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In April 2012 Tuareg rebels swept into the ancient city of Timbuktu and the city was soon placed under the rule of Islamist radicals who imposed Sharia law and set about a campaign of destruction of ancient Sufi sites. Sufi is a mystