At its peak in the mid-14th century, the Malian Empire was one of the largest and wealthiest of its era. Its largest city, Timbuktu, achieved international renown as a center of trade, culture and religion.
The Mali Empire was established in 1235 when King Sundiata Keita of the West African state of Kangaba defeated the Soso, his principal rival to regional power. Known as the Lion King and thought to have supernatural powers, Sundiata established a dynastic bloodline which ruled for several centuries. His successors expanded Malian territory until it stretched west to the Atlantic, east beyond the Niger River's great bend, north to the Sahara and south to the rain forest and the gold fields of the Wangara. This area is comparable in size and shape to the combined area of Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada and Arizona. At the time, only the Chinese Mongol Empire controlled more territory.
The most famous of the Malian emperors, Musa I, introduced Islam to the empire. Under his rule, Timbuktu became an international center of religious study, full of libraries and mosques and featuring one of the world's first universities. He spread Mali's fame during his 1324 pilgrimage to Mecca; his procession included hundreds of followers bedecked in thousands of pounds of gold.