History of Timbuktu - A Multicultural African Legacy

Most people think of Timbuktu as the remotest place on earth. Others even think of Timbuktu as being a legend or place which existed only in people’s imagination. Timbuktu is located in the present day Republic of Mali at the edge of the Sahara desert.

Timbuktu was founded by the Tuareg Imashagan or Kel Tamasheq in the 11th century. The Kel Tamasheq roamed the desert during the rainy season in search of grazing lands for their herds and camels. During the dry season, however, they camped a few miles from the Niger river in search of water and grass for their live stock.

Whenever the desert becomes green, the Turareg will leave their heavy goods with an old Tamasheq women called Tin Abutut who shortly thereafter became a warehouse or a depot for commercial goods transiting from the desert. The city of Timbuktu has taken its name from this famous black lady.

The historic town of Timbuktu is located at the precise point where the Niger flows northward into the southern edge of the Sahara 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 Timbuktu, gold came from the south, the salt from the north and 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 African and Arabs who were both scholars and merchants. This unique combination of scholarship and business were the cornerstones that made Timbuktu a city of wealth and truth and therefore a booming desert port.

Salt, books and gold were the main commodities that were traded in Timbuktu. Salt was extracted from the mines of Tegaza and Taoudenit in the north, gold from the immense gold mines of the Boure and Banbuk and books were the refined work of black and Arabs scholars.

Timbuktu flourished as a result of its strategic position. It is here in Timbuktu that African merchants from Djenne traded with the Kel Tamasheq nomads and the Arabs from the north. The Kel Tamasheq and the Jenne Merchants were the first settlers of Timbuktu.

The Adobe structure of the houses in Timbuktu was the product of African and Arabs architecture. Trade and knowledge were at their height. The capture and destruction of the empire of Ghana by the king of Sosso cause a mass exodus of scholars from Walata to Timbuktu.

By the 12th century, Timbuktu became a celebrated center of Islamic learning and a
commercial establishment. Timbuktu had a university with three main renown departments and 180 Quranic schools. These are the department of Sankore, the department of Jingaray Ber and the department of Sidi Yahya.

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 deported to Morocco said that his library of 1600 books had been plundered, and his library, according to him, was one of the smaller in the city.

Timbuktu was a veritable melting pot and hub of knowledge and commerce. The city welcomed everyone. On April 20th 1628, the French explorer Rene Caille reached the legendary city of Timbuktu. Rene Caille used to say about Timbuktu: “ When I enter this mysterious city, I was overwhelmed by an incredible feeling of satisfaction, I had never felt such a feeling before in my life and my joy was extreme.” The German explorer Henry Barth had a similar experience. Today, the city is still welcoming visitors from faraway lands. The travelers have said that Timbuktu is the Rome of the Sudan, the Athena of Africa and the Mecca of the Sahara.

To sum it up, Timbuktu was the city of Divine light, the city of knowledge, the city of trade an the city of hospitality.

The booming economy of Timbuktu attracted the attention of the Emperor of Mali, Mansa Mussa 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, Mans Mussa brought with him an Egyptian architect by the name of Abu Es Haq Es Saheli. The architect was paid 200 kg of gold to built Jingaray Ber or the Friday prayers Mosque. Mansa Musa also built a royal palace or Madugu in Timbuktu.

In addition, the Emperor invited Arabs scholars to Timbuktu. To his great surprise, the Emperor realized that these scholars were unqualified to engage in debates with the black scholars of Timbuktu. Abd Arahman Atimmi, for example, who though of himself as being an Arab scholar realized that he had such an inferior academic knowledge compared to Timbuktu’s scholars that he decided to migrate to Marrakech to complete his prerequisites so he can sit in the classes as a student.

Mansa Mussa pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 had made Mali known worldwide. The Emperor took with him 12 tones of pure gold and a large caravan of 60,000 men on horses and camels. 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.

His brother Abu Bakar the II decided to find a way by the Atlantic ocean to go to Mecca. 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, their 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 Mohammad Naddi, a Sanhaja Tuareg as the governor of the city. When Mohammad 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 Mohammad Naddi, the new governor of Timbuktu sought the help of Soni Ali Ber, ruler of the Songhai Empire with his base in Gao.

In 1469, Soni Ali conquered the city of Timbuktu. Akil fled the city. Soni Ali put to death so many scholars that most them fled to Walata which is the actual Republic of Mauritania. This is the reason why many of the manuscripts of Timbuktu are found in Mauritania today. One of the generals of Soni Ali who is a devout Muslim by the name of Askia Mohammad could not tolerate the tragic treatment Soni inflicted on the Ulemas or scholars of Timbuktu.

The Prince of the Songhai Askia Mohammad overthrew Soni Ali in 1493. Askia Mohammad recomforted the scholars, financially rehabilitated them and stood by them. In fact for all Islamic legal rulings on how to run the state, Askia Mohammad turned to these 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 Fez and Marrakech including the eminent scholar of Timbuktu Ahmed Baba Es Sudane, meaning Ahmed Baba the black as he is preferred to be called. The scholars of Timbuktu were righteous, devout and were not afraid of anything accept Allah, the Most High. It was in this context that when Pasha Mahmud tried to deceive the scholars by having them sign a treacherous treaty, the black eminent scholar and fearless professor of Sidi Yahya University, Mohammad Bagayogo objected and told the Pasha: “ I would rather have you cut my hand up to the shoulder than to bear a false testimony.” A lot of manuscripts left the city of Timbuktu under the Moroccan invasion to find their way to Fez and Marrakech.

In 1893, with the colonization of West Africa by France, Timbuktu was brought under the French rule until in 1960 when Mali became independent. Many of the manuscripts of Timbuktu are in the museums and universities of France.