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

This is our family's story

Ancient Manuscripts From the Desert Libraries of Timbuktu

TIMBUKTU, Mali — Ismaël Diadié Haïdara held a treasure in his slender fingers that has somehow endured through 11 generations — a square of battered leather enclosing a history of the two branches of his family, one side reaching back to the Visigoths in Spain and the other to the ancient origins of the Songhai emperors who ruled this city at its zenith.

A copy of the Koran from the 12th century. According to notes in the text, it was bought for a Moroccan king for a sum of gold.

“This is our family’s story,” he said, carefully leafing through the unbound pages. “It was written in 1519.”

The musty collection of fragile, crumbling pages, written in the florid Arabic script of the sixteenth century, is also this once forgotten outpost’s future.

A surge of interest in ancient books, hidden for centuries in houses along Timbuktu’s dusty streets and in leather trunks in nomad camps, is raising hopes that Timbuktu — a city whose name has become a staccato synonym for nowhere — may once again claim a place at the intellectual heart of Africa.

“I am a historian,” Mr. Haïdara said. “I know from my research that great cities seldom get a second chance. Yet here we have a second chance because we held on to our past.”

This ancient city, a prisoner of the relentless sands of the Sahara and a changing world that prized access to the sea over the grooves worn by camel hooves across the dunes, is on the verge of a renaissance.

“We want to build an Alexandria for black Africa,” said Mohamed Dicko, director of the Ahmed Baba Institute, a government-run library in Timbuktu. “This is our chance to regain our place in history.”

The South African government is building a new library for the institute, a state-of-the-art facility that will house, catalog and digitize tens of thousands of books and make their contents available, many for the first time, to researchers. Charities and governments from Europe, the United States and the Middle East have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the city’s musty family libraries, which are being expanded and transformed into research institutions, drawing scholars from around the world eager to translate and interpret the long forgotten manuscripts.

The Libyan government is planning to transform a dingy 40-room hotel into a luxurious 100-room resort, complete with Timbuktu’s only swimming pool and space to hold academic and religious conferences. Libya is also digging a new canal that will bring the Niger River to the edge of Timbuktu.

Timbuktu’s new seekers have a variety of motives. South Africa and Libya are vying for influence on the African stage, each promoting its vision of a resurgent Africa. Spain has direct links to some of the history stored here, while American charities began giving money after Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard professor of African studies, featured the manuscripts in a television documentary series in the late 1990s.

This new chapter in the story of Timbuktu, whose fortunes fell in the twilight of the Middle Ages, is almost as extraordinary as those that preceded it.

The geography that has doomed Timbuktu to obscurity in the popular imagination for half a millennium was once the reason for its greatness. It was founded as a trading post by nomads in the 11th century and later became part of the vast Mali Empire, then ultimately came under the control of the Songhai Empire.

For centuries it flourished because it sat between the great superhighways of the era — the Sahara, with its caravan routes carrying salt, cloth, spices and other riches from the north, and the Niger River, which carried gold and slaves from the rest of West Africa.

Traders brought books and manuscripts from across the Mediterranean and Middle East, and books were bought and sold in Timbuktu — in Arabic and local languages like Songhai and Tamashek, the language of the Tuareg people.

Timbuktu was home to the University of Sankore, which at its height had 25,000 scholars. An army of scribes, gifted in calligraphy, earned their living copying the manuscripts brought by travelers. Prominent families added those copies to their own libraries. As a result, Timbuktu became a repository of an extensive and eclectic collection of manuscripts.

“Astronomy, botany, pharmacology, geometry, geography, chemistry, biology,” said Ali Imam Ben Essayouti, the descendant of a family of imams that keeps a vast library in one of the city’s mosques. “There is Islamic law, family law, women’s rights, human rights, laws regarding livestock, children’s rights. All subjects under the sun, they are represented here.”

Ismaël Diadié Haïdara with collected family manuscripts. He says Timbuktu has a "second chance" to become a great city again.

One 19th-century book on Islamic practices gives advice on menstruation. A medical text suggests using toad meat to treat snake bites, and droppings from panthers mixed with butter to soothe boils. There are thousands of Korans and books on Islamic law, as well as decorated biographies of the Prophet Muhammad, some dating back a millennium, complete with diagrams of his shoes.

Mr. Haïdara is a descendant of the Kati family, a prominent Muslim family in Toledo, Spain. One of his ancestors fled religious persecution in the 15th century and settled in what is now Mali, bringing his formidable library with him. The Kati family intermarried into the Songhai imperial family, and the habit Mr. Haïdara’s ancestors had of doodling notes in the margins of their manuscripts has left an abundance of historical information: births and deaths in the imperial family, the weather, drafts of imperial letters, herbal cures, records of slaves, and salt and gold traded.

Moroccan invaders deposed the Songhai empire in 1591, and the new rulers were hostile to the community of scholars, who were seen as malcontents. Facing persecution, many fled, taking many books with them.

West African sea routes overtook the importance of the old inland desert and river trade, and the city began its long decline. When the first European explorers stumbled across the once fabled city, they were stunned at its decrepitude. René Caillié, a French explorer who arrived here in 1828, said it was “a mass of ill-looking houses built of earth.”

Mr. Caillié’s description remains accurate today. For all its vaunted legend, Timbuktu remains a collection of low mud houses along narrow, trash-choked streets backed by sand dunes, difficult to reach and unimpressive on first sight. In 1990, Unesco designated it an endangered site because sand dunes threatened to swallow it.

Many tourists who come here stay for just a day, long enough to buy a T-shirt and get their passports stamped at the local tourism office as proof they have been to the end of the earth. In a recent Internet campaign to choose the new seven wonders of the world, Timbuktu failed to make the cut, much to the chagrin of the city’s tour guides and boosters.

Yet the city has been making a slow comeback for years. Its manuscripts, long hidden, began to emerge in the mid-20th century, as Mali won its independence from France and the city was declared a Unesco world heritage site.

The government created an institute named after Ahmed Baba, Timbuktu’s greatest scholar, to collect, preserve and interpret the manuscripts. Abdel Kader Haïdara, no relation of Ismaël Diadié Haïdara, an Islamic scholar whose family owned an extensive collection of manuscripts, started an organization called Savama-DCI dedicated to preserving the manuscripts. After a visit from Mr. Gates in 1997, he was able to get help from American charities to support private family libraries. With the support of the Ford and Mellon foundations, families began to catalog and preserve their collections.

But time, scorching desert heat, termites and sandstorms have taken a toll on the manuscripts. Most were locked in trunks or kept on dusty shelves for centuries, and their pages are brittle and crumbling, waterlogged and termite-eaten. In the village of Ber, two hours of dusty track east of Timbuktu, Fida Ag Mohammed tends to several trunks of manuscripts that have been in his family, a line of Tuareg imams, for centuries.

“This is a biography of the Prophet Muhammad,” he said, gingerly lifting one manuscript bound in crumbling leather. “It is from the 13th century.”

The neat lines of Arabic script were clearly legible, but the edges of many pages had crumbled away, the words trailing off into nothingness.

Savama is in the process of building a new mud-brick library for Mr. Mohammed’s books, but until it is ready he has no means to preserve his manuscripts. To rescue their contents, if not their physical substance, he was copying the most fragile texts by hand, using an ink he makes himself out of gum.

Now, when the scorching heat of the day eases, a favored sunset activity in Timbuktu is watching the Libyan earthmovers dig the new canal. Like tiny toy trucks in a giant sandbox, they push mountains of sand to coax the Niger to flow here, bringing more water and new life to the dune-surrounded city.

“To see this machine makes me more happy because it means things are changing in Timbuktu,” said Sidi Muhammad, a 40-year-old Koranic scholar, splayed on a dune with a group of friends, gossiping and fingering their prayer beads.

The Malian government has encouraged Islamic learning to flourish here once again, and there are dozens of Koranic schools where children and adults learn to read and recite the Koran. Training programs are teaching men and women how to classify, interpret and translate the documents, as well as preserve them for future study.

Abdel Kader Haïdara, who in many ways started the renaissance by wandering the desert in search of manuscripts, persuading families to allow their treasures to see the light of day, said Timbuktu’s best days lie ahead of it.

