The history of Timbuktu

As the Tuaregs of Mali have declared an independent state it may be the occasion to look at the history:

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 became Timbuktu.

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 about Timbuktu:

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 Musa’s 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 Ber’s 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 in 1493.

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 well of Tin Obutut - the founder of Timbuktu

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