large number of servants, cooks, porters, and animal wranglers. Ancient sources say there may have been 60,000 people in the caravan, but the article discounts that and suggests it would have been in the thousands.
Keep in mind those thousands of people had to be fed every day during the one year journey and the huge number of animals needed forage every day. You can’t drop your multi-thousand person caravan into the local chain restaurant for dinner and there weren’t any Safeway grocery stores with enough food for everyone’s breakfast so it would be necessary to carry a few weeks food and forage. Thus the need for a lot more porters. And guards to protect them and the food. And food & cooks to feed the extra porters and guards.
Ancient reports indicated Mansa Musa may have taken as much as 36 tons of gold with him on the trip. Article suggests that would be $1.5B at today’s prices, but my extended discussion of ancient finances suggests a radically higher valuation would be more appropriate.
Travel cost then and now
To make my point that I am richer than Mansa Musa, consider the cost of a round trip ticket from LAX to Jedda, Saudi Arabia is about $1,300 (according to Travelocity on 8/2) and would take between 23 and 31 hours depending on the flight.
At an average annual compensation of about $50,000 for a skilled construction worker, the ticket would cost a construction worker about 6.7 days wages. Let’s round that to a week and a half of wages compared to the time and cost of taking a year each direction. The 24 hour flight would wipe out 2 days each direction, so the travel costs include 4 lost days of wages. That brings the total cost today up to a point estimate of 10.7 days wages, which can be rounded to 10 days, or 2 weeks.
For Mansa Musa’s travel costs, ignore the 20,000 people in the convoy, give or take 10,000. Just consider the food for a one year trip along with the porters to carry the food, cooks to prepare just his food, and the food to feed the porters and cooks. Add in to the staffing and food cost his year of time in each direction. It cost a fortune for him to make the trip.
Counting only Mansa Musa’s time with no valuation of food, his cost was two years of time compared to 2 weeks salary for a modern construction worker.
Yeah, I’m richer than Mansa Musa.
One of the fascinating things mentioned in the article is that during an extended stay in Cairo, Mansa Musa spent so much gold that the price of gold dropped by 25%, creating severe inflation. He reportedly gave a gift of 7,500 ounces of gold to the Sultan in Cairo.
Article says he took out a loan in gold on his return trip in order to soak some gold out of the market. Even with that, the article says it took 20 years for the economy to recover.
(Memo to Federal Reserve: Might want to check out the article.)
A world-class university
If you are wondering how a world-class university with a humongous library (speculation of 1 million manuscripts on the shelves) happened to develop in Timbuktu, look to Mansa Musa and thank him. On his return trip he hired scholars to start the University. He funded the construction and staffing. It became a major center of learning in the ancient world.
Barron’s has a fun article. If you are enjoying my digression into ancient finances, you will enjoy the full article.