See Timbuktu (novel) for the book by Paul Auster.
Timbuktu or Timbuctu (Koyra Chiini: Tumbutu, French: Tombouctou) is a city populated by the Songhay, Tuareg, Fulani, and Moorish people in the West African country of Mali. It is often said to lie on the River Niger, but is actually 20 kilometres north of the river.
Its geographical setting made it a natural meeting point for settled African populations and nomadic Berber and Arab peoples. Its long history as a trading outpost that linked Africa below the Sahara Desert with Berber and Islamic traders throughout north Africa, and thereby indirectly with traders from Europe, has given it a fabled status, and in the West it is considered a metaphor for exotic, distant lands. Timbuktu's most long-lasting contribution to Islamic and world civilization is scholarship. By at least the fourteenth century, important books were written and copied in Timbuktu, establishing the city as the center of a significant written tradition in Africa.
Timbuktu was established as a seasonal camp by the nomadic Tuareg perhaps as early as the 10th century and grew to great wealth because of its key role in trans-Saharan trade in gold, ivory, slaves, salt and other goods, transferring goods from caravans to boats on the Niger. It was the key city in several successive empires: the Ghana Empire, the Mali Empire from 1324, and the Songhai Empire from 1468, the second occupations beginning when the population invited the empires to overthrow Tuareg leaders who had regained control. It reached its peak in the early 1500s.
The leaders of the Songhai kingdom (also spelled Songhay) began expanding their domain along the Niger River. Like the kingdoms of Ghana and Mali that flourished in the region in earlier centuries, Songhai grew powerful because of its control of local trade routes. Timbuktu would soon become the heart of the mighty Songhai Empire.
Legendary Tales of an Historic City
Tales of Timbuktu's fabulous wealth helped prompt European exploration of the west coast of Africa. Among the earliest descriptions of Timbuktu are those of Leo Africanus, Ibn Battuta and Shabeni.
Ibn Battuta and his Saharan Travels
Ibn Battuta (1304-1368) was an Arab traveller born in Tangier. He spent 30 years travelling the Muslim world from Timbuktoo to Turkey, Central Asia, China and India. He was probably the first outsider to document their visit to Timbuktu: Tunbuktu...is four miles from the Nile. Most of its inhabitants are Massufa, people of the veil. Its governor...called Farba Musa...appointed one of the Massufa as amir over a company...placed on him a garment, a turban and trousers, all of them of dyed material. He then seated him on a shield and he was lifted up by the elders of his tribe on their heads...At Tunbuktu I embarked on the Nile (Niger) in a small vessel carved from one piece of wood. We used to come ashore every night in a village to buy what we needed of food and ghee in exchange for salt and perfumes and glass ornaments.
Leo Africanus Describes Timbuktu
Perhaps most famous among the tales written about Timbuktu is that by Leo Africanus aka "Leo the African". As a captured renegade who later converted back to Christianity, following a trip in 1512, when the Songhai empire was at its height he wrote the following: "The rich king of Tombuto (sic) hath many plates and sceptres of gold, some whereof weigh 1300 pounds. ... He hath always 3000 horsemen ... (and) a great store of doctors, judges, priests, and other learned men, that are bountifully maintained at the king's expense" (see link). At the time of Leo Africanus' visit, grass was abundant, provising plentiful milk and butter in the local cuisine, though there were neither gardens nor orchards surrounding the city.
Shabeni's Description of Timbuktu
Shabeni was a merchant from Tetuan who was captured and ended up in England where he told his story of how as a child of 14, around 1787, he had gone with his father to Timbuktu. A version of his story is related by James Grey Jackson in his book An Account of Timbuctoo and Hausa, 1820: On the east side of the city of Timbuctoo, there is a large forest, in which are a great many elephants. The timber here is very large. The trees on the outside of the forest are remarkable...they are of such a size that the largest cannot be girded by two men. They bear a kind of berry about the size of a walnut, in clusters consisting of from ten to twenty berries. Shabeeny cannot say what is the extent of this forest, but it is very large. Obviously, Ibn Battuta, Leo Africanus and Shabeni experienced a Timbuktu much different from the one most people imagine.
It is said that Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí was inspired by the local style of mud mosques . The most famous of which is the Sankore mosque also known as the University of Sankore. It was built during the early 15th century and along with historic Jingereber mosque, Sankore is one of a number of islam-based institutions. Is should be noted that while Islam was practiced in the cities, the majority of local natives were non-Muslims. Often the leaders were nominal muslims in the interest of economic advancement while the masses were traditionalists . As the center of an Islamic scholarly community, the "University of Sankore" was very different in organization to the universities of medieval Europe.
