Saturday, October 30, 2010

South Africa helps Mali modernise ancient libraries

South Africa helps Mali modernise ancient libraries

24 Jan 2009
By Rainer Schwenzfeier

South Africa and Mali opened a high-tech library in the Malian desert town of Timbuktu on Saturday, boosting efforts to preserve thousands of ancient manuscripts documenting Africa's academic past.

The launch is part of a South African plan to help Mali to protect up to 150,000 manuscripts, some of which date from the 13th century and document subjects ranging from science and the arts to social and business trends of the day.

South Africa has also been training Malian conservators to protect the texts, which some say will force the West to accept Africa has an intellectual history as old as its own. Others draw comparisons with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

"Timbuktu is symbolic, not of a narrow Islamic or African civilisation, but of a civilization that was the synthesis of what knowledge was available in the world then," South Africa's President Kgalema Motlanthe said at the opening on Saturday.

"More importantly, it was part of Africa's contribution to the foundation of today's civilization," Motlanthe added, having been guided around the renovated Ahmed Baba Institute.

Documents will now be stored in rooms and cases where conditions such as humidity are controlled and pests like termites cannot eat the ancient scrolls.

Timbuktu, some 1000 km (625 miles) northwest of the capital, Bamako, was once a famously rich town where gold, ivory and slaves were traded and some 25,000 students gathered to study at its university during the 16th century.

Desert tourism aside, Timbuktu is now a remote town on the edge of the Sahara desert in one of Africa's poorest nations.

Many of the manuscripts have been hidden, sometimes in chests buried in the sand, as owners feared they might be stolen by Moroccan invaders, European explorers or French colonialists.

The documents, which range from ancient copies of the Koran written in gold or ornate calligraphy to studies on music and commentaries about corrupt politicians, suffered as a result.

"These riches, accumulated over the course of time, have often been damaged. A large number faded and became unreadable," said Mali's President Amadou Toumani Toure.

Former South African President Thabo Mbeki, who launched "Operation Timbuktu" after a visit there in 2001 and returned on Saturday, has said he hopes the work will help "restore the self respect, the pride, honour and dignity of the people of Africa".

Other donors such as the United States and Norway are helping with the preservation of the manuscripts, which are stored in numerous other private and public libraries.

Ancient Books Reveal Timbuktu’s Former Glory, Illustrate Need for Libraries

Ancient Books Reveal Timbuktu’s Former Glory,
Illustrate Need for Libraries.

Finding Dulcinea
April 12, 2010
by Sarah Amandolare

Removed for copyright reasons.

In Timbuktu, a new move to save ancient manuscripts

In Timbuktu, a new move to save ancient manuscripts.

Curator Abdel Kader Haidara leafs through a delicate old pamphlet.

By Tristan McConnell,
The Christian Science Monitor
February 5, 2008

Timbuktu, Mali

Abdel Kader Haidara carefully picks up one of a dozen small leather-bound books lying on his desk and leafs through the age-weathered pages covered in Arabic calligraphy.

Urbanization threatens Namibia's traditional Himba culture This tiny book is centuries old and one of more than 100,000 manuscripts that can be found on shelves and in boxes in Timbuktu, the ancient Malian city of mud-brick walls nestled between the Niger River and the Sahara Desert.

"The manuscripts are our heritage," says the curator of the Mamma Haidara Manuscript Library, the largest of more than 20 private libraries in the city. "They have been passed from generation to generation. They are the history of Africa, the history of mankind."

But if not for an $8 million donation from South Africa, this history might have been lost forever.

The manuscripts in Arabic and African languages cover almost every conceivable subject from history and medicine to law and human rights, from astronomy and philosophy to conflict resolution and literature. It's a Who's Who of ancient kingdoms. Some are close to a thousand years old, written on paper, tanned gazelle skin, or tree bark, and they provide a rare glimpse into a precolonial African history of intellectual endeavor, historians say.

"It is often thought that there was no writing in Africa but the manuscripts prove otherwise," says Mohamed Gallah Dicko, director-general of the Ahmed Baba Institute, named after Timbuktu's leading 15th-century scholar. "Before and during our colonization there was writing."

The manuscripts are threatened by the desert's harsh environment, by family neglect, and a scarcity of funds for preservation in the world's fifth poorest country. South Africa has stepped in and later this year will complete construction of a new library and research center a few yards from the high, mud walls and minarets of the Sankoré Mosque which was, 400 years ago, itself a center of learning with 25,000 students and teachers.

Riason Naidoo, the South African project manager for the new library, says it is important that this is an African initiative. "Normally funding comes in from aid organizations from the West. The difference with this project is that Africans are collaborating to preserve their own heritage for future prosperity."

The library is backed by South African President Thabo Mbeki, who has called the manuscripts "among the most important cultural treasures in Africa" and key to his notion of an African Renaissance to rival that of Europe in the late Middle Ages. The project is also supported by the Pan-African New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), which named the preservation of the manuscripts as its first cultural project.

Today Timbuktu is a crumbling sleepy outback, reliant upon foreign tourism for survival. It was not always so: in its medieval heyday – as Europeans hacked at one another with swords, suffered the Black Death, and emerged blinking from the Dark Ages – Timbuktu was a thriving crossroads for trade in gold, salt, and slaves. It was the center of great empires and the intellectual heart of Africa.

It is no longer the unreachable city of explorers' myths (the first Europeans did not get to Timbuktu until the 19th century), yet it remains remote, taking more than two days' travel by four-wheel drive vehicle from the Malian capital, Bamako.

At the Ahmed Baba Institute the new library cannot come too soon as each passing month sees manuscripts deteriorate and disappear. The institute's 30,000-strong collection will be housed in the library and made available to visiting researchers and tourists alike.

The manuscripts may also have a few messages for the modern world, says Dr. Dicko. "Here in Timbuktu there is no militant Islam, it is peaceful. Look across the road, there is a Catholic church! We all live together. In the [Western] world outside, 'Islam' is a dirty word. But not here. Here there is mutual respect."

These sentiments are echoed by Mr. Haidara, who, for years before taking charge of the family library, criss-crossed the desert seeking out lost manuscripts. He says his favorite manuscripts are those that deal with conflict resolution and the tolerance that is at the heart of Islam.

And locally the centuries-old manuscripts may once again offer hope for the future of the ancient city, this time in the form of tourist dollars as Timbuktu seeks to reassert its position in the modern world.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Chinguetti the library of the desert (Mauritania)

Chinguetti la bibliothèque du désert Chinguetti (Arabic: شنقيط) is a ksour or ancient trading centre in northern Mauritania, lying on the Adrar Plateau east of Atar. Founded in the 13th century, as the center of several trans-Saharan trade routes, this small threatened city continues to attract visitors who admire its spare architecture, exotic scenery and its ancient libraries.

The old quarter of the Chinguetti is home to five important manuscript libraries of scientific and Qur'anic texts, with many dating from the later Middle Ages. The Chinguetti region has been occupied for thousands of years and once was a broad savannah. Cave paintings in the nearby Amoghar Pass feature pictures of giraffes, cows and people in a green landscape quite different from the starkly beautiful sand dunes of the desert landscape found in the region today.

For centuries Chinguetti was a principal gathering place for pilgrims of the Maghrib to gather on the way to Mecca. It became known as a holy city in its own right, especially for pilgrims unable to make the long journey to the Arab Peninsula. It also became a center of Islamic religious and scientific scholarship in West Africa. In addition to religious training, the schools of Chinguetti taught students rhetoric, law, astronomy, mathematics, and medicine.

For many centuries all of Mauritania was popularly known in the Arab world as Bilad Shinqit, "the land of Chinguetti." Chinguetti is locally said to be the seventh most holy city of Islam. There is no recognition of this claim outside of West Africa, but whatever its ranking, the city remains one of the world's most important historical sites both in terms of the history of Islam and the history of West Africa.

Although largely abandoned to the desert, the city features a series of medieval manuscript libraries without peer in West Africa, and the area around the Rue des Savants was once famous as a gathering place for scholars to debate the finer points of Islamic law. Today its deserted streets continue to reflect the urban and religious architecture of the Moorish empire as it existed in the Middle Ages

The Chinguetti region has been occupied for thousands of years and once was a broad savannah. Cave paintings in the nearby Amoghar Pass feature pictures of giraffes, cows and people in a green landscape quite different from the sand dunes of the desert landscape found in the region today.

The city was originally founded in 777, and by the 11th century had become a trading center for a confederation of Berber tribes known as the Sanhadja Confederation. Soon after settling Chinguetti, the Sanhadja first interacted with and eventually melded with the Almoravids, the founders of the Moorish Empire which stretched from present-day Senegal to Spain. The city's stark unadorned architecture reflects the strict religious beliefs of the Almoravids, who spread the Malikite rite of Sunni Islam throughout the Western Maghrib.

