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Thetitle of richest person on Earthseems to ping-pong between tech titans every few years. But for all their wealth, Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates wont come close to being the richest human of all timethat would mean besting people like Augustus Caesar who personally ownedall of Egyptfor a period or Song Dynasty Emperor Shenzong, whose domain at one point accounted for 25 to 30 percent of global GDP. But the wealthiest of them all is believed to be Mansa Musa, the ruler of the Mali Empire.

If you arent familiar with the name, a new exhibition opening at Northwestern Universitys Block Museum is exploring Musas legacy as part of a new exhibition calledCaravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa.As Stephanie Pappas atLiveSciencereports, the show details the impact of Saharan trade routes throughout the medieval world, and illustrates howcontrary to the view of West Africa propagated during and after the slave tradeWest Africa and the Sahara were home to strong, vibrant, wealthy and artistic cultures during that time.

The legacy of medieval trans-Saharan exchange has largely been omitted from Western historical narratives and art histories, and certainly from the way that Africa is presented in art museums, Kathleen Bickford Berzock, associate director of curatorial affairs at the Block, says in apress release.

Caravans of Gold, which has been eight years in the making, pushes back against misconceptions, and demonstrates Africas pivotal role in world history through 250 artworks and fragments from West African nations, including Mali, Morocco and Niger.

One of these items is a reproduction of the Catalan Atlas, produced on the island of Majorca around 1375, which includes pages depicting the vast trade routes near and through the Sahara. At the center of it is an illustration of Mansa Musa.

The 14th-century king, as Thad Morgan details, took power at a time when the Mali Empire was already a source of much of the natural resources, such as gold and salt, used by Europe, Africa and the Middle East. But under Musas rule, the empires territory, influence and wealth increased even more. Eventually, under his rule, the Mali Empire enveloped present-day Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Mauritania.

Despite his vast wealth, the wider world did not know much about Musa until the devout Muslim pilgrimaged to Mecca in 1324. He didnt exactly travel lightly; forThe Chicago Tribune, Steve Johnson reports that in the introduction to Caravans of Gold, it details that Musa took 8,000 courtiers, 12,000 slaves, and 100 camels each carrying 300 pounds of gold with him on the journey.

When Musa passed through Egypt, so much gold flowed, according to Morgan that it actually devalued the metal and led to a currency crisis that took Egypt 12 years to dig itself out of.

Theres probably no accurate way to estimate just how rich Musa was in modern terms. In 2015, the late Richard Ware of Ferrum College in Virginia told Jacob Davidson atMoneythat people had trouble even describing Musas wealth. This is the richest guy anyone has ever seen, thats the point, Ware said. Theyre trying to find words to explain that. There are pictures of him holding a scepter of gold on a throne of gold holding a cup of gold with a golden crown on his head. Imagine as much gold as you think a human being could possess and double it, thats what all the accounts are trying to communicate.

And gold was what made West Africa indispensable to the rest of the world during the Middle Ages. Berzock tells Johnson she wants the Block exhibition to demonstrate Africas role as a kind of fulcrum in that interconnectedness.

Its because of the gold resources and the importance of gold in economies of that period of time, she continues, That is the impetus for this trade to really expand. But along with that comes a lot of other things: People move and ideas move and other types of materials move. And what the exhibition does is it traces all of those things, and you begin to see how these networks really extend across a very vast area.

The story of Musaand that fact that many people outside West Africa have never heard of himshows just how much the history of the region and its artifacts have been buried over time. Why didnt we understand, Lisa Graziose Corrin, director of the Block Museum asks, how important Africa was to that period where, you know, the greatest and purest gold reserves in the world sat in Mali and in the hands of the emperor of Mali?

The exhibition continues at the Block until July 21 before moving to Torontos Aga Khan Museum in September and the Smithsonians National Museum of African Art in April 2020.

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared inDiscover,Popular Science,Outside,Mens Journal, and other magazines.

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