Center of Learning in the "Age of Scholarship"
As an example of the institutions prevalent during Timbuktu's "Age of Scholarship" Sankore stands out as significant. It had no central administration, student registers, or prescribed courses of study; rather, it was composed of several entirely independent schools or colleges, each run by a single master or imam. Students associated themselves with a single teacher, and courses took place in the open courtyards of mosque complexes or private residences. The primary focus of these schools was the teaching of the Qur'an, although broader instruction in fields such as logic, astronomy, and history also took place. Scholars wrote their own books as part of a socioeconomic model based on scholarship. Buying and selling of books was more profitable than gold or slaves. Among the most formidable scholars, professors and lecturers was Ahmed Baba --a highly distinguished historian frequently quoted in the Tarikh-es-Sudan and other works.
The Library and Manuscript Treasures of Timbuktu
The collection of ancient manuscripts at the University of Sankore and other sites around Timbuktu document the magnificence of the institution, as well as the city itself, while enabling scholars to reconstruct the past in fairly intimate detail. Dating from the 16th to the 18th centuries, the ancient manuscripts cover every aspect of human endeavor and are indicative of the high level of civilization attained by West Africans during the Middle Ages. In testament to the glory of Timbuktu, for example, an old West African proverb states that, "Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom come from Timbuktu."
Among the libraries which have been preserving these manuscripts are: Institut des Hautes Etudes et de Recherche Islamique - Ahmed Baba, Timbuktu; Mamma Haidara Library; Fondo Kati Library; Al-Wangari Library; and Mohamed Tahar Library. These libraries are considered part of the "African Ink Road " that stretched from West Africa connecting North Africa and East Africa. At one time there were 120 libraries with manuscripts in Timbuktu and surrounding areas. There are more than one million objects preserved in Mali with an additional 20 million in other parts of Africa, the largest concentration of which is in Sokoto, Nigeria, although the full extent of the manuscripts is unknown. During the colonial era efforts were made to conceal the documents after a number of entire libraries were stolen and taken to Paris, London and other parts of Europe. Some manuscripts were buried underground, while others were hidden in the desert or in caves. Many are still hidden today. The United States Library of Congress microfilmed a sampling of the manuscripts during an exhibit there in June of 2003.
Ravage and Decline
The city began to decline after explorers and slavers from Portugal and then other European countries landed in West Africa, providing an alternative to the slave market of Timbuktu and the trade route through the world's largest desert. The decline was hastened when it was invaded by Morisco mercenaries armed with European-style guns in the service of the Moroccan sultan in 1591. The colonial era signaled an end to the connection with Timbuktu's past with an emphasis on identifying with the "home country."
In 1824, a French-based organisation offered a prize to the first non-Muslim to reach the town – not realising the American Robert Adams has probably visited in 1811. Gordon Laing made it in 1826 but was killed shortly after leaving, making René Caillié the first European to return, having visited in 1828. Only two other Europeans reached the city before 1890: Heinrich Barth in 1853 and Oskar Lenz in 1880.
In the 1990s, Timbuktu came under attack from Tuareg people hoping to build their own state. The Tuareg Rebellion was symbolically ended with a weapons burning in the town in 1996.
Today, Timbuktu is an impoverished town, although its reputation makes it a tourist attraction. It one of the seven regions of Mali, home to the local governor. It is the sister city to Djenne (also in Mali) and one of the seven holy cities of Islam.
It was one of the major stops during Henry Louis Gates' PBS special "Wonders of the African World". Gates visited with Abdel Kadir Haidara, curator of the Mamma Haidara Library together with Ali Ould Sidi from the Cultural Mission of Mali. It is thanks to Gates that an Andrew Mellon Foundation Grant was obtained to finance the construction of the library's facilities, later inspiring the work of the Timbuktu Libraries Project . Unfortunately, no practicing book artists exist in Timbuktu although cultural memory of book artisans is still alive, catering to the tourist trade.
Attractions in Timbuktu include the Djinguereber Mosque , built in 1327 by El Saheli , the fifteenth century Sankore Mosque , once a university, the early fifteenth century Sidi Yahya mosque, a museum, the vernacular architecture, terraced gardens and a water tower. Timbuktu has an airport and is also home to an institute dedicated to preserving historic documents from the region.
The main language of Timbuktu is a Songhay variety termed Koyra Chiini, spoken by over 80% of residents. Smaller groups, numbering 10% each before many were expelled during the Tuareg/Arab rebellion of 1990-1994, speak Hassaniya Arabic and Tamashek.
- There is a children's song linking Timbuktu with Kalamazoo.