The popular statement, " From here to
Timbuktu." conjures up images of remote, isolated and distant parts
of this earth. Very few people are aware of this ancient city's location,
and fewer still ascribe any kind of civilization to this historic area.
Timbuktu is located in the western African nation of Mali at the edge
of the sahara.
Timbuktu was founded by the Tuareg Imashagan in the 11th century. During
the rainy season, the Tuaregs roam the desert up to Arawan in search of
grazing lands for their animals. During the dry season, however, they
returned to the Niger river where the animals grazed on a grass called
"burgu." Whenever they camped by river they got sick
from mosquitoes and stagnant water. Because of these unfavorable conditions,
they decided to settle few miles away from the river where they dug a
well. Whenever it started raining in the desert, the Turareg will leave
their heavy goods with an old Tuareg women called Tin Abutut who stayed
at the well. In the Tuareg language, Tin Abutut means "the
lady with the big naval". With the passage time, the name Tin Abutut
The historic town of Timbuktu is located at the precise point where the
Niger flows northward into the southern edge of the desert. As a result
of its unique geographical position, Timbuktu has been a natural meeting
point of Songhai, Wangara,Fulani, Tuareg and Arabs. According to the inhabitants
of Timbuku, gold came from the south, the salt from the north and the
Divine knowledge, from Timbuktu. Timbuktu is also the cross-road where
"the camel met the canoe." It is to this privilege position
that the city owes much of its historical dynamism. From the 11th century
and onward, Timbuktu became an important port where goods from West Africa
and North Africa were traded.
Goods coming the Mediterranean shores and salt were traded in Timbuktu
for gold. The prosperity of the city attracted both black scholars, blacks
merchants and Arabs traders from North Africa. Salt, books and gold were
very much in demand at that time. Salt was came from Tegaza in the north,
gold, from the immense gold mines of the Boure and Banbuk and books, were
the refined work of the black scholars and scholars of the Sanhaja descent.
The Tuareg Messufa captured the salt mine of Tegaza and thus took control
of the salt trade. The Messufa exported the salt to Timbuktu via camel
caravans. This second factor that helps us better explain how the so-called
manuscripts of Timbuktu evolved, developed and expanded throughout the
whole empire. Thus, the intellectual importance of Timbuktu and the reasons
it flourished are not exclusively based upon strategic position.
It is important to convey that someone in a position of power was
responsible for encouraging the attitude toward learning that prevailed
in Timbuktu.As Dr. Molefi Asante has put it so conclusively in his book
entitled, Classical Africa (page 134):
The African love for knowledge, literature and learning although
now filtered through the religion of Islam, never died. As it has been
in the days of the early Egyptian Kingdom, so it was in the days of Askia
Mohammed. In fact, Leo Africanus, a historian of the XVIth century wrote
There are many judges, doctors and clerics here, all receiving good
salaries from King Askia Mohammed of the State of Songhay. He pays great
respect to men of learning. There is a great demand for books, and more
profit is made from the trade in books than from any other line of business.
It is here in Timbuktu that African merchants from Djenne traded with
the Tuareg and the Arabs from the north. The Tegaza mines are 1850 km
from Timbuktu. It took six months to compile such a journey. The merchants
from Djenne were for the most part Marka, Wangara, Sarakole and Mandikapeople.
These African merchants and the Tuareg were the first settlers of Timbuktu.
The first constructions in Timbuktu were designed by African architects
from Djenne and later on by Muslim architects from North Africa. Trade
and knowledge were at their height. It was at this time that the King
of Sosso invaded the empire of Ghana, thus causing the exodus of the scholars
of Walata to Timbuktu.
By the 12th century, Timbuktu became a celebrated center of Islamic learning
and a commercial establishment. Timbuktu had three universities and 180
Quranic schools. These universities were the Sankore University, Jingaray
Ber University and Sidi Yahya University. This was the golden
age of Africa. Books were not only written in Timbuktu, but they were
also imported and copied there. There was an advanced local book copying
industry in the city. The universities and private libraries contained
unparalleled scholarly works. The famous scholar of Timbuktu Ahmad Baba
who was among those forcibly exiled in Morocco claimed that his library
of 1600 books had been plundered, and that his library, according to him,
was one of the smaller in the city.
The booming economy of Timbuktu attracted the attention of the Emperor
of Mali, Mansa Mussa (1307-1332) also known as Kan Kan Mussa.
He captured the city in 1325. As a Muslim, Mansa Mussa was impressed with
the Islamic legacy of Timbuktu. On his return from Mecca, Mansa Mussa
brought with him an Egyptian architect by the name of Abu Es Haq Es Saheli.
The architect was paid 200kg of gold to built Jingaray Ber or, the Friday
Prayers Mosque. Mansa Musa also built a royal palace (or Madugu) in Timbuktu,
another Mosque in Djenné and a great mosque in Gao (1324-1325).
Today only the foundation of the mosque built in Gao exists. That is why
there is an urgent need to restore and protect the mosques that remain
in Djenné and Timbuktu..
The Emperor also brought Arabs scholars to Timbuktu. To his great surprise,
the Emperor has found that these scholars are underqualified compared
to the black scholars of Timbuktu. Abd Arahman Atimmi had such a low level
that he was obliged to migrate to Marrakech to complete his prerequisites
so he can sit in the classes as a student.
Mansa Mussa's pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 had made Mali known worldwide.
The great rulertook 60,000 porters with him. Each porter carried 3 kilograms
of pure gold, that is, 180,000 kilograms or at least 180 tons of gold
(Reference: Volume IV UNESCO General History of Africa, pages 197-200).
