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Someone insisted to me there's no good evidence Bamako was a major city during or before the Mali empire. The best source I could track down on its existence and prominence from that time was this, which was used as a source for New Encyclopedia of Africa 2nd Ed: "Perinbam, B. Marie. Family, Identity, and the State in the Bamako Kafu, c. 1800–c. 1900. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997."

Can't find the article or verify its quality, though. Person insists encyclopedias are terrible sources, and that's all I have.

What I've been taught is Bamako has long been a major trading hub for ivory, gold, and other commodities on the Niger, and that it became a centre of learning that rivalled Timbuktu during the height of the Mali Empire; that people travelled to it to learn about Islam. Want to clarify if that is true, and if we know that with certainty.

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    Mungo Parks, Travels in the Interior District of Africa: Performed Under the Direction and Patronage of the African Association in the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797, London: W. Bulmer 1800, p. 354: "I had heard Bammakoo much talked of as a great market for salt, and I felt rather disappointed to find it only a middling town, not quite so large as Marraboo: however, the smallness of its size, is more than compensated by the riches of its inhabitants; for when the Moors bring their salt through Kaarta or Bambarra, they constantly rest a few days at this place; and the Negro merchants here [...]"
    – njuffa
    Sep 17, 2022 at 7:09
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    Presumably any written information on Bamako and its importance as a trading center during the time of the Mali empire would be found in Arabic sources. Have your tried researching in that direction? I am generally not familiar with historical sources in Arabic, knowing next to nothing about the language.
    – njuffa
    Sep 17, 2022 at 7:16
  • @njuffa The claim was that the settlement collapsed. Lars' answer mentions Arab sources and makes me wonder if, for some reason, outright fanfiction is included in mainstream history.
    – user59062
    Sep 17, 2022 at 15:03
  • I have no personal insights into the matter, but find it telling that Mungo Park (not Parks, as I wrote above; typo) appeared to be surprised by the relative insignificance of the place, which suggests that in his time (approximately two hundred years after its founding) Bamako's reputation was more impressive than the reality on the ground.
    – njuffa
    Sep 17, 2022 at 19:09
  • @njuffa True. Holding out in case someone has a good source for its earlier history. Thanks.
    – user59062
    Sep 17, 2022 at 19:31

1 Answer 1

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Short Answer

There is no solid evidence that Bamako was a settlement of any importance during the period of the Mali Empire (c. mid 13th century to early 17th century). While there is substantial literary and / or archaeological evidence for the importance of centres such as Timbuktu, Gao, Djenné, Oualata and Niani, the same cannot be said for Bamako. However, this does not mean that there was no occupation at all: it is likely that there were some settlements in the region of Bamako during at least part the period of the Mali Empire, but the continuous settlement of Bamako itself most likely dates back no further than the early 17th century.

The New Encyclopedia of Africa (2nd Ed) entry you mentioned cites only Perinbam as its source, but it misrepresents what she states in her book.

Details

Oral tradition dates settlement of the site to the very tail end of the Mali Empire or even a little after its final demise. None of the Arabic sources (Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Battuta, Leo Africanus) covering the Mali Empire mention a settlement which has been identified as Bamako.

Nous savons...d'après la carte de Ptolémée (IIe siècle après Jésus-Christ), que de nombreuses localités bordaient dans cette région la vallée du Niger (Nigir). Mais il ne semble pas avoir existé d'agglomération importante sur le site même de Bamako. Cuphé ou Koufé devait se situer à 60 km en amont et la «métropole du Nigir» était sans doute voisine de Koulikoro. La présence dans ce secteur d'un centre important s'explique par le fait que le commerce s'effectuait surtout en utilisant la vallée du Sénégal. Lorsque cette dernière sera abandonnée, la capitale se déplacera vers le Nord d'où venait le commerce transsaharien. De là la fortune de Tombouctou. Cette modification des courants d'échanges explique sans doute qu'aucune grande ville importante ne soit mentionnée dans la région de Bamako au temps des grands empires soudanais.

Source: Marie-Louise Villien-Rossi, 'Bamako, capitale du Mali'. In 'Les Cahiers d'Outre-Mer' (1963)

Translation: We...know from Ptolemy's map (2nd century AD) that many localities in this region bordered the Niger valley (Nigir). But there does not seem to have been any significant agglomeration on the very site of Bamako. Cuphé or Koufé must have been located 60 km upstream and the "metropolis of Nigir" was probably close to Koulikoro. The presence in this sector of an important center is explained by the fact that the trade was carried out especially by using the valley of Senegal. When the latter was abandoned, the capital moved to the North where the trans-Saharan trade came from. Hence the fortune of Timbuktu. This modification of trade flows probably explains why no large major city is mentioned in the Bamako region in the time of the great Sudanese empires.