After two centuries of decline, the city was effectively re-founded in the 13th century as a fortified cross-Saharan caravan trading center connecting the Mediterranean with Sub-Saharan Africa. Although the walls of the original fortification disappeared centuries ago, many of the buildings in the old section of the city still date from this period.

Today, along with the cities of Ouadane, Tichitt and Oualata, Chinguetti has been designated as a World Heritage site. The Friday Mosque of Chinguetti, is widely considered by Mauritanians to be the national symbol of the country.

The Great "Friday Mosque" of Chinguetti

Source = Wikipedia

The Ancient Books and Libraries of Tichit, Mauritania

Caravan Leaders and Saharan Scholars
Source = Saudi Aramco Magazine September 2010

Caravans have long been the lifelines of the Sahara. But today, Tichit (in Mauritania) remains largely “landlocked,” without a highway linking it to Mauritania's national road system. Its dwindling population nonetheless relies less on caravans than on the diesel truck that regularly makes its way across the rough terrain from Tijikja, to the east, to replenish the town's supplies and carry out its primary exports: amersal salt and dates.

Throughout history, long-distance trade in Mauritania was a male profession. In Tichit, though, caravanning was not just a man's world. The wealthiest women of Tichit invested in caravan journeys by contracting family members and laborers, or sending slaves; women in the lower classes of society joined caravans themselves, for the most part accompanied by their husbands and children. Those women are remembered by all because of their leading role in planning, coordinating and directing camels, loads, supplies and family labor. This is why the story of Jarfuna, the remarkable woman caravan leader, lives on in the oral traditions of Tichit


Tichit has a long tradition of excellence in Islamic learning and scholarship. As early as the 12th century, several Muslim scholars had settled in Tichit, among them Sharif 'Abd al-Mu'min. Today, there are some 20 large libraries in this Saharan oasis that contain manuscript collections bearing witness to the vibrant scholarly community that once flourished here--including the 800-manuscript library of the family of Limam Ould Abdel Mu'min, who heads the only museum of Tichit.

Lying at the base of a limestone escarpment, accessible only by camels and off-road vehicles, Tichit was once so verdant that archeologists have found evidence of plant domestication going back some 4000 years.

Lying at the base of a limestone escarpment, accessible only by camels and off-road vehicles, Tichit was once so verdant that archeologists have found evidence of plant domestication going back some 4000 years.

In recent years, the Fondation des Villes Anciennes, under the Mauritanian Ministry of Culture, has been working to preserve manuscripts in Ticht and sister oasis towns. In Tichit, some families have taken matters into their own hands by creating the Club pour la Sauvegarde des Manuscrits de Tichit, which is cataloging six family-library collections. Mohamedou Ould El-Sharif Bouya, who directs the club, is a scholar and local historian, a role passed down to him by Daddah Ould Idda, the late custodian of Tichit's history. Much material assistance is needed to secure these Saharan treasures for posterity, he says.

Several Tichit women were known as distinguished scholars, and their stories are recounted in the town's oral traditions. The mosque of Tichit, its façade decorated with the triangular niches typical of the town's stone buildings, has a special entrance for women that is notable for its beauty and size. Today women from all three of Tichit's clans still run primary schools in their homes where they teach the Qur'an and basic Arabic literacy to boys and girls.

In Tichit, it is traditional for both boys and girls to become literate, mostly through education in the chapters (surahs) of the Qur’an.

Historically, many of Tichit's female intellectuals belonged to the Shurfa clan, which traces its lineage to the Prophet Muhammad. Like their male counterparts, they memorized the Qur'an to earn the respectful title of hafidhat, and some of their writings are preserved in the Club pour la Sauvegarde des Manuscrits. The earliest example is A'ishatu mint al-Faqih Abu Bakir ibn al-Amin ibn al-Sha' al-Muslimi, who lived in the 18th century. It is said that she once traded 70 camels for a single manuscript: Ibn Hajjar's collection of hadith, or sayings of the Prophet.

Another example is Al-Hasniya mint Fadil al-Sharif, a 19th-century scholar. She married another scholar with whom she had four sons, all of whom became scholars themselves. When she died, numerous praise songs and poems were written in her honor. Several of them have been published in Dala al-Adib, an anthology of Saharan literature by Jamal Ould Al-Hasan. Fatima mint Shaykhna Buyahmed is the most celebrated of these learned women, partly because she lived in more recent times—from the late 19th through the mid-20th century. The daughter of a legal scholar who taught her Islamic jurisprudence, she so excelled in the study of the law that she occasionally wrote fatwas in the name of her father.

Jarfuna, by contrast, used her limited literacy to run her caravans, but she wasn't the only Masna woman to leave her mark as a businesswoman. Fatimatu mint Seri Niaba, for example, was a gifted 19th-century entrepreneur, as well as a learned individual. Although she did not leave any scholarly writings, Fatimatu, like many women of Tichit, earned her access to the caravan economy thanks to her literacy.

Muslim women protected their property rights by keeping a paper trail of their commercial and civil affairs. They documented credit transactions and loan disbursements, and they wrote to men and other women with whom they conducted trade and exchanged market information. To be sure, only privileged and exceptional women—Fatimatu among them—acquired the skills necessary to make use of contracts and correspondence. Tichit depended on caravans to bring in limited supplies of writing paper, making that commodity relatively expensive. Not everyone could afford to engage directly in the caravanning economy at this level or, alternatively, to hire scribes.

Ornamental leatherwork adorns what will become a usaada, or cushion. In the past, women used the same skills to decorate the leather bindings for manuscripts that are preserved in Tichit’s libraries.

Women were involved in Tichit's scholarly and caravanning activities in other ways, too, by crafting and ornamenting the leather bindings that protected manuscripts. The women of Tichit also made and decorated with colored dyes the cushions and small leather pouches that were among their primary export products. Indeed, there is a firm foundation for the popular Mauritanian proverb, “The woman is the man's trousers” (Limra' sirwal al-rajul), for it conveys the idea that a woman protects her husband and, by extension, their family.

Partial reprint of article in Saudi Aramco World Magazine, September 2010

Thursday, August 19, 2010

In a fabled city at the end of the earth, lies a treasury of ancient manuscripts

Fida ag Muhammad holds up the remains of a centuries old manuscript which has been eaten away by termites. Similar texts have been found in the villages around Timbuktu. Photograph: Xan Rice

Xan Rice in Timbuktu
The Guardian,UK
Monday 2 July 2007

A hot wind stirred up the desert sand. Fida ag Muhammad, a wispy man with a blue-grey turban, hurried across the street. Reaching a mud-brick building, he quickly unlocked its corrugated iron door and pushed it open. A beam of soft early-morning light pierced the darkness. On a metal table covered with a red bath towel sat half a dozen leather-bound manuscripts. Carefully untying the string around a small weathered pouch, Mr Muhammad pulled back its flaps to reveal a sheaf of yellowed papers. Their edges had crumbled away, but the neat Arabic calligraphy was still clear.
"A Qur'an," he said. "From the 1300s."

For an outsider, such a remarkable find might seem extraordinary. In Timbuktu and its surrounding villages like Ber, where Mr Muhammad lives, it is commonplace. After centuries of storage in wooden trunks, caves or boxes hidden beneath the sand, tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts, covering topics as diverse as astronomy, poetry, music, medicine and women's rights, are surfacing across the legendary Malian city.

Their emergence has caused a stir among academics and researchers, who say they represent some of the earliest examples of written history in sub-Saharan Africa and are a window into a golden age of scholarship in west Africa. Some even believe that the fragile papers, which are now the focus of an African-led preservation effort, may reshape perceptions of the continent's past.

"It has long been said that there was only oral history in this part of the world," said Salem Ould Elhadje, 67, a historian in Timbuktu. "But these manuscripts come from an African city, a city of black people."

The Timbuktu of myth is a place at the end of the earth. In reality its location was the key to its development nearly a thousand years ago. With the Sahara directly north and the Niger river south, it was established as a rest stop for travellers and a trading post for gold and salt. By the late 1500s, however, when it formed part of the powerful Songhai empire, it had become known as a centre of great learning.

Books became hugely prized. Travellers from as far as the Middle East brought manuscripts to Timbuktu to sell. Using paper manufactured in Europe, scholars in the town produced their own original work, which was then copied by their pupils. Commercial transactions were recorded - slaves and ostrich feathers were among the goods traded - as were the pronouncements of learned men on everything from the environment to polygamy and witchcraft.

"Every manuscript contains surprises," said Shahid Mathee, part of a University of Cape Town team studying the manuscripts. "We have even found texts where scholars offer advice on overcoming erection problems."

Timbuktu's decline began in 1591 with a Moroccan invasion. But the practice of writing, copying and storing manuscripts lived on here and in other west African cities such as Gao and Kano.

It was not until 1964, at a Unesco conference, that Timbuktu's literary wealth was recognised. Still, it took a further 37 years for the campaign to document and preserve them to gain momentum.

