Mali was once part of three famed West African empires which controlled trans-Saharan trade in gold, salt, slaves, and other precious commodities. These Sahelian kingdoms had neither rigid geopolitical boundaries nor rigid ethnic identities. The earliest of these empires was the Ghana Empire which expanded throughout West Africa from the 8th century until 1078.
The Mali Empire later formed on the upper Niger, and reached the height of power in the fourteenth century. Under the Mali Empire, the ancient cities of DjennÃ© and Timbuktu were centres of both trade and Islamic learning. The empire later declined, ultimately being supplanted by the Songhai Empire. The Songhai people originated in current northwestern Nigeria. In the late 14th century, the Songhai gradually gained independence from the Mali Empire and expanded until eventual collapse largely due to a Moroccan invasion in 1591. The fall of the Songhai Empire marked the end of the region's role as a trading crossroads. Following the establishment of sea routes by European powers, the trans-Saharan trade routes lost significance.
In the colonial era, Mali fell under the control of the French beginning in the late 19th century. By 1905, most of the area was under firm French control as a part of French Sudan. In early 1959, Mali then the Sudanese Republic and Senegal united to become the Mali Federation and gained independence from France on June 20, 1960. Senegal withdrew from the federation in August 1960, which allowed the Sudanese Republic to form the independent nation of Mali on September 22, 1960.
The Sudanese Republic and Senegal became independent of France on 22 September 1960 as the Mali Federation. Senegal withdrew after only a few months, and the Sudanese Republic was renamed Mali. The country was then governed by dictatorship until 1991. In 1992 the country's first democratic presidential elections were held.
Just under half the population is less than 15 years old. The great majority of Malians are Muslim, some also practice indigenous beliefs, and a tiny number are Christian. Around 10% of the population is nomadic. Most Malians work in agriculture and fishing.
Festival in the Desert takes place in January on the sand northwest of Timbuktu. Three days of amazing music, under the stars and the moon, tiny tents, camel races, and more music and dancing.