Mali - Geography
Mali's location in the interior of West Africa and its physical and human characteristics have influenced its history in diverse ways. The Niger River, in particular, has been important to its development, both because it supplied water for domestic and agricultural uses and because it could be used as a "highway" for trade. Moreover, Mali represented a unification of several environmental realms: desert, short and tall grasslands, and (in times past) the forest fringe.
Different environments are able to produce different products, thus setting up the conditions for trade. Trade, particularly trade in gold and salt, is what built the Mali Empire. Its cities became the crossroads of the north-south -- gold routes -- across West Africa. The region's relative location changed with the discovery of all-water routes around Africa and around the world in the period after 1500 AD, however, and the economies of West Africa began a long period of decline. One of the more interesting questions we might ask is how imperial Mali could be so rich and modern Mali be so poor, even though their location remains basically unchanged.
Mali stretches across the Sahel and the Sahara. Sahara means "desert" in the Arabic language; Sahel means "shore." Both zones stretch all the way across Africa. The Sahel, with its short grasses and scrubby bushes, is the shore of the desert--the shore of a "sea of sand." Mali is located partly in the Sahel, although the most productive part is in the grasslands south of the Sahel. Ancient Mali stretched north into the desert and south through the short and tall grasslands to the edge of the forest zone.
Mali is landlocked. Ancient Mali was landlocked; so is modern Mali. It has no coastline on the ocean. This makes a difference today because so much international commerce goes by sea (because it is less expensive). This did not make a difference prior to 1500 AD because so much international commerce went overland, in Mali's case, across the Sahara.
Ancient Mali was at the crossroads of trade. Ancient Mali was located astride one of the world's most lucrative trade routes; modern Mali is not. Camels, known as the "ships of the desert," carried salt from the northern mines in the desert to be traded for gold and other goods such as kola nuts and grain from the southern part of the Mali Empire.
The entire continent of Africa is essentially an elevated plateau with a very narrow coastal plain. Mali lies upon that plateau. A plateau is a relatively flat "tableland." Only in the south is the landscape hilly. Important features of Mali's south include: The Fouta Djallon highlands of the southwest; The Bandiagara plateau and escarpment of the southeast; The Hombori Mountains of the far southeast.
Mali includes a long stretch of the Niger River. The Niger River rises in the Fouta Djallon and flows for 1,000 miles through Mali. The river has always provided water for household uses; fishing; and trade. In the rainy season the Niger, in places, expands up to a mile wide. Along its course, there is an area known as the "inland delta." It is the remnant of an inland lake (like Lake Chad farther east) in which the Niger once terminated. Even today, during the rainy season in summer, the Niger fills the inland delta with water, giving it the appearance of its ancient ancestor. As the water goes down after the rains end, grass grows in the wet soil, providing grazing for animals and an opportunity for rice cultivation.
Northern Mali is arid and "deserted" of vegetation. It is a true desert, a part of the Sahara. Few people live there. Southern Mali is wetter, and natural vegetation is increasingly abundant. The short grasses and shrubs that mark the Sahel give way to the tall grasses of the savannah further south. It is in the southern part of the country, and along the course of the Niger, that most of Mali's people live.
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