He had so much gold with him that when he stopped in Egypt, the Egyptian
currency lost its value and as result, the name of Mali and Timbuktu appeared
on the 14th century world map.
A relative, Abu Bakar the II, decided to find a way by sea to go to Mecca.
Abu Bakar II is said to be Mansa Musas uncle. In 1324 while visiting
Cairo, Mansa Musa reported how he became the King of Mali. He explained
that he became King of Mali, his predecessor, Abu Bakar II (who belonged
to the senior branch of the ruling family), decided to sail in order to
discover what lies behind the Ocean, he had never come back .What Mansa
Musa (who belongs to the Junior branch of the ruling family) said, then,
was recorded by Ibn Amir Adjib, Governor of Cairo and Karafa. Abu
Bakar and his maritime expedition left the shores of Senegal and sailed
in the Atlantic Ocean. They encountered so much difficulties and challenges
that they came back to Senegal. Abu Bakar reorganized his expedition,
took enough provisions and a huge army with him. This expedition has never
been seen again. Today, there is a strong historical evidence pointing
to the possibility that this Malian prince was the first one to discover
America. In Brazil for instance, there is a presence of the mandinka language,
traditions and customs.
In 1339, The Mossi king invaded Timbuktu. The Mossi caused a lot of corruption,
killing and destruction in the city. The Mandika dynasty, however, succeeded
in repulsing the invaders. Timbuktu remained under the protection of the
descendants of Mansa Musa until 1434 when the Tuareg under the leadership
of Akil Akamalwal invaded and captured the city. Akil was very pious.
He respected the Ulemas or scholars. Akil reappointed Mohammed Naddi,
a Sanhaja Tuareg as the governor of the city. When Mohammed Naddi died,
Akil appointed his oldest son Umar to take his place. The Tuareg, later
on however, spread so much injustice, corruption and tyranny, that Umar
ibn Mohammed Naddi, the new governor of Timbuktu sought the help of Soni
Ali Ber, ruler of the Songhai Empire.
In 1464, Soni Ali Ber conquered the city of Timbuktu. He came to Timbuktu
as Emperor from Sokoto, in present-day Nigeria. His mother, Baraka, was
from this area. Akil fled the city. Sonni Ali Ber knew he had to unite
his Empire which was composed of Islamic people and those who kept their
traditional African beliefs. He went so far that he took a Muslim name
himself, in his attempt to placate Africans who had become followers of
Islam. However, he resisted letting Islam or any other religion destroy
traditional religions of Africa. That is what brought him into conflict
with Muslim scholars. As Dr. Molefi Asante has written:
One reason that Sonni Ali Ber had a peace keeping strategy, was
that he wanted to reestablish the presence of African culture in religion,
education, and traditions throughout the empire. He was a reformer. He
cleaned out the religious leaders in the institutions of learning and
replaced them with intellectuals who understood the African traditions
of the people.( Asante, Classical Africa, page 126)
As a result of this policy, many of the scholars fled to Walata which
is the actual Mauritania. This is the reason why many of the manuscripts
of Timbuktu are found in Mauritania. One of the generals of Soni Ali who
is a devout Muslim by the name of Askia Mohammed could not tolerate the
tragic treatment Soni inflicted on the Ulemas or scholars of Timbuktu.
Sonni Ali Ber was a planner, a fearless conqueror and he is cited in
all the Tarikhs as the only Emperor who reigned 28 years, waged 32 wars,
won 32 victories and was always the conqueror, never conquered. He developed
the army administration, agriculture and irrigation techniques and tax
controls. He died in 1492 when America was about to be discovered. His
son Sonni Baro replaced him. Askia Mohammed, who was Sonni Ali Bers
General, could no longer support the loose manner by which Sonni Baro
handled the affairs of the State. So, he overthrew him and took the power
Askia Mohammed recomforted the scholars, financially rehabilitated them
and stood by them. In fact for all Islamic legal rulings on how to run
the state, Askia Mohammed consulted the scholars. There are manuscripts
in Timbuktu today where the answers to the questions of Askia are recorded.
Under the Askia dynasty, Timbuktu prospered both intellectually and
trade-wise until 1591 when the Moroccan army under the leadership
of Pasha Mahmud ibn Zarqun sacked the city of Timbuktu. The Moroccan army
plundered the wealth of the city, burned the libraries, put to death many
scholars who resisted them and deported many to Fes and Marrakech including
the eminent scholar of Timbuktu, Ahmed Baba es Sudane meaning "Ahmed
Baba, the black" as he preferred to be called.
The scholars of Timbuktu were righteous, devout and were not afraid of
anything except GOD. It was in this context that when Pasha Mahmud tried
to deceive the scholars by signing a treacherous treaty, the black eminent
scholar and professor of Sidi Yahya University Mohammed Bagayogo objected
and told the Pasha: " I would rather have you cut my hand up to the
shoulder than to bear a false testimony." Hundreds of manuscripts
left the city of Timbuktu under the Moroccan invasion to find their way
to Fes and Marrakech.
In 1893, with the colonization of West Africa by France, Timbuktu was
brought under the French rule until Mali received her independence in
1960. To this day, many manuscripts originating from Timbuktu can be found
in French museums and universities.
The tent of Tin Obutut
- the founder of Timbuktu
The well of Tin Obutut
- the founder of Timbuktu
Boats sailed by Mansa Mussa's
uncle, Abu Bakar II to