On visiting Timbuktu in 2001, the South African president, Thabo Mbeki, was shown some of the manuscripts held at the Ahmed Baba Institute, named after the city's most famous scholar, including a copy of Islamic law dating to 1204. Mr Mbeki was so impressed he declared them to be among the continent's "most important cultural treasures" and pledged to set up a project to help properly conserve the manuscripts.

After centuries of exposure to the harsh desert climate, abrasive sands and hungry termites, many of the manuscripts are badly damaged. Even those intact, such as Mr Muhammad's Qur'an, are so fragile the pages may disintegrate when handled. "Every minute, every second, part of a manuscript is being lost," said Mahmud Muhammad Dadab, a scholar who compares their value to the works of Victor Hugo and William Shakespeare.

With South African money, a £3.5m home for the Ahmed Baba Institute, featuring a museum, archive and rooms for scholars, is being built in the heart of the city, and will open next year. Meanwhile workers are trying to safeguard the institute's growing stock of 30,000 manuscripts.

In a large room with fans whirring overhead, a team is building made-to-measure cardboard boxes for every manuscript that will provide protection from the dust. Fragile pages are being carefully affixed to special Japanese paper to stop them crumbling.

Across the courtyard, researchers sit in front of computers documenting the contents of each manuscript. Then, with the help of computer scanners, ancient knowledge is uploaded into the 21st century. "We are creating a virtual library," said Muhammad Diagayete, 37, a researcher who was busy documenting a 1670 text on astronomy written in blue, red and black ink. "We want people all over the world to be able to access these manuscripts online."

Private collections are also being restored. Outside interest, and funding, has helped to create more than 20 libraries in Timbuktu, from tiny collections with a few hundred documents to Ismael Haidara's Fondo Kati Bibliothèque, which has more than 7,000 leather-bound manuscripts dating back to 1198. Many were brought from Andalucia, Spain, by his ancestors, who came to Timbuktu in the 15th century.

A few doors down is the Mama Haidara library run by Abdel Kader Haidara, no relation to Ismael, the best-known curator in the city. With funding from US foundations, he is also digitizing his 9,000-document collection, and is building extra rooms for scholars and tourists, as well as an internet cafe.

Before opening the family library, he helped to build up the Ahmed Baba Institute's collection, travelling all over the region by camel, canoe and car to try to persuade families to part with their manuscripts in exchange for livestock or printed books.

It was a difficult task. Though many families cannot read Arabic, the manuscripts are regarded as precious heirlooms that cannot be sold.

In Ber, a two-hour drive from Timbuktu, Fida ag Muhammad spoke of valuable caches of manuscripts buried in the desert by families fearful that outsiders would try to prise them away.

As a result, experts believe that hundreds of thousands of manuscripts remain in private homes across the region, and the quest to find and conserve them will go on for many years.

"We have to persuade people that they need to be protected and documented," said Abdel Kader Haidara. "If we don't read what our ancestors said, we cannot know who we really are."

SOURCE - 2007

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Treasures in Timbuktu - 2008

Timbuktu Foundation (USA) 2008

part 1

part 2

The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu - BBC 2009

part 1

part 2

part 3

part 4

part 5

part 6

Timbuktu Timeline

TIMBUKTU History & Timeline

400 B.C.E. Berber middlemen establish early trans-Saharan trade between West Sudan and North Africa.

100 B.C.E. Trans-Saharan trade expands with growing use of camels in place of horses and donkeys.

400 C.E. The Kingdom of Ghana, the first major trans-Saharan state in West Africa, is founded.

800 Beginning of the diffusion of Islam to West Africa from Morocco and Central Maghreb.

c. 1000 Ghana at the height of its power in West Sudan, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to Timbuktu. Islam accepted as a state religion in important towns of the empire.

c. 1100 Timbuktu settled as a summer camp of the Tuareg nomads. Timbuktu eventually becomes a permanent place of residence and a market—the meeting place of those who travel by water on the Niger and those who travel across the sands of the Sahara.

1250 Sundiata becomes king of the small state of Kangaba and founds early Mali. Begins conquering land to build empire.

c. 1300 Timbuktu has become an important trading center, its communications extending from the West Coast to the Mediterranean Sea. Guinea gold is exported to Europe via the caravans starting from Timbuktu.

1312 Mansa Moussa becomes king of Mali, which continues to expand in west and central Sudan, and develops new techniques of literacy and trade adopted from Islam.

1324 Mansa Moussa stays at Timbuktu with his famous caravan of great wealth. He founds a mosque in the city. Dies in 1337 after expanding Mali far across both western and central regions of West Africa.

1336 Timbuktu becomes part of the Mali Empire, now at the height of its power, and starts its own era of prosperity.

c. 1375 Rise of Songhay power at the expense of Mali.

The Kongo Kingdom in Zaire, Central Africa is founded c. 1380s.

c. 1400 Tuaregs gain control of the city from the declining Mali Empire. Mali-Songhay wars begin.

The Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe in southern Africa flourishes c. 1400.

1468 Songhay conquers Tuaregs and gains control of Timbuktu.

1493 Songhay expansion. Askia dynasty founded by al-Hajji Muhamed. Songhay dominates the central Sudan. Under Askia the Great, Timbuktu reaches its height as a center of trade and Muslim scholarship. Mali continues to decline.

1526 Leo Africanus visits Timbuktu, in a mission from the Sherif of Fez, and describes the city.

1546 Songhay defeats Mali.

1591 Moroccan Army expedition to Timbuktu. Timbuktu becomes part of the Moroccan Empire. Songhay Empire in ruins.

c.1600 Timbuktu starts to decline.

1650 c. 1650, Tuaregs assume control of the city for more than 200 years.

1824 After of a variety of attempts by Europeans to reach the city, the Geographical Society of Paris offers prize, valued at 10,000 francs, to the first person to return to Europe with a firsthand account of Timbuktu.

1828 Frenchman Réné Caillié enters the city in disguise, and returns to Europe with an account of the decline of the city, which had begun over two centuries previously.

1884-5 Congress of imperialist powers at Berlin partitions Africa. French gain West and Central Sudan.

1893 French Army enters Timbuktu. French colonial rule begins.

1960 Republic of Mali gains independence. Timbuktu returns to Mali rule after five and a half centuries.

In 1960, the former Belgian Congo (Zaire) gains independence.

1988 Timbuktu is inscribed on the World Heritage List. Two years later the city is inscribed on the World Heritage List in Danger.

In 1990, Nelson Mandela is released from prison, after serving 27 years.

Mansa Musa - Lion King of Mali

From the fourth to the sixteenth century, three empires controlled much of West Africa and several key cities of the Saharan trade route. Between the empires of Ghana and Songhai, Mansa Musa reigned over the empire of Mali during its golden years. His control of gold mines and key cities in the Saharan trade route gave him the wealth he needed to attract the attention of the world.

This attention was directed towards Mali because of his devotion to Islam and his generous giving while on a hajj to Mecca. During his hajj, Mansa Musa came in contact with important architects that would establish a construction tradition that would last for centuries.

About seventy years before Mansa Musa took the throne, his grandfather, Sundiata, conquered the great Ghana empire in 1240 AD. In his childhood, Sundiata had been crippled and was forced into exile for fear of assassination by his brother who had become Mansa (king). Following Sundiata's magical healing and his brother's deaths by the foreign king of Soso, Sundiata returned to claim the throne. He conquered the king of Soso and the Ghana empire, and establish the empire of Mali. Following Sundiata's death, no less than six weak rulers claimed the throne of Mali. It was in this climate that Mansa Musa was born. It is unclear exactly when he was born or when he became king. Two spans of time have been suggested for his reign, 1307 to 1332 AD or 1312 to 1337, either way spanning a total of twenty-five years. Furthermore, very few facts have survived concerning his childhood, and the first important mention of his life was his famous hajj.

Mansa Musa's famous hajj (pilgrimage) placed him in history and in the attention of the entire European and Islamic world. About the time that the Aztecs began building Tenochtitlan, the and the Ottoman Turks began the creation of their empire, Mansa Musa began his obligatory hajj to Mecca in 1324 with an impressive company. In his caravan he brought sixty-thousand people dressed in fine silk and eighty camels carrying two tons of gold. Among this throng Mansa Musa had twelve-thousand servants, five hundred of which carried staffs of gold. If this entourage had not caught the attention of the countries he crossed through, his generous giving would.
Wherever he went he gave gold to the needy as given is required by a pillar of Islam. One writer even suggests that on every Friday during his travel he erected a mosque in the city that he found himself in. In Cairo he gave so much gold that in Egypt its value did not recover for twelve years. Before he returned to Mali, he had given away or spent so much that he was forced to borrow money from a merchant in Cairo for his return trip.

While most of the inhabitants of Mali were not Muslim, and although he allowed them to maintain their religious diversity, Mansa Musa remained distinctly Muslim. His pilgrimage to Mecca was a clear illustration of his devotion, but he showed his religious beliefs in several other ways. His grandfather before him had converted to Islam, and Mansa Musa established Islam as the national religion. He also built mosques and important Islamic centers of learning. Under his rule Timbuktu rose to become not only an important city in the trans-Saharan trade route but also the center of Islamic scholarship. Muslims came from distant countries to receive an education at the Sankore University that he built in Timbuktu. And it was because of his fulfillment of the hajj and his wealth of gold that these important sites were constructed.

Al-Omari, an ancient Muslim historian, described Mansa Musa as "the most powerful, the richest, the most fortunate, the most feared by his enemies and the most able to do good for those around him" in all of West Africa. Some of this wealth and power directly relates to the unique position of his empire along the Niger River basin and the crossroads of many major trans-Saharan trade routes. Two of these traded commodities were salt and gold; they were so important that in the fourteenth century they were used as currency. The salt trade originated from the North of Mali in the mines of Taghaza. The gold mines of Bambuk, on the other hand, laid within Mali territory. This gold was the source of half of the world's supply and greatly contributed to Mansa Musa's wealth. During his life, Mansa Musa also gained control of Timbuktu which stood at the crossroads of the Niger, an important means of transport, and the Saharan desert trade routes. This was the city where the Saharan salt merchants and the gold laden caravans converged. This provided Mansa Musa control of these two major commodities, and with this control his wealth increased. Interestingly, some of the construction of Timbuktu and other important cities can be directly linked to Mansa Musa's famous hajj.

While returning from Mecca, Mansa Musa brought back many Arab scholars and architects. Abu-Ishaq Ibrahim-es-Saheli, one of these architects, introduced new ideas into Mali architecture. With his help Mansa Musa constructed a royal palace, libraries, and mosques, and brought his trade city into international acclaim. This architect introduced to Mali a new mud construction technique that would establish a building tradition for centuries. With this technique he built the great Djingareyber Mosque at Timbuktu that stands to this day. He also built the great mosque at Jenne and a mosque in Gao that remained important for four centuries.

When Mansa Musa went on his hajj, he paraded his great wealth before the world. His generosity was quickly noted by European and Islamic nations alike. One contemporary, Spanish mapmaker depicted Mansa Musa seated on his thrown, gazing at a gold nugget in his right hand, holding a golden scepter in his left, and wearing a golden crown on his head. The Islamic world took notice because of his encouragement of Islam and his construction of Islamic centers of learning. These centers attracted Muslims from all over the world, including some of the greatest poets, scholars, and artists of Africa and the Middle east. This greatly increased the fame of Mali.

In the long run, partly due to Musa's conspicuous flaunting of wealth, when the ships of Portugal's Prince Henry captured Cuenta (in Morocco) in 1415, Moorish prisoners told more details of the gold trade. Henry set his explorers down the African coast to find a route across subSaharen Africa in order to contain Islam. Containment failed as Constantinople fell in 1453 and after the successful reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula to push out Islam, Europeans turned toward the Americas. However, it had been Mali gold that provided the initial material for exploration and conquest.

Mansa Musa died around 1337, leaving the throne to his son Maghan I. About this time the empire began to unravel. Songhai, a province in the east, left the empire. Mansa Maghan spent excessive amounts of Mali's wealth, leaving a weakened empire at his death around 1341 to his uncle Mansa Sulayman. While several of Mansa Musa's famous mosques remain to this day, the empire of Mali lasted no longer than two centuries following his death. By 1400 Timbuktu had been conquered by the Tuaregs, and war had broken out between the emerging Songhai empire and Mali. Following the reign of several weak kings and civil wars, the empire of Mali fell to the Songhai empire in 1546. By the 18th century Mali had completely disappeared.

This page has a good bibliography

More about Mansa Musa

Mansa Musa - King of Mali

Mansa Musa - An African Builder

A new home for ancient texts in Timbuktu

The Timbuktu Manuscripts - or Mali Manuscripts - some of which date back to the 13th century, are Arabic and African texts that hark back to city's glorious past, when Muslim merchants traded gold from West Africa to Europe and the Middle East in return for salt and other goods.

Written in a variety of styles of Arabic calligraphy by scholars and copyists who were part of an African Islamic intellectual tradition centred in Timbuktu, the manuscripts have shattered the historical view of Africa as a purely "oral continent", pointing to the fact that Africa has a rich legacy of written history.

While most are in Arabic, some are in indigenous languages such as Songhai and Hausa, written using Arabic script.

Their subject matter ranges from philosophy and religion to medicine, astronomy and mathematics, as well as history and literary forms. It also includes manuscripts covering legal judgements and commercial transactions that give a sense of the daily life of the people of Timbuktu.

Some of the manuscripts are beautifully decorated with gold illumination and kept in finely tooled leather covers.

Long-since a symbol in Western popular imagination for remote and exotic destinations, Timbuktu 500 years ago was not only a wealthy trading port, but also a centre for academics and scholars of religion, literature and science.

Timbuktu was founded in around 1100 by ethnic Tuareg nomads near the northern-most bend of the Niger River. Their caravans took salt from Saharan mines to trade for gold and slaves, transported along the river from the south, and by 1330 Timbuktu was part of the Malian empire.

The Tuareg are an ancient nomadic tribe who have traversed the harsh stretches of the Sahara for centuries. It was the tribe's people who came upon a woman by the name of Buktu who had access to a drinking well or 'Tim', and so the 'Well of Buktu' came to be known as 'Timbuktu'.

Two centuries later the city was at the height of its grandeur under the Songhai empire. Timbuktu was described by Spanish Moor Leo Africanus as a centre for "doctors, judges, priests and other learned men [who] are bountifully maintained at the king's expense".

It was also a centre of learning, where thousands of students were taught and large private libraries kept.

But Timbuktu's fortunes sank in 1591 when Songhai was defeated by a Moroccan army. When Portuguese explorers discovered new trade routes along the West African coast, Mali was sidelined. Under France's rule the country continued to slide into poverty and isolation.

While Timbuktu remains a poor, dusty city, visitors still flock there today to experience the aura of mystique and legend that surrounds it.

And it is still home to many philosophers and scholars of Islam, with Sankore University catering to some 15 000 students.

January 22, 2009

Ibn Battuta

Setting out in 1352, lbn Battuta went by way of Fez and Sijilmasa

It is a lovely city. In it there a great deal of sweet dates. The town of Basra is like it for the abundance of its dates, but the dates of Sijilmasa are sweeter. …We arrived after 25 days at Taghaza. It is a village with no good in it. Amongst its curiosities is the fact that the construction of its houses and its mosques is of rock salt with camel skin roofing and there are no trees in it, the soil is just sand. In it is a salt mine. It is dug out of the ground and is found there in huge slabs, one on top of another as if it had been carved and put under the ground. …The blacks exchange the salt as money as one would exchange gold and silver. They cut it up and trade with it in pieces. …We stayed in it but ten days in miserable condition, because its water is bitter and it is of all places the most full of flies.

This desert is a travelling distance of ten days and there is no water in it except rarely. But we found much water in it in pools left by the rains. One day we found a pool of sweet water between two hillocks of rocks. We quenched our thirst from it and washed our clothes. In that desert truffles are abundant. There are also so many lice in it that people put strings around their necks in which there is mercury which kills the lice …They we arrived at Tásarahlá where water is exuded by the ground.

From there they travelled to Iwalatan (Walata or Oualata in Mauritania) and on to Malli a journey of twenty four days for a person who exerts himself.

That road has many trees which are tall and of great girth: a caravan can find shade in the shadow of one tree … Some of those trees have rotted inside and rainwater collects in them... Bees and honey are in some and people extract the honey from the trees. I have passed by one of these trees and found inside it a weaver with his loom set up in it - he was weaving. I was amazed by him.... There are trees whose fruits are like those of plums, apples, peaches and apricots, though they are not quite the same as these. There are trees that bear fruit like the cucumber, when it ripens it bursts uncovering something like flour, they cook it and eat it and it is sold in the markets. They dig out from the ground a crop like beans and they fry it and eat it. Its taste is like fried peas. Sometimes they grind it and make from it something like a sponge cake, frying with gharti; gharti is a fruit like a plum which is very sweet and harmful to white men when they eat it. The hard part inside is crushed and an oil is extracted from it. From this they derive a number of benefits. Amongst these are: they cook with it, fuel the lamps, fry that sponge I mentioned with it, they use it as an ointment, and they mix it with a kind of earth of theirs and plaster the houses with it in the way whitewash is used.

.... After a distance of ten days' travel from Iwalatan, we arrived at the village of Zaghari, which is a big place with black merchants living in it.

Then we went from Zaghari and arrived at the great river, the Nile. On it is the town of Karsakhu. The Nile (Niger) descends from it (Karsakhu) to Kabara, then to Zagha.

Then the Nile (Niger) comes down from Zagha to Tunbuktu (Timbuktu), then to Kawkaw (Gao), the two places we shall mention below. Then the river flows to Yufi, which is one of the biggest cities of the blacks. A white man cannot go there because they would kill him before he arrived there. Then the river comes down from there to the land of the Nubians who follow the Nasraniyya (Christian) faith, and on to Dunqula (Dongola), which is the biggest town in their land. …Then it descends to the cataracts. This is the last district of the blacks and the first of Uswan (Aswan) in Upper Egypt.

I saw a crocodile in this place on the Nile (Niger) near the shore like a small canoe.

Then we went from Karsakhu and reached a river called Sansara, which is about ten miles from Malli.

My entry into Malli was on the fourteenth of the first month of Jumada in the year '53 (i.e., 753 A.H., 28th June A.D. 1352), and my going out from there was on the twenty-second of Muharram in the year '54 (i.e. 754 AH., 27 February A.D. 1353). I was accompanied by a merchant known as Abu Bakr ibn Yacqub. We set out on the Mima road. I was riding a camel because horses were dear, costing about one hundred mithqals apiece. We reached a large arm of the river which comes out of the Nile (Niger) and which cannot be crossed except in boats. That place has many mosquitoes and nobody passes through except at night. We arrived at the arm of the river in the first third of the night and it was moonlight ... I saw on its bank sixteen beasts with enormous bodies. I was astonished by them. I thought they were elephants because there are plenty there. Then I saw them entering the river and said to Abu Bakr ibn Yacqub. 'What beasts are these?' He said 'These are horses of the river (hippopotami), they have come out to graze on the dry land.' They are more thickset than horses and they have manes and tails, their heads are like the heads of horses and their legs like the legs of elephants. I saw these horses another time when we were travelling on the Nile (Niger) from Tunbuktu to Kawkaw: they were swimming in the water and raising their heads and blowing. The boatmen feared them and came in close to the shore so as not to be drowned by them.

…Then we departed from this village which is by the branch of the river I mentioned, and we arrived at the town of Quri Mansa. There my camel which I was riding died. When I was told by its keeper I came out to look at it. I found the blacks had eaten it as their custom is in eating a dead animal. I sent the two boys I had hired to serve me to buy me a camel at Zaghari which was a distance of about two days journey. Some of the friends of Ibu Bakr son of Yacqub stayed with me while the latter went ahead to receive us at Mima. I stayed there for six days and was entertained by one of the pilgrims in this town until the two boys arrived with the camel.

…Then I departed for the town of Mima. In its neighbourhood we dismounted by some wells. We travelled then from there to the city of Tunbuktu, which is four miles from the Nile. Most of its inhabitants are Massufa, people of the veil. Its governor is called Farba Musa. I was present with him one day when he appointed one of the Massufa as amir over a company He 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. Then I reached a town whose name I have been caused by Satan) to forget. This town had as its amir an excellent man, a pilgrim called Farba Sulaiman, well known for his bravery and tenacity, no one was able to bend his bow. I did not see among the blacks anyone taller than he nor more massive in body.

Then I travelled to the city of Kawkaw (Gao). It is a big city on the Nile, one of the best of the cities of the blacks. It is one of the biggest and most fertile of their places, with much rice. milk, chicken and fish. In it there are inani pumpkins which have no rivals. The transactions of its people in buying and selling are carried out by means of cowries—as is the case among the people of Malli. I staved there about a month and was the guest of Muhammad ibn cUmar of the people of Miknasa. He was a gentle person, fond of making jokes, a man of merit. He died there after I left.

…Then I travelled from there in the direction of Takadia (Takidda) in the hinterland with a large caravan of the men of Ghadamas (Ghadames in Libya), whose guide and leader was al-Hajj Wujjin.

I had a camel for riding and a she-camel for carrying provisions. When we set out on the first stage the she-camel broke down. AI-Hajj Wujjin took what was on her and divided it among his companions. They shared out the burden. There was in the caravan a Maghribin of the people of Tadala who refused to carry any of it in the way other people had done. My servant lad was thirsty one day. I asked the Maghribin for water; he did not give it.

Then we arrived at the land of the Bardama people, a tribe of the Berbers. The caravan cannot travel except under their protection; and amongst them the protection of a woman is more important than that of a man. They are nomads, they do not stay in one place. Their dwelling places are strange in form: they set up poles of wood and place mats around them, over that they put interwoven sticks and over them skins or cotton cloth. Their women are the most perfect of women in beauty and the most comely in figure, in addition to being pure white and fat. I did not see in the land anyone who attained to their standard of fatness. These women's food is cow's milk and pounded millet; they drink it mixed with water, uncooked, morning and evening. A man who wants to marry among them has to settle with them in the country near them, and not take his spouse farther than either Kawkaw or Iwalatan.

…We exerted ourselves in travelling till we reached the city of Takadda…The houses of Takadda are built of red stone. Its water supply flows over the copper mines and its colour and taste are changed by that fact. There is no cultivation there except a little wheat which is eaten by the merchants and visitors. It is sold at the rate of twenty of their mudds for a Mithqal of gold.

…The people of Takadda carry on no business but trading. Every year they travel to Egypt and bring from there everything there is in the country by way of fine cloths and other things. For its people ease of life and ample condition are supreme; they vie with one another in the number of slaves and servants they have—as likewise do the people of Malli and Iwalatan. They do not sell educated women-slaves, except very rarely and at a great price.

…There is a copper mine outside Takadda. The people dig for it in the earth, bring it to the town, and smelt it in their houses. This is done by their men, and the women-slaves. When they have smelted it into red copper, they make it into rods about the length of a span and a half: some are of fine gauge and some thick. The thick are sold at the rate of four hundred rods for a mithqal of gold, the fine for six or seven hundred to the mithqal it is their means of exchange. They buy meat and firewood with the fine rods: they buy male and female slaves, millet, ghee, and wheat with the thick. Copper is carried from there to the city of Kubar in the land of the unbelievers, to Zaghay and to the country of Barnu which is at a distance of forty days from Takadda. Its people are Muslim; they have a king whose name is Idris, who does not appear before the people nor speak to them except from behind a curtain. From this country are brought beautiful slave women and eunuchs and heavy fabrics. Copper is also taken from Takadda to Jujuwat and to the land of the Murtibin and to other places.

...I wanted to travel to Tuwat. I carried provisions for seventy nights since food is not to be found between Takadda and Tuwat, only meat and milk and ghee which are bought in exchange for cloth. I left Takadda on Thursday, the eleventh of Shacban in the year '54 (AH. 754, 11th September A.D. 1353) in a big caravan which included Jacfar al-Tuwati, who is an eminent person, and the faqih Muhammad ibn cAbd Allah, qadi of Takadda. In the caravan there were about six hundred slavewomen. We arrived at Kahir in the land of the sultan of Karkari. It is a land of plentiful grass. The people buy sheep therefrom the Berbers and cut the meat into strips. This is carried by the people of Tuwat to their country.

From that land we entered into a wilderness with no buildings in it and no water: it is three days journey. Then we travelled after that fifteen days through a wilderness which has no buildings but there is water. We reached the place from which the road to Ghat and the road to Tuwat. And there are there water-beds whose water flows over iron; when white cloths are washed in it, their colour becomes black. We travelled from there for ten days, and arrived at the country of the Hakkar who are a tribe of the Berbers and wear face-veils. There is no good in them… We journeyed a month in the land of Hakkar: it has a scarcity of plants and an abundance of stones, the road too is rough.

Then we reached Buda which is one of the biggest villages of Tuwat. Its soil consists of sand and saline swamp. Its dates are plentiful but not sweet; yet its people prefer them to the dates of Sijilmasa. There is no cultivation there, no ghee, no olive oil. These things are brought to it from the land of the Maghrib. The food of its people is dates and locusts which are plentiful in their area. They preserve them as they store dates and feed on them. They go out to hunt locusts before sunrise when they cannot fly because of the cold.

We stayed at Buda some days, then we travelled in a caravan and in the middle of Dhu al-Qada we arrived at the city of Sijilmasa. I went out from it on the second of Dhu ' al-Hijja (29 December A.D. 1353) during a period of fierce cold. A lot of snow came down on the road. I have seen many rough roads and much snow in Bukhara and Samarkand and in Khurasan (in Persia), and in the land of the Turks, but I have never seen anything more difficult than the road of Umm Janaiba.


Other websites about Ibn Battuta

Ibn Battuta

Saudi Aramco World Magazine

Ibn Battuta

Leo Africanus

El Hasan ben Muhammed el-Wazzan-ez-Zayyati was born in the Moorish city of Granada in 1485, but was expelled along with his parents and thousands of other Muslims by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. Settling in Morocco, he studied in Fez, and as a teenager accompanied his uncle on diplomatic missions throughout North Africa and and to the Sub-Saharan kingdom of Ghana.

