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About Timbuktu | Early History | Mansa Moussa | Golden Age Invasion to Independence | Threats to Timbuktu | Bibliography Timbuktu, Mali:

Intellectual and Spiritual Capital Few places in the world have an air of mystery as alluring as Timbuktu. The name of this city in the West African country of Mali is so wrapped in legend that many people think of Timbuktu as a mythical, timeless land rather than a city with a real history. In many cultures, Timbuktu is used in phrases to express great distance and to suggest something beyond a person's experience. Popular sayings such as "I'll knock you clear to Timbuktu" suggest that, for many people, Timbuktu has existed more as an idea of the remote and mysterious than as an actual place. For West Africans, however, Timbuktu was an economic and cultural capital equal in historical importance to acclaimed cities like Rome, Athens, Jerusalem, and Mecca. Beginning in the thirteenth century, Timbuktu became the center of a thriving trade in Africa. Prosperity made by the trans-Saharan trade routes brought great wealth to the city. This wealth attracted not only merchants and traders but also men of academic and religious learning. Timbuktu was founded around 1100 C.E. as a camp for its proximity to the Niger River. Caravans quickly began to haul salt from mines in the Sahara Desert to trade for gold and slaves brought along the river from the south. By 1330, Timbuktu was part of the powerful Mali Empire, which controlled the lucrative gold-salt trade routes in the region. Two centuries later, Timbuktu reached its grandeur under the Songhay Empire, becoming a haven for scholars. From the early part of the fourteenth century to the time of the Moroccan invasion in the late sixteenth century, the city of Timbuktu became an important intellectual and spiritual center of the Islamic world, attracting people from as far away as Saudi Arabia to study there. Great mosques, universities, schools, and libraries were built under the Mali and Songhay Empires, some of which still stand today. Timbuktu's golden age ended in the late sixteenth century, when a Moroccan army destroyed the Songhay Empire. Portuguese navigators ensured Timbuktu's decline by establishing reliable trade with the West African coast and undercutting the city's commercial power. Around 400 years ago, European merchant ships began trading along the West African coast, and the crossSaharan trade routes lost their importance. Having lost the source of its wealth, Timbuktu declined and became known as a lost city. Today, the very fabric of Timbuktu today is threatened by what once contributed to the city's successthe Sahara Desert. The

Photo Credits: top: C. & J. Lenars/CORBIS bottom: UNESCO

desert, which for centuries brought wealth to the city, now brings only drifting sands, driven by the dry wind of the harmattan, that threaten to smother the city and its monuments. This desertification has destroyed the vegetation, water supply, and many historical structures in the city. In response to the threat of encroachment by desert sands, Timbuktu was inscribed on the World Heritage List in Danger in 1990 and UNESCO established a conservation program to safeguard the city.

About Timbuktu | Early History | Mansa Moussa | Golden Age Invasion to Independence | Threats to Timbuktu | Bibliography

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From Trading Post to Commercial Empire Around 1100 C.E., a Tuareg woman called Buktu the settled Timbuktu as a seasonal camp. Grazing her herds and flocks during the dry season not far from the Niger River, she discovered an oasis and decided to set up a tented camp and dig a well there. Very soon, the little seasonal camp, called Timbuktu (literally Buktu's well) became an important stop for other nomads as well as the caravans travelling along the transSaharan route. Although the Tuaregs founded Timbuktu, it was merchants who set up markets and built fixed dwellings in the town to establish the site as a meeting place for people travelling by camel. The caravan trade had existed long before the founding of Timbuktu. Most likely by around 400 B.C., Berber middlemen had already established early trans-Saharan trade routes between West and North Africa. Three hundred years later the trade expanded with the growing use of camels in place of horses and donkeys.

Towards the end of the first millennium C.E., the West African kingdom of Ghana, the region's first great empire, had organized and taken control of the long-distance trade of gold and salt, along with slaves and valuable goods such as kola nuts. From the north, thousands of camels in caravans carried salt from deposits to the city where merchants would transport it down the Niger to other parts of Africa. At the same time, goodsthe most important being goldcame along the river from the south. In ancient Africa, salt was sometimes worth more than gold! Although the Tuaregs founded Timbuktu in the early twelfth century, they were nomads who kept only loose control over the city. As the town became increasingly important to the gold and salt trades, it was captured from the Tuaregs and brought under the reign of the Mali Empire, the second great West African kingdom, and the first great Muslim kingdom, in the Sudan. Timbuktu, which began as a modest Tuareg trading post, eventually developed into a major trading center that connected North Africa with West Africa.
Photo Credits: UNESCO

Trade routes on the African continent transported more than just goods like salt and gold. With the commercial trade came the exchange of religious ideas. Islam was introduced to West Africa by Arab merchants travelling along the Saharan caravan routes in the early ninth century and gradually influenced West Africa through the migration of Muslim merchants, scholars, and settlers. By trading with North Africa, the states of West Africa became important players in the activities of the region, since it was they who provided the gold on which so many countries depended. Without losing their own African character, these states eventually became part of the Islamic world.

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Mansa Moussa: Pilgrimage of Gold In 1312 Mansa Moussa, the most legendary of the Malian kings, came to the throne. Mansa Moussa was a devout Muslim who built magnificent mosques throughout his empire in order to spread the influences of Islam. During his reign, Timbuktu became one of the major cultural centers of not only Africa but of the entire Islamic world. When Mansa Moussa came to power, the Mali Empire already had firm control of the trade routes to the southern lands of gold and the northern lands of salt. Under Moussa's reign, the goldsalt trade across the Sahara came to focus ever more closely on Timbuktu. The city's wealth, like that of many towns involved in the trans-Saharan trade route, was based largely on the trade of gold, salt, ivory, kola nuts, and slaves. Mansa Moussa expanded Mali's influence across Africa by bringing more lands under the empire's control, including the city of Timbuktu, and by enclosing a large portion of the western Sudan within a single system of trade and law. This was a huge political feat that made Moussa one of the greatest statesmen in the history of Africa. Under Moussa's patronage, the city of Timbuktu grew in wealth and prestige, and became a meeting place of the finest poets, scholars, and artists of Africa and the Middle East. Mansa Moussa brought the Mali Empire to the attention of the rest of the Muslim world with his famous pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324. He arrived in Cairo at the head of a huge caravan, which included 60,000 people and 80 camels carrying more than two tons of gold to be distributed among the poor. Of the 12,000 servants who accompanied the caravan, 500 carried staffs of pure gold. Moussa spent lavishly in Egypt, giving away so many gold giftsand making gold so plentifulthat its value fell in Cairo and did not recover for a number of years! In Cairo, the Sultan of Egypt received Moussa with great respect, as a fellow Muslim. The splendor of his caravan caused a sensation and brought Mansa Moussa and the Mali Empire fame throughout the Arab world. Mali had become so famous by the fourteenth century that it began to draw the attention of European mapmakers. In one map, produced in 1375, Moussa is shown seated on a throne in the center of West Africa, holding a nugget of gold in his right hand.

After visiting the holy cities of Mecca and Medina on his pilgrimage, Moussa set out to build great mosques, vast libraries, and madrasas (Islamic universities) throughout his kingdom. Many Arab scholars, including the poet and architect, Abu-Ishaq Ibrahim-es-Saheli, who helped turn Timbuktu into a famous city of Islamic scholarship, returned with him.
Photo Credits: (top to bottom) 1. E. Condominas/UNESCO 2. Nik Wheeler/CORBIS 3. C. & J. Lenars/CORBIS

Moussa had always encouraged the development of learning and the expansion of Islam. In the early years of his reign, Moussa had sent Sudanese scholars to study at Moroccan universities. By the end of his reign, Sudanese scholars were setting up their own centers of learning in Timbuktu. He commissioned Abu-Ishaq Ibrahim-es-Saheli to construct his royal palace and a great mosque, the Djingareyber Mosque, at Timbuktu. Still standing today, the Djingareyber Mosque consists of nine rows of square pillars and provides prayer space for 2,000 people. Es-Saheli introduced the use of burnt brick and mud as a building material to this region. The Djingareyber's mud construction established a 660-year-old tradition that still persists: each year before the torrential rains fall in the summer, Timbuktu's residents replaster the mosque's high walls and flat roof with mud. The Djingareyber Mosque immediately became the central mosque of the city, and it dominates Timbuktu to this day. During Moussa's reign Timbuktu thrived as a commercial center and flourished into a hub of Islamic learning. Even after the Mali Empire lost control over the region in the fifteenth century, Timbuktu remained the major Islamic center of sub-Saharan Africa.

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The Songhay Empire: The Golden Age of Timbuktu As Timbuktu enjoyed unprecedented success under Moussa, another developing West African kingdom, the Songhay Empire, was increasing its influence over the western Sudan. In about 1464, King Sonni Ali Ber came to the Songhay throne. An able and ambitious ruler, he sent his army to capture the valuable city of Timbuktu in 1468. In spite of his political achievements, Sonni Ali Ber was not a popular ruler. Although he was a Muslim, he distrusted and mistreated Islamic scholars and did not support the intellectual life of Timbuktu. A few months after the king's death, one of his generals seized the throne, with the support of the people. The general was a devout Muslim called Mohamed Toure, and he took the title of Askia, becoming known as Askia Mohamed. Askia Mohamed's first ambition was to establish a state and a stable government for the empire. Unlike his predecessor, Askia Mohamed took full advantage of the scholars centered in Timbuktu and used them as advisors on legal and ethical matters. Under his reign, religion and learning once again assumed a primary place in the Songhay Empire. Leo Africanus, a famous traveler and writer who visited Timbuktu during the reign of Askia Mohamed, wrote the following of the city's intellectual life: "In Timbuktu there are numerous judges, doctors and clerics, all receiving good salaries from the king. He pays great respect to men of learning. There is a big demand for books in manuscript, imported from Barbary. More profit is made from the book trade than from any line of business."1 Under Askia Mohamed's rule, scholarship and Islam were once again revered and supported, ushering in a new era of stability that led to Timbuktu's sixteenth-century golden age. Askia Mohamed had created the largest and the wealthiest of all the kingdoms of the Sudan. He had a well-administered state, probably the most highly organized of all the African states. With a stable and efficient government and with the support of the Muslim scholars, religious leaders, and traders, Askia Mohamed had made Songhay a great trading empire and a center of Muslim scholarship and learning.

Scholars from all over the Islamic world came to the University of Sankore (as well as the city's over 180 madersas) where courses as varied as theology, Islamic law, rhetoric, and literature were taught. The university was housed in the Sankore Mosque built with a remarkably large pyramidal mihrab in the declining years of the Mali Empire. The university, one of the first in Africa, became so famous that scholars came to it from all over the Muslim world. At this period in African history, the University of Sankore was the educational capital of the western Sudan, where 25,000 students studied a rigorous academic program. In the book, Timbuctoo the Mysterious, French author Felix Dubois describes the intellectual accomplishments of the ancient African university: "The scholars of Timbuctoo yielded in nothing, to the saints in the sojourns in the foreign universities of Fez, Tunis, and Cairo. They astounded the most learned men of Islam by their erudition. That these Negroes were on a level with the Arabian savants is proved by the fact that they were installed as professors in Morocco and Egypt. In contrast to this, we find that Arabs were not always equal to the requirements of Sankore." 2 As a center of intellectual achievement, Timbuktu earned a place next to Cairo and other leading North African cities.
1 2

Photo Credits: (top to bottom) 1. Nik Wheeler/CORBIS 2. M. Kone/UNESCO 3. C. & J. Lenars/CORBIS

Davidson, Basil. The Lost Cities of Africa. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970), p. 93. Dubois, Felix. Timbuctoo the Mysterious. (London: W. Heinemann, 1897), p. 285.

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Five Hundred Years of Instability: From Invasion to Independence The wealth and power of Songhay had been the envy of neighboring Morocco for some time. In 1590, El Mansur, the powerful and ambitious sultan of Morocco, decided that he wanted control of the West African gold trade badly enough to send his army all the way across the Sahara to attack the Songhay Empire. The spears and swords of the Songhay warriors were no match for the cannons and muskets of the Moroccan army. The Moroccan invasion destroyed the Songhay Empire. It contributed, along with such other phenomenon as the growing Atlantic trade, to the decline of the trade routes that had brought prosperity to the region for hundreds of years. Continuous Moroccan raids emptied the schools at Timbuktu of teachers and students. Trade routes fell under local control and deteriorated beyond recovery. The Moroccans took Timbuktu in 1591 and ruled over the city until about 1780, supervising its ultimate decline. During the early nineteenth century, Timbuktu passed into the hands of a variety West African groups, including the Tuaregs and the Bamabra who founded the Bamabra Kingdom of Sgou farther to the south. In the late nineteenth century, as European powers invaded parts of Africa, French colonizers took over the city. Before European explorers reached Timbuktu, the city was known mainly through a myth that beyond the vast and inhospitable Sahara stood a great city covered in gold. It was a place, people said, where gold was as common as sand and where wealth, beauty, and culture combined to create a great civilization. European rulers spread this myth to encourage explorers to fulfill Europe's economic ambitions for West Africa, which was producing two-thirds of the world's gold supply. The fact that before the nineteenth century no European had survived the journey to Timbuktu only helped secure its reputation as a legendary place of wonder and wealth. By the sixteenth century, Timbuktu had become legendary in the European imagination, representing all the wealth of Africa. Many European explorers had been trying to reach the fabled city of Timbuktu since the sixteenth century, most of them dying along the way. Getting to Timbuktu alive was nearly an impossible feat that involved crossing the brutal Sahara twice and putting one's life in continual danger from heat, disease, thirst, and hostile desert nomads. By 1824, however, a race to reach Timbuktu, fueled by growing interest in colonizing Africa, had begun.

The Geographical Society of Paris had offered a prize of 10,000 francs to the first explorer who could bring back accurate information about the fabled city. Despite the dangers, many adventurous and ambitious young men jumped at the opportunity to influence world geography and win the big reward. Rn Cailli, a French wine clerk by trade, was the first to reach Timbuktu alive. Disguised as an Arab he arrived on April 19, 1828 only to be disappointed by the fallen city he discovered.
Photo Credits: (top to bottom) 1. Wolfgang Kaehler/CORBIS 2. Wolfgang Kaehler/CORBIS 3. UNESCO

Rather than finding golden palaces and markets overflowing with treasure, Cailli found a desolate town on the edge of the desert, without a trace of visible wealth. "I had a totally different idea of the grandeur and wealth of Timbuctoo," he wrote. "The city presented, at first site, nothing but a mass of ill-looking houses, built of earth. Nothing was to be seen in all directions, but immense quicksands of yellowish white colourthe most profound silence prevailed."3 By the eighteenth century, the once flourishing trans-Saharan trade was greatly diminished, due in part to a shift of the gold and slave trade to the new European trading stations established on the West African coast. Despite Timbuktu's economic decline, the intellectual and spiritual life of the city continued to thrive. When the French colonized the region over fifty years after Cailli's arrival, two dozen scholastic centers still flourished in Timbuktu. It was not until more than seventy years later that West Africans gained their emancipation from colonial control. Since 1960, Timbuktu has been part of the independent Republic of Mali, its landscape and monuments still standing in affirmation of the city's golden age and powerful cultural heritage.
3

Cailli, Rn. Travels through Central Africa to Timbuctoo. (London: H. Colburn & R. Bentley, 1830), vol. II, p. 49.

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Threats to the Survival of Timbuktu Today, Timbuktu may still appear to be the disheveled town that Cailli reached, but its great mosques and private libraries stand as testimony to the city's past glory. From its past only a few, rare architectural vestiges have survived Timbuktu's troubled history. The religious monuments of Timbuktu, including the magnificent Djingareyber and Sankore mosques, played an essential role in the diffusion of Islam in Africa as centers of religious practice and academic study and remain the essential elements of reference to the past. Since Timbuktu's inclusion on the World Heritage List in Danger in 1990, UNESCO and the Malian government have worked to protect these precious monuments from the harsh desert environment. Possibly the most precious legacy of Timbuktu is the surviving manuscripts from its ancient libraries. The collection of ancient manuscripts at the University of Sankore attests to the magnificence of the institution and the achievements of scholars that studied and taught there. The libraries of Timbuktu grew through a process of hand-copying. Scholars requested that learned travelers permit their books to be copied, and students hand-copied texts borrowed from their mentor's collections, studying the material as they reproduced it. At the height of the city's golden age, Timbuktu boasted not only the impressive libraries of Sankore and other mosques, but also the wealth of private ones. For centuries, local families have been gathering and preserving religious texts, trade contracts, legal decrees, and diplomatic notes exchanged among rulers of the region. In closets and chests throughout the southern Sahara, thousands of books from Timbuktu's ancient libraries are hidden, their disintegration delayed by the dry desert air yet threatened by insects and the annual humidity of rainy seasons.
Photo Credits: top: Wolfgang Kaehler/CORBIS bottom: UNESCO

In 1974, the Malian government received both Arab funding and help from UNESCO to open the Ahmed Baba Center, named after a fifteenth-century Timbuktu scholar, for gathering these valuable manuscripts. The center, a simple building, now keeps 14,000 volumes reasonably secure but cannot yet afford much in the way of scientific preservation. Continued efforts to preserve Timbuktu's ancient manuscripts and monuments will help the city to remain a bold symbol of Africa's great spiritual and intellectual accomplishments.

About Timbuktu | Early History | Mansa Moussa | Golden Age Invasion to Independence | Threats to Timbuktu | Bibliography

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About Timbuktu | Early History | Mansa Moussa | Golden Age Invasion to Independence | Threats to Timbuktu | Bibliography

Bibliography Cailli, Rn. Travels Through Central Africa to Timbuctoo; and Across the Great Desert to Morocco Performed in the Years 1824 1828. Colburn and Bentley, 1830. Davidson, Basil. Africa in History. Simon&Schuster, Touchstone Books, 1996. The Lost Cities of Africa. Little, Brown, 1970.
Photo Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/CORBIS

West Africa Before the Colonial Era: A History to 1850. Addison Wesley Longman, 1998. Dubois, Felix. Timbuctoo the Mysterious. (Trans. Diane White), Heinemann, 1897. Gardner, Brian. The Quest for Timbuktu. Cassell, 1968. Jackson, John G. Introduction to African Civilizations. Citadel Press, 1994. Shillington, Kevin. History of Africa. St. Martin's Press, 1995. Shinnie, Margaret. Ancient African Kingdoms. Edward Arnold, 1965.

About Timbuktu | Early History | Mansa Moussa | Golden Age Invasion to Independence | Threats to Timbuktu | Bibliography