Sundiata Keita Biography

(Founder and Emperor of the Mali Empire)

Birthday: August 20, 1217 (Leo)

Born In: Mali

Sundiata Keita, also known as Sun Djata, Mari Djata, Manding Diara, Sogolon Djata, Lion of Mali, son of Sogolon, Sogo Sogo Simbon Salaba, and Nare Maghan; was the founder of the Mali Empire. He adopted the title of Mansa, meaning the Emperor. The Walt Disney film The Lion King is said to be inspired by his legend. He was born a cripple to the second wife of Nara Maghann Konata, who ruled Kangaba. However, through his courage and conviction, he overcame his disability and surpassed all odds to become a great leader and administrator. After being exiled by his half-brother, he returned to his homeland to liberate it from the tyrannical rule of Soumaoro Kante of Sosso, who had invaded Kangaba. He went on to expand his territory by conquering the great Empire of Ghana and set up his capital in Niani. Sundiata was a brave warrior and statesman. He brought in political stability by gaining the confidence of various warlords and chieftains whom he allowed to operate independently, under his rule. He appeased his subjects by following tribal rituals and customs as per their beliefs. Though he was a Muslim, he did not impose his religion on anyone. Under him Niani flourished as a centre of trade and commerce to become one of the most important towns in West Africa. His Empire prospered till the rule of his grandnephew, Mansa Musa, after whom the Keita dynasty came to an end.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: Manding Diara, Lion of Mali, Sogolon Djata

Died At Age: 37


father: Naré Maghann Konaté

mother: Sogolon Condé

Born Country: Mali

Emperors & Kings Leo Men

Died on: 1255

place of death: Sankarani River

Childhood & Early Life

Sundiata Keita was born in the year 1217 AD in the town of Niani, which is a part of the present day Guinea. His father, Nare Maghann Konate, and mother, Sogolon Conde, belonged to the royal house of Keita who ruled the small kingdom of Kangaba.

Sundiata Keita had 12 brothers, including half-brothers from his father’s first marriage. The word Keita means inheritor in the Mandinka language. His real surname from the lineage of his father was Konate. However, he chose to take the clan name of Keita.

Sundiata Keita was a frail child and crippled from birth. His mother was ridiculed because of her ugliness and hunch back. This made Sundiata determined to overcome his disability and one day he miraculously got up and starting walking. Thereafter, he started exercising and grew strong to become a good fighter and hunter. As per prophesy, he was destined to be a great ruler of Mali one day.

He became popular and established himself as a leader among his peers. However, his half-brother, Dankaran Touman, and his father’s first wife, Sassouma Berete, were jealous and cruel to Sundiata and his mother.

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The Kingdom of Kangaba was conquered by King Soumaoro Kante of Sosso while Sundiata was in exile. Soumaoro was a ruthless ruler who imposed heavy taxes and killed all the brothers of Sundiata who were heirs to the throne. The people of Mandinka requested Sundiata to return and liberate his homeland to fulfil the prophesy. He was given an Army by the King of Mema and he rallied the warlords of Mali to defeat Soumaoro Kante in the famous battle of Kirina where Soumaoro was killed by Sundiata with a poisoned arrow.

After defeating Soumaoro, Sundiata Keita became the first ruler of the Mandinka lineage of kings to adopt the title of Mansa (Emperor) and established the Western Sudanese Empire of Mali in 1235 AD. His empire constituted of Mandinka and the areas previously under the Sosso kingdom. He also gave special privileges to the warlords of Mali who helped him liberate his homeland and bring it under his control.

He established his capital at Niani (at present-day Malian border with Guinea) and went on to expand his empire by conquering the land of Ghana, Senegal, and Guinea, thus bringing to an end the Sudanese empire of Ghana by 1240 AD. He ruled his kingdom through a federation, with each tribe having its chief who was answerable to him in his court. In this way, he brought in political unity in a land that was otherwise divided on tribal lines.

After 1240 AD, he consolidated his empire and developed his capital, Niani, as a centre of trade and commerce. However, his generals continued their conquest and further expanded his empire to get the rich gold fields of Wangara under his control. This added to his economic prosperity in the region.


Sundiata Keita was the architect of the most powerful army of Mali. He stood out as a great leader who could gain the confidence of his generals and warlords while giving them the freedom to operate within his suzerainty.

Besides a strong army with which he expanded his empire, Sundiata Keita developed trade and agriculture in the land under his control, which brought prosperity to the region. He was referred to as the Lion King of Mali, who controlled tribes from the Niger River to the Atlantic Ocean.

The Gbara and the Kouroukan Fouga were the first unwritten constitution of Mali, formulated during the rule of Sundiata Keita. Some of the laws promulgated by him have also been incorporated in the present day constitution of Mali.

Personal Life & Legacy

Sundiata Keita was a great hunter and was considered to be an accomplished magician. He also learnt about Islam during his exile. He adhered to the traditional beliefs of his subjects in order to gain their confidence. He was a Muslim and brought up his children as per the norms of the religion but practised syncretism to appeaseother stakeholders.

His death is shrouded in mystery. As per historical records, he is believed to have drowned while trying to cross the Sankarani River near his capital, in 1255. A memorial was built on the banks of the river in his memory.

Sundiata Keita had three sons - Mansa Wali Keita, Mansa Ouati Keita, and Mansa Khalifa Keita. Mansa Wali Keita went on to succeed him. His grandnephew, Mansa Musa, was the most powerful and prosperous of all his successors, after which his dynasty declined.


In order to appease his subjects, Sundiata Keita performed tribal rituals that were believed to be necessary to bring prosperity to his people.

He is known to be fond of his food and hosted many feasts in his palace.

The Walt Disney animated movie The Lion King, featuring animal characters, was inspired by the legend of Sundiata Keita.

See the events in life of Sundiata Keita in Chronological Order

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