Still a young man, he was captured by Christian pirates and presented as an exceptionally learned slave to the great Renaissance pope, Leo X. Leo freed him, baptised him under the name "Johannis Leo de Medici," and commissioned him to write in Italian the detailed survey of Africa which provided most of what Europeans knew about the continent for the next several centuries.

At the time he visited the Ghanaian city of Timbuktu, it was somewhat past its peak, but still a thriving Islamic city famous for its learning. "Timbuktu" was to become a byword in Europe as the most inaccessible of cities, but at the time Leo visited, it was the center of a busy trade in African products and in books. Leo is said to have died in 1554 in Tunis, having reconverted to Islam.

The name of this kingdom is a modern one, after a city which was built by a king named Mansa Suleyman in the year 610 of the hegira [1232 CE] around twelve miles from a branch of the Niger River.

The houses of Timbuktu are huts made of clay-covered wattles with thatched roofs. In the center of the city is a temple built of stone and mortar, built by an architect named Granata, and in addition there is a large palace, constructed by the same architect, where the king lives. The shops of the artisans, the merchants, and especially weavers of cotton cloth are very numerous. Fabrics are also imported from Europe to Timbuktu, borne by Berber merchants.

The women of the city maintain the custom of veiling their faces, except for the slaves who sell all the foodstuffs. The inhabitants are very rich, especially the strangers who have settled in the country; so much so that the current king has given two of his daughters in marriage to two brothers, both businessmen, on account of their wealth. There are many wells containing sweet water in Timbuktu; and in addition, when the Niger is in flood canals deliver the water to the city. Grain and animals are abundant, so that the consumption of milk and butter is considerable. But salt is in very short supply because it is carried here from Tegaza, some 500 miles from Timbuktu. I happened to be in this city at a time when a load of salt sold for eighty ducats. The king has a rich treasure of coins and gold ingots. One of these ingots weighs 970 pounds.

The royal court is magnificent and very well organized. When the king goes from one city to another with the people of his court, he rides a camel and the horses are led by hand by servants. If fighting becomes necessary, the servants mount the camels and all the soldiers mount on horseback. When someone wishes to speak to the king, he must kneel before him and bow down; but this is only required of those who have never before spoken to the king, or of ambassadors. The king has about 3,000 horsemen and infinity of foot-soldiers armed with bows made of wild fennel which they use to shoot poisoned arrows. This king makes war only upon neighboring enemies and upon those who do not want to pay him tribute. When he has gained a victory, he has all of them--even the children--sold in the market at Timbuktu.

Only small, poor horses are born in this country. The merchants use them for their voyages and the courtiers to move about the city. But the good horses come from Barbary. They arrive in a caravan and, ten or twelve days later, they are led to the ruler, who takes as many as he likes and pays appropriately for them.

The king is a declared enemy of the Jews. He will not allow any to live in the city. If he hears it said that a Berber merchant frequents them or does business with them, he confiscates his goods. There are in Timbuktu numerous judges, teachers and priests, all properly appointed by the king. He greatly honors learning. Many hand-written books imported from Barbary are also sold. There is more profit made from this commerce than from all other merchandise.

Instead of coined money, pure gold nuggets are used; and for small purchases, cowrie shells which have been carried from Persia, and of which 400 equal a ducat. Six and two-thirds of their ducats equal one Roman gold ounce.

The people of Timbuktu are of a peaceful nature. They have a custom of almost continuously walking about the city in the evening (except for those that sell gold), between 10 PM and 1 AM, playing musical instruments and dancing. The citizens have at their service many slaves, both men and women.

The city is very much endangered by fire. At the time when I was there on my second voyage, (8) half the city burned in the space of five hours. But the wind was violent and the inhabitants of the other half of the city began to move their belongings for fear that the other half would burn.

There are no gardens or orchards in the area surrounding Timbuktu.

Translated by Paul Brians

Leo Africanus

Saturday, January 30, 2010

An ancient-book fever is gripping Timbuktu

An Ancient Book fever is gripping Timbuktu

Karin Brulliard
Washington Post
(January 9, 2010)

From a dented metal trunk, Abdoul Wahim Abdarahim Tahar pulled out something sure to make a preservationist's heart race -- or break: a leather-bound book written by hand in the 14th century, containing key verses of the Prophet Muhammad, and crumbling at the edge of each yellowed page.

"Every time I touch it, it falls apart," he said, paging through the book. "Little by little."

But Tahar saw promise in the brittle volume -- for himself, his family and this legendary but now tumbledown town.

He is not alone. A sort of ancient-book fever has been gripping Timbuktu, and residents hope to lure the world to a place known as the end of the Earth by establishing libraries for visitors to see their centuries-old collections of manuscripts.

In a West African town where nomads and traders eke out livings, a revival of world attention to hundreds of thousands of privately held manuscripts -- that survived fire, rain, sand and termites -- represents an economic opportunity.

Researchers and residents say restoration of the books, most written in Arabic on fragile paper or lambskin, is vital to showcasing Timbuktu's -- and subSaharan Africa's -- more glorious past as a vibrant hub of scholarship.

"Many think black people don't have history, that it's all oral," said Bouya Haidara, 52, chief librarian at Ahmed Baba Institute, a public library that is preparing to move into a new building sponsored by the South African government.

"It's important the world knows black Africans have a written history."

It has been slow going.

Travel warnings about Islamist insurgents have deterred tourists. Most books remain in private hands and will probably stay there: Many owners refuse to part with them on instructions of ancestors, but they struggle to raise funds to restore or display them.

Tahar's family has about 2,700 manuscripts passed down from his grandfather, a calligrapher.

For now, they are stuffed inside trunks alongside pots and pans, and in one bookcase at what he calls his library -- a couple of rooms, where he spends time cataloguing the works.

It also houses a dusty computer on which Tahar pulled up a spreadsheet outlining the library's needs, including a toilet and an exhibit room. Tahar said a Moroccan patron who saw him and his collection on a television program donated about $8,000, but help has otherwise been fleeting.

Other private libraries have been more fortunate as donors, including Libya and the Ford and Andrew W. Mellon foundations, have given millions of dollars. At the Mamma Haidara Library, which received financial help, women vacuum manuscripts in a restoration lab and men build acid-free storage boxes. "The manuscript is considered like a little baby," said director Mohamed Moure.

The library's 22,000 volumes have been in the family since the 16th century, Moure said. Still, he goes from village to village in search of new additions to a collection of ancient texts on medicine, history, astronomy, culture and religion.

"What I like most is the correspondence," Moure said, referring to antique letters. "They speak of walking to Bamako, or to Mecca ... mysterious things."

A half-dozen centuries ago, people were also walking -- flocking, even -- to Timbuktu. Its spot in the desert between North and sub-Saharan Africa and on the edge of the Niger River made it a crucial trade junction. A university of 25,000 students bustled with scholarship. Bazaars overflowed with books that arrived on the backs of camels. Calligraphers sold copies for grams of gold.

Timbuktu's decline began in the late 16th century, when Moroccan raiders chased away scholars they viewed as threats. Trade shifted to West African ports. The books were put away and neglected.

"Twenty years ago, people didn't even know about most of these manuscripts," said Alexio Motsi, a preservationist with the South African National Archives. "They were just stumbling across them."

Mansa Musa - Tales from Timbuktu

Some say Timbuktu is the end of the world. It is not. It lies in the heart of the country of Mali, a place in Africa with a long history, rich with tales. The vast sands of the Sahara spread to its north. The nourishing waters of the Niger River flow to the south.

Once upon a time, Timbuktu was Mali's most golden city. Step into Timbuktu's marketplace today and feel the hot sun. The sand under your feet is gritty. Look around at the low, clay-colored buildings. Some have spires jutting into the sun-bleached sky.

Women in brightly colored skirts walk by. You pass baskets filled with white rice and millet. You see red tomatoes and tan peanuts, rubber sandals and plastic buckets. A fire burns orange in a clay oven, where a woman bakes fresh bread.

Bringing the Past To Life

In one part of the market, a very old man prepares to tell a story. You sit in front of him. He squats and pours you a cup of tea. He is a griot, or a traditional storyteller.

If you lived in Mali, this is one way you would learn about your country. Griots chant about kings and magicians. They sing about wars and journeys from the past. History has been shared this same way for generations.

This griot has told the story of Timbuktu's famous past a thousand times. Listen as he takes you back 700 years ago, to the 14th century. He begins the way he always does....

"Long, long ago, when Mali was a powerful kingdom, there was a great king named Mansa Musa. He made Timbuktu into the City of Gold. Walk around Timbuktu today, and you can still see the enormous mosque that the king built. The gold from the past is gone. Yet another treasure remains."

The griot continues the story. "Mansa Musa was a wise and religious man. He made a pilgrimage to Mecca, a holy city. He traveled with thousands of followers and a treasure-load of gold. He went with his first wife and 500 of her servants.