We cannot be certain when Bamako was founded as we have only oral traditions to go on. Of these, the Niare settler tradition is most prominent.

Les traditions orales de Bamako sont claires. Les Niaré, des Soninké originaires de Nioro, sont les fondateurs du village. La tradition des Maures Tawati (ou Touré) parle de l'antériorité du passage d'un certain Bemba, mais elle précise que celui-ci avait quitté les lieux avant l'arrivée de l'ancêtre des Niaré.

Selon la généalogie des Niaré, la création du village se situerait vers 1640 (Meillassoux, 1963).

Source: Balla Diarra, Moise Ballo & Jacques Champuaud, 'Structure urbaine et dynamique spatiale à Bamako' (2003)

Translation: The oral traditions of Bamako are clear. The Niaré, Soninké from Nioro, were the founders of the village. The tradition of the Moors Tawati (or Touré) speaks of the anteriority of the passage of a certain Bemba, but it specifies that this one had left the place before the arrival of the ancestors of the Niare.

According to the genealogy of the Niaré, the creation of the village dates back to around 1640 (Meillassoux, 1963).

So, there is some evidence here of prior settlement if the Tawati tradition is correct. B. Marie Perinbam, who has made a detailed study of the oral traditions relating to Bamako, notes the obvious problems with all these stories: there is an obvious temptation to adjust the narrative to suit various interested parties. Thus, she writes:

Whether or not settlers — in addition to the numuw — were already in the Bamako region prior to the Niare arrival remains problematic, although it is highly likely that riverside camps for transient Bozo and/or Somono families were already in place. Oral accounts, moreover, speak of hunters in the Minkungu region (on the Manding Plateau overlooking the Bamako plain), who may have been associated with Niare lineages. An all-tooslender discourse in the archaeological literature substantiates this with claims of fifteen archaeological sites in or near the Bamako region, some Neolithic, possibly related to hunters, traders, and/or to initiation ceremonies,...

Source: B. Marie Perinbam, 'Family Identity and the State in the Bamako Kafu, c. 1800—c. 1900' (1997)

Perinbam mentions archaeology but makes little of it. Further investigation of this led to an article by Kléna Sanogo & Nafogo Coulibaly, titled 'La problématique des « tumulus pierriers » au Mali' (trans: The problem of “stone mounds” in Mali). This mentions that there are a number sites within the boundaries of modern Bamako, but there are no dates and the sources it cites do not seem to relate to these sites and no further details are forthcoming. However, there are details on sites in the Bamako region and beyond, and these are also indicated on the map below (source).

enter image description here

Finds such as these in the Méma region of Mali might go a long way towards providing evidence for earlier (and even continuous) occupation of the Bamako site but there doesn't appear to be anything. Possibly, evidence has been destroyed by subsequent urban development, and important artefacts may also have been lost to the illegal trade in antiquities. Thus, we cannot assume that absence of evidence is, in itself, evidence. However, there really is nothing to support the assertion made in the New Encyclopedia of Africa, vol. 1 that

...the settlement [Bamako] grew to become a prominent center of Islamic learning during Mali’s medieval period (twelfth to fourteenth centuries).

As Perinbam's book is the only source cited at the end of the article, and as Perinbam does not make any such claim in her book, the above statement is unsourced and unsubstantiated.


Other sources consulted include:

Claude Meillassoux, 'The Social Structure of Modern Bamako'. In 'Journal of the International African Institute' Vol. 35, No. 2 (Apr., 1965)

D. T. Niane (ed), 'General History of Africa, vol IV: Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century' (UNESCO, 1984)

Pascal James Imperato, ' Historical Dictionary of Mali' (3rd ed., 1996)

M. Ruthven, A. Nanji, 'Historical Atlas of the Islamic World' (2004)

Will Fenstermaker and Isabella Garces, 'Excavating Empires of the Sahel: In Conversation with Daouda Keïta' (2020)

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    Thank you for the answer. This seems incredible to me, as various sources even state that people went there to learn Islam... but that's just total fanficton someone dreamed up without evidence? Didn't expect such baseless stuff in the mainstream. -- Thanks again, I'll wait a couple of days just in case someone else knows a source which justifies this theory.
    – user59062
    Sep 17, 2022 at 14:47
  • @user59062 I've updated the answer but you may well conclude that the extra info poses as many questions as it answers! Sep 18, 2022 at 9:54

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