Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world, but tourists would never know it, given the quality accommodations, fine cuisine, and colorful markets they encounter when they visit. This country is a land of vast deserts broken up by cliff-side villages, ancient tombs and relics, mud-built mosques, and caravan trade markets.
Mali was once the home of three powerful but vanished kingdoms of Black Africa, which gave this country its name (“Mali” means “where the king resides”). The three kingdoms were Ghana, Mali, and Ghana. All three engaged in trans-Saharan trade and flourished as a result of the gold and salt trade.
Geographically, Mali is landlocked in western Africa and bordered by seven different countries, all of them former French territories. Mali is mostly Sahara Desert, but part of its south features tropical savannas of brush and grassland that is rich in wildlife. Sweeping the country’s central region in a huge arc is the Niger River, which provides Mali with its most important agricultural area.
Mali’s best tourist attraction is its ancient villages. One of the “Jewels of the Niger River” is the village of Djenne, one of the oldest trading towns. Old Djenne, which is about three miles away from the modern Djenne, was founded around 250 BC and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While you are in Djenne, you should also check out the Grande Mosquee, which is the largest mud-brick building in the world.
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Mali is the set of ancient villages atop the Cliffs of Bandiagara. The villages are home to the Dogons, who still practice their ancient animistic beliefs despite the Islamic influence that has pervaded the rest of the country. The main villages are Bandiagara, Mopti, and Bankass. These are also great bases for setting out on trekking excursions into the Bandiagara escarpment.
Another ancient city is Gao, a once flourishing center during the 15th century. Today, tombs from the Askia Dynasty, mosques such as the Kankan Moussa, and caravan markets are among the attractions of Gao.
Another historic gem is Timbuktu. This was once the center of the Songhai Kingdom and its lucrative gold and salt trade. Camel caravans once, and still do, stream from the Trans-Saharan into Timbuktu, transporting salt and other goods. In Timbuktu, you’ll find a number of ancient tombs and beautiful mosques that date back to the 14th century.
While Mali is not known for game-viewing, it is home to La Boucle de Baoule National Park, which features southern Sahelian wildlife species of lions, elephants, giraffes, leopards, hippos, and buffalos.
The climate in Mali is generally hot and dry. There is almost a continuous drought in the desert regions. Farther south, the climate is more lush, with alternating wet and dry spells.
There are several different ethnic groups in Mali. Most of the population is black and belonging to the group known as the Mandingo. There are also Arab ethnic groups such as the Touaregs and Moors, who live a nomadic life in the desert. They herd camels, donkeys, goats, and sheep. The black African groups, on the other hand, tend to inhabit the wetter regions in the south, farming the lands and fishing along the Niger River.
Not much is known about Mali prior to the first of its three famed empires, Ghana. Among the three kingdoms – Ghana, Mali, and Songhai – the Songhai was the last of the empire, destroyed during the 17th century by the Moroccans.
In the late 19th century, the French began exploring Mali, eventually making it a part of the territories of French West Africa in 1904, then known as French Sudan. In 1960, Mali gained full independence. From independence until 1991, one-party elections were held and the presidential office suffered a number of military coups. In 1992, the first multiparty elections were held and the military head of state was turned over to an elected civilian president. Today, Mali enjoys one of Africa’s most successful democracies. Free-market reforms were instituted after President Konare was elected in 1997 and the Touareg threat of rebellion has largely subsided.