"A line of 100 camels stretched as far as the eye could see. Each camel carried 140 kilograms of gold. Five hundred slaves, each carrying a heavy staff of gold, followed the camels. Thousands of ordinary people walked behind the slaves. It looked like an entire city winding through the desert."

"The journey took Mansa Musa a year. Everywhere he went, the king gave away his gold. When he reached Mecca, the gold was gone. That didn't matter to Mansa Musa. Now his name was golden. When people heard about Timbuktu, they didn't think of mud huts. They imagined a city shining like gold.

"Mansa Musa gave away his gold. But he brought back a different treasure: knowledge. The camels carried books about medicine, math, law, and more. Scholars returned with the king. So did an architect, or building designer. They helped turn Timbuktu into a city of mosques, libraries, and schools. It had been a center of trade. Now it was a center of learning, culture, and religion, too. Timbuktu truly was a golden city," the griot says.

It has been hundreds of years since Mansa Musa ruled. Mali fell on hard times. Trade routes moved from the desert to the ocean. Other tribes and countries wanted to run Mali. Some started battles and caused great damage.

In 1960, Mali finally became an independent country. No other country controls it. Today, it's one of the poorest nations. Yet it still has a priceless treasure - books from its golden past. Many of the ancient books are wrapped in leather. Some are written on paper, others on tree bark or gazelle skin. Many are handwritten in flowing Arabic letters.

Their pages are filled with ideas about stars and math, history and religion, and more. The books let us understand Timbuktu's brilliant past. Some are about making peace. Those ideas, from centuries ago, may help us today.

But these books are in danger. Over hundreds of years, families have tried to protect them. Yet sand, weather, even termites have damaged the books. Some crumble in private libraries and kitchen cupboards. Some lie buried underground or hidden in caves. Others are in the leather trunks of traveling nomads.

Scientists are working hard to save the books. They are carefully preserving them. They are using scanners and special cameras to store the books on computer, creating a digital library. Soon scholars everywhere will be able to log onto the Internet and learn from Timbuktu's great past.

Before you leave, the griot shares an old Mali saying with you: "To succeed you need three things—the brazier, time, and friends."

The brazier is a stove to heat water for tea. Time is what you need to brew the tea. Friends are what you need to drink it. If you have friends and tea, can good stories be far behind?

Today, the griot told you a famous story from Mali's golden past. Ancient books and modern computers also are helping Mali share its stories with the world. As you sip the last drops of tea, ask yourself: What stories will you bring home from Timbuktu?

National Geographic Explorer

Catalan map of Mali

This is a 14th century Catalan map showing Mansa Musa holding a piece of gold as an Arab trader approaches on camelback. A patron of education, King Musa chose Timbuktu as the location for the 14th-century Sankore Mosque which housed the University of Timbuktu, one of the world's oldest universities.

Pinpointing Timbuktu

The Dogon People of Mali

According to oral tradition, the Dogon people of south-central Mali originated near the headwaters of the Niger River, and fled their homes sometime between the 10th and 13th centuries because they refused to convert to Islam. However, the Voltaic language of the Dogon suggests a more ancient presence in their present-day homeland. They inhabit a rugged and isolated environment where cliffs protected the group from outside invaders, including French colonialists and missionaries.

Traditionally, the extended patrilineal family forms the basic social unit of the Dogon, who lack strong centralized authorities. A hogon, or headman (traditionally the oldest man in the area), provides spiritual leadership and safeguards the religious masks for which the Dogon are famous; however, a council of elders holds decision-making power within each village. The Dogon maintain a kind of caste system based on occupation. Farmers rank at the top of the system, while blacksmiths and hunters, who perform “polluting” work, are lower on the caste scale.

Unlike their Muslim neighbors, most Dogon still practice a traditional religion with a complex mythology. Dogon cosmology considers every being a combination of complementary opposites; elaborate rituals are necessary to maintain the balance. Ancestor-worship is another importance facet of Dogon religion. Members of the “Society of Masks” perform rituals to guarantee that a person’s “life force” will flee from his or her corpse to a future relative of the same lineage. One of the most famous Dogon rituals is the Sigi — a series of rituals performed once every 60 years. Islamic missionaries, however, have had some success among the Dogon, and approximately 35 percent of the Dogon population are now Muslim.

The Sirius Mystery
The Dogon believe themselves to be of Egyptian decent and their astronomical lore goes back thousands of years to 3200 BC. According to their traditions, the star Sirius has a companion star which is invisible to the human eye. This companion star has a 50 year elliptical orbit around the visible Sirius and is extremely heavy. It also rotates on its axis.

This legend might be of little interest to anybody but the two French anthropologists, Marcel Griaule and Germain Dieterlen, who recorded it from four Dogon priests in the 1930's. Of little interest except that it is exactly true. How did a people who lacked any kind of astronomical devices know so much about an invisible star? The star, which scientists call Sirius B, wasn't even photographed until it was done by a large telescope in 1970.

The Dogon stories explain that also. According to their oral traditions, a race people from the Sirius system called the Nommos visited Earth thousands of years ago. The Nommos were ugly, amphibious beings that resembled mermen and mermaids. They also appear in Babylonian, Accadian, and Sumerian myths. The Egyptian Goddess Isis, who is sometimes depicted as a mermaid, is also linked with the star Sirius.

The Nommos, according to the Dogon legend, lived on a planet that orbits another star in the Sirius system. They landed on Earth in an "ark" that made a spinning decent to the ground with great noise and wind. It was the Nommos that gave the Dogon the knowledge about Sirius B.

The legend goes on to say the Nommos also furnished the Dogon's with some interesting information about our own solar system: That the planet Jupiter has four major moons, that Saturn has rings and that the planets orbit the sun. These were all facts discovered by Westerners only after Galileo invented the telescope.

The story of the Dogon and their legend was first brought to popular attention by Robert K.G. Temple in a book published in 1977 called The Sirius Mystery. Science writer Ian Ridpath and astronomer Carl Sagan made a reply to Temple's book, suggesting that this modern knowledge about Sirius must have come from Westerners who discussed astronomy with the Dogon priests. The priests then included this new information into the older traditions. This, in turn, mislead the anthropologists.

This is a possibility considering Sirius B's existence was suspected as early as 1844 and seen was through a telescope in 1862. It doesn't seem to explain a 400-year old Dogon artifact that apparently depicts the Sirius configuration nor the ceremonies held by the Dogon since the 13th century to celebrate the cycle of Sirius A and B. It also doesn't explain how the Dogons knew about the super-density of Sirius B, a fact only discovered a few years before the anthropologists recorded the Dogon stories.

It is also important to remember that although many parts of the Dogon legends seem to ring true, other portions are clearly mistaken. One of the Dogon's beliefs is that Sirius B occupied the place where our Sun is now. Physics clearly prohibits this. Also, if the Dogon believe that Sirius B orbits Sirius A every 50 years, why do they hold their celebrations every 60 years?

Sirius A is the brightest star in our sky and can easily be seen in the winter months in the northern hemisphere. Look for the constellation Orion. Orion's belt are the three bright stars in a row. Follow an imaginary line through the three stars to Sirius which is just above the horizon. It is bluish in color.

Sirius is only 8.6 light years from Earth. Astronomer W.Bessel was the first to suspect that Sirius had an invisible companion when he observed that the path of the star wobbled. In the 1920's it was determined that Sirius B, the companion of Sirius, was a "white dwarf" star. The pull of its gravity caused Sirius's wavy movement.

Sirius Source

Other interesting websites about the Dogon People

Dogon People

Dogon People

Dogon People

Sahara - the Movie (2005)

One of my favourite authors wrote one of my favourite books - about an adventure in the Sahara. Which got made into one of my favourite movies.

Now while there is no action specifically set in Timbuktu, the action does take place in Niger and Mali. One of my favourite scenes in the movie, is in a mosque filled with scrolls. That scene gives an idea of what I beleive the ancient libraries and universities in Timbuktu may have looked like.

The People of Timbuktu

The Tuareg, Fulani, Arabs and Songhai are the main groups that shaped the history of Timbuktu. These groups intermarried and worked together as one united Islamic family.

The Tuaregs
The Tuaregs are nomadic people and desert dwellers. The Tuareg are either Messufa, Lamtuna, or Judaala, who traced their ancestry back to the Sanhaja. The Sanhaja traced their lineage back to the Himyar who are people of Southern Arabia. They, however, lived among the Berbers before crossing the Sahara and settling in West Africa. They are the founders of the city of Timbuktu. They contributed scholarly and commercially to the legacy of Timbuktu. Today, the Tuareg live in Mali and Niger.