“Timbuktu is coming back,” he said. “It will rise again.”

New York Times August 2007

NYT August 2007 - Page 2

Fascinated by Timbuktu

I have been fascinated by Timbuktu for many years - ever since I learned that it once used to be a great medieval city of education and scholarship. It had universities for goodness sakes. It must have been famous. These days barely anyone has heard of it. There were also rumours that there may be many many ancient manuscripts still in the city.

I have started this blog because those ancient manuscripts are now being brought out of hiding, in order for their writings to be preserved and transferred to digital media for the entire world to read and enjoy. Also to tell the history of Islamic education in that city.

Mali Feature - NY Times - 2007

Pictures from Timbuktu

Astronomy and mathematic texts

Welcome to Timbuktu

Timbuktu Map dated 1855

From Here to Timbuktu

Timbuktu might not always come to mind as one of the world's great sites. Yet it is, and to omit its mention is to omit a triumph of Islamic scholarship and learning, which in a world of one billion Muslims would be an omission indeed. It is interesting, though, that, once again, Muslims are not getting their message across sufficiently well to the rest of the world. Everyone has heard of the Great Wall of China and the Eiffel Tower, but Timbuktu?

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city of Timbuktu is a rather forlorn place. Lying on the edge of the Sahara Desert in present-day Mali, which it became part of in 1960, the town has a small population of just over 30,000 people. In constant danger of desertification from the shifting sands of the Sahara, the town still manages to attract visitors who brave great distances in getting there, and it now even has its own international airport. There are still fine monuments to be seen, but it is more what the town used to be that attracts. Timbuktu is almost mythical. In the English language we talk of traveling "from here to Timbuktu," suggesting a journey to faraway and difficult-to-approach places.

In its heyday in the 15th and 16th centuries, Timbuktu had 100,000 inhabitants, almost a quarter of whom were Islamic scholars who had traveled from Egypt and Makkah to study at the great University of Sankore. How many Muslims know this?

Timbuktu lay at the crossroads of trading routes linking North and West Africa with the Arab world and beyond. It was a trading center for gold and for salt. In fact, Timbuktu was so fabulously wealthy that when Emperor Mansa Musa traveled to Cairo in the 14th century on his way to perform Hajj, he is said to have given away so much gold as gifts that the local currency market crashed. It was he who brought architects from Al-Andalus in Spain to build the city's great mosque and also the mosque of Sankore, around which the university grew.

Timbuktu's fame as a city of scholarship came from its books, which were written, translated, and copied by its scholars. In its heyday there were 120 libraries containing manuscripts that chronicled every aspect of human knowledge. The town today still has many of these libraries, though smaller in scale, and they house dusty manuscripts and books going back centuries. The world's wealthier nations have contributed both time and finances to document and preserve many of these treasures, although many more manuscripts have managed to find their way to libraries and museums overseas.

Timbuktu still has three of its mud-built mosques. The mosques of Djinguereber (1327), Sidi Yahya (1441), and Sankore (early 15th century) remind us of the primacy that knowledge and learning hold in the Islamic world, since the university's students would gather in them to sit at the feet of their teachers. The mosques and the libraries, dating back centuries, both remind us that Islam is not the backward creed that many would like to portray it as today. The city's scholars influenced minds many thousands of miles away.

While not the most obvious place that comes to mind when the world's wonders are mentioned, Timbuktu is nevertheless a fabled place with a great history. Distant and remote from the noise and the bustle of this world, it is a place to reflect. Muslims are justifiably proud that Islam sees no opposition between faith and reason.

Timbuktu speaks to us of a Muslim city where faith and intellect can sit quite comfortably together. For that reason alone, in a world where faith and reason are often pitted against one another, it deserves our vote as one of the wonders of the world. For that reason, alone, Timbuktu has something to say to the hearts of all people. As Muslims, encouraged by our Prophet (peace be upon him) to seek knowledge "even as far as China," we should be prepared to reverence such a place and be eager to travel each day, in our hearts, in search of life's meaning "from here to Timbuktu."