The Ghana Empire, located in the present day countries of Mauritania, Mali, and Senegal, was the first of the three major empires that had an influence and involvement in the Trans-Saharan trade. Though it is known as the Ghana Empire, a more accurate term for the empire is Wagadugu, as "ghana" was a term used only to describe the leaders of the empire. In Ghanian politics, the leader of all leaders was referred to as the "ghana". He was the chief of war, commander of the Ghanian army, and had supreme power over any situation. Between the 9th and 11th centuries, the Wagadugu Empire was abundantly wealthy from its involvement in the trans-Saharan trade. Wagadugu's wealth was a result of its vast and extensive amount of gold. The gold was traded for Arabian salt, which was worth the same amount as gold. Ghana taxed Arab traders for their imports into and exports out of Ghana, resulting in an economic boom. Trade revolved around Ghanian gold, ivory, and slaves being bartered for salt from Arabs and horses, clothes, and swords from Europeans. The Wagadugu Empire eventually expired after it was conquered by the powerful empire that would follow it, the Mali, in 1240.
The Mali Empire was established in 1240 when Sundiata, known as the "Lion King", lead to the defeat of the Ghana Empire. The Mali Empire was as affluent, if not more, than the Ghana, but its influence was greater. The greatest king of the Mali was the legendary Mansa Musa. In 1324, Musa set out to make his hajj, or pilgrimage made by all Muslims to the holy city of Mecca. Musa brought along an extraordinary amount of gold, which he freely give away. While passing through Cairo, it is said that Musa give away over 30,000 pounds of gold. Musa was also an important leader because he brought the religion of Islam to northern Africa. Grand mosques were constructed in Timbuktu and Gao, and Musa brought religion and politics closer than they had ever been before.