Once one of the great centres of Islamic culture and wealth, Mali owes much of its reputation to its situation as a major trading centre and to the tax that is levied on its trans-Saharan route. The Ghana Empire was the first to rise in the region, expanding throughout West Africa between the 8th and 11th centuries.
The second, the Mali Empire, reached its zenith in the early 14th century. After its decline, the territory became part of the Songhai Empire, which was brought to an end by a Moroccan invasion in 1591. With the decline of the trans-Saharan trading routes in salt, gold and slaves, the area enjoyed little strategic importance and was divided into small kingdoms for the next two centuries until the arrival of French colonists. Mali was absorbed into French West Africa in 1895. In 1960, together with what is now Senegal, it achieved independence as the Federation of Mali, although Senegal seceded after a few weeks.
The first president was Modibo Keita, who severed ties with France and developed strong links with the USSR. In 1968, a military coup overthrew Keita and the coup leader promised a return to civilian rule. This failed to materialise until in 1991, army officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Amadou Toumani Touré, assumed power.
In presidential elections later that year, the leader of the Alliance pour la Démocratie au Mali (ADEMA), Alpha Oumar Konaré, won and dominated Malian politics for the next 10 years. Konaré secured re-election in 1997 but the political environment was far from peaceful during the period of ADEMA rule. The country was beset by strikes, student protests, as well as a revolving door of prime ministers, few of whom lasted more than a year.
In 2002, after a decade in the political wilderness, Touré returned to office. French approval quickly became evident when the bulk of Mali's debt to France was cancelled within months of the election. Touré won elections again in 2007, and democratic institutions continue to strengthen despite a Tuareg rebellion and French military intervention in 2012.
Did you know?
• The 14th century emperor Mansa Musa gave away so much gold he caused the price to collapse.
• Gordon Laing is considered the first European to reach fabled Timbuktu. He was killed by Tuaregs before being able to claim the 10,000 francs in prize money from the French Société de Géographie.
• The prime meridian runs through the city of Gao.
• 333 Muslim saints are buried in Timbuktu.