The Fulani
The Fulani are nomadic people and are well-known for their herds of cattle. They are astute merchants and excellent Islamic scholars. The Fulani, the Tuareg and Arabs have been instrumental in spreading Islam in West Africa. They are nation builders and ruled over the Futa Jallon and Futa Tora. Under the leadership of Shayk Ahmadu, they formed the caliphate of Massina. In the 18th century, the famous Fulani scholar and warrior Uthman Dan Fodio founded the Sokoto caliphate in northern Nigeria. The Fulani produced most of the eminent scholars of Jenne and Massina. According to the manuscript number 43 of Ahmed Baba Center in Timbuktu, the Fulani trace their lineage back to the Koraysh of Mecca through Oqba ibn Yasir who married a Fulani princess of Futa Toro by the name of Madeumaa. From this marriage she had four boys. They are the ancestors of the Fulani tribes: these are the Diallo, Dicko, Sangare, Balde' or Ba, Barry and Diakite. Today, the Fulani are mainly in West Africa.

The Songhai
The Songhai people are sedentary people unlike the Tuareg, Fulani and Arabs. Their original capitol was fixed at Kukya, on the border of Niger and Mali. Later on they intermarried with the Sonike people under the Sonis and Askias dynasties. They are farmers and fishermen. They are the founders of the Songhai Empire and have brought a lot of prosperity, prestige and reputation to the Black people. They are good Muslims and have spread Islam in West Africa. They are generous, noble, hardworking, excellent and courageous warriors in addition to excellent planners and organizers. The Songhai Empire was one of the most democratic social entities of its time. The Empire was well managed politically and economically.

Islam arrived in the African continent in the 5th year of Muhammad’s prophethood; this would be around the 7th century.(CE) with the migration of his followers from Mecca to Abyssinia (Ethiopia). These early Muslims carried the noble message of Islam to Africa even before its explosive spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Upon reaching Abyssinia, the Muslims met with the King Negus who, impressed with their gentle and noble mannerisms, embraced Islam and himself became a Muslim. From there, Islam spread quickly like wild-fire throughout Bilad-us-Sudan (Black Africa). Muslim traders from East Africa reached sub-Saharan Africa where the Emperor of Ghana was also introduced to Islam. Because of their impressive character, he hired these traders as administrators in his government. They were so adept at managing his affairs that he converted to the Islamic faith. From there the Muslims reached Timbuktu through the Trans-Saharan caravan trade. Once in Timbuktu, they settled in Sankore around the 13th and 14th centuries. They are excellent traders and Islamic scholars. Their presence in Timbuktu has added more flavor to the already flourishing intellectual life. Timbuktu was a veritable melting pot. The city welcomed everyone.

Today, the city of Timbuktu continues to attract visitors from far away lands. Timbuktu is the city of light, the city of is the city of trade and the city of hospitality. Indeed, travelers have said that Timbuktu is the Rome of the Sudan, the Athena of Africa and the Mecca of the Sahara.

Timbuktu People

The Timbuktu Universities

The University was organized around three great Masajid or Mosques:

Jingaray Ber
Sidi Yahya

Masajid (plural for mosque) are places of worship for Muslims. Not only did students seek knowledge, but they purified their souls through the sciences of Islam. Islam breeds leaders that are God fearing, just, honest, trustworthy and of excellent moral character. Graduate students were the embodiment of the teachings of the Holy Qur'an and the traditions of the Mohammed, the Prophet of Islam.

Around the 12th century, the University of Timbuktu had an attendance of 25,000 students in a city which had a population of 100,000 people. The students came from all corners of the African continent in search of excellence in knowledge and trade. On graduation day, students were given Turbans. The turban symbolizes Divine light, wisdom, knowledge, excellent moral conduct and represents the demarcation line between knowledge and ignorance. The knots and circles of the turban represent the name Allah. This means that the graduate students know the Divine obligations and responsibilities to be discharged honorably in their communities and toward their fellow men.

The University curriculum had four degrees or levels:

1. The primary degree
At this level the students memorized the Holy Qur'an, perfected their mastery of Arabic and learned to communicate and write effectively. The students were also introduced to the basics in other sciences. This level is also called Qur'anic school.

2. The secondary degree
Now the students have committed the Holy Qur'an to memory. This is very important because all the Islamic sciences are rooted and derived from the Qur'an which constitutes the source of authenticity and authority. Any teachings or narrations that are not supported by the verses of the Qur'an are rejected and constitute an innovation.

This level may be called the General Studies level. Here the students are introduced to the different branches of Islamic knowledge. These Islamic sciences are: grammar, commentaries of the Qur'an, the Hadith or the Prophetic narrations, jurisprudence, mathematics, geography, history, Islamic schools of thoughts, physics, astronomy, chemistry, sciences of the purification of the heart and soul, etc. The students also spend time in learning a trade and the Islamic business code and ethics. The university trade shops offered classes in business, carpentry, farming, fishing, construction, shoe making, tailoring, navigation etc.

This is very important because as an Imam or Islamic scholar one has to impart honest and unbiased judgments in settling legal issues. This integrity will be compromised if the Imam or the scholar’s living expenses are being supplied by the rich people. In order the Imam or scholar to be just and fair in discharging legal decrees, he has to earn his own halal (permissible) income.

3. The superior degree
The curriculum was highly specialized. The students sat in classes of renowned professors. Sankore was one of the most important departments of the University in this regard. At this level, the studies were of higher learning and mastery and are comparable to any university in the Islamic world. The students did more of the research work.

For instance, the professors of the different branches of Islamic knowledge would give the students questions on different subjects and topics to be researched. Each student would then present, argue and defend his position in front of the professors and other students who would storm him with a flow of tough questions. Students go from one department to the others and from one professor to the others in search of knowledge.

Most students at this stage would find a Shayk or master and study under his guidance. The Shayk would purge the student of all his Shaytanic characteristics and tendencies, and then would ensure that the same graduate student be a good Islamic model for the generation to come. Graduation was based upon a student's excellent Islamic character and his mastery of Islamic knowledge.

4. The circle of knowledge
This is the club of Muslim Imams, Scholars and Professors. It was here that most of the important and crucial issues of Islam are being discussed. The caliphs or Muslims state leaders such as Askia Mohammed of the Songhai Empire, Mansa Musa of the Malian Empire, Shayk Amadu of the Fulani caliphate of Massina, The amirs and sultans of the provinces of the Sudan would send crucial questions to the Ulemas or scholars of Timbuktu. The scholar who received the questions will make copies of these question or issues and distribute them among the members of the circle of knowledge. Each scholar will research the issue and then they all get together to share their answers and thus put together a manuscripts dealing in detail with the questions or issues and then issue a Fatwa or legal Islamic ruling by the government authorities will abide.

There was also the case of one Muslim who was wealthy and generous. Whoever was in need in Timbuktu approached him and secured a loan. As time went by, the Imam of Jingare Ber noticed that the number of attendance of Mosque was decreasing each Friday. (Jingare Ber, up to the present day, is the only Masjid open on Fridays in Timbuktu. The entire population converges to this famous Mosque). The Imam inquired about the cause of the lowered attendance at the Masjid and discovered that most people of Timbuktu owed money to the generous wealthy man. The people who owed him money were unable to pay their debt so they decided to stay home for fear and embarassment of running into the man. The dilemma now was what to do. The matter was submitted to the circle of knowledge who decided that the wealthy man should stay home or forgive the debt. The wealthy man was called in. He forgave those in debt and said he had no idea that the lower attendance was because of him.

Timbuktu Universities

The Timbuktu Manuscripts

The Timbuktu manuscripts are a symbolic representation of the impact of the early schools and universities (XII-XVIth century) that existed in West Africa (Timbuktu-Gao-Djenné-Kano). However, the manuscripts that remain in Timbuktu are only part of the intellectual heritage of the region because other manuscripts can be found throughout West Africa.

Today, this entire African intellectual legacy is on the verge of being lost. The brittle condition of the manuscripts i.e. pages disintegrate easily like ashes. The termites, insects, weather, piracy of the manuscripts, and the selling of these treasures to tourists for food money pose a serious threat to the future of the manuscripts of Timbuktu.

Anyone who appreciates these legacies- Islamic, intellectual, academic and spiritual- would be desperate to save the endangered manuscripts of Timbuktu. There are 700,000 manuscripts in Timbuktu and surroundings on the verge of being lost if the appropriate action is not taken. These manuscripts represent a turning point in the history of Africa and its people. The translation and publication will restore self-respect, pride, honor and dignity to the people of Africa and those descended from Africa; it will also obliterate stereotypical images of primitive savages as true representation of Africa and its civilization.

Before the European Renaissance, Timbuktu flourished as the greatest academic and commercial center in Africa. Great empires such as Ghana, Mali, and Songhai were proofs of the talents, creativity and ingenuity of the people. The University of Timbuktu produced both Black African scholars and leaders of the highest rank, character and nobility.

The manuscripts cover diverse subjects: mathematics, chemistry, physics, optics, astronomy, medicine, history, geography, Islamic sciences and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), government legislation and treaties, jurisprudence and much much more.

Timbuktu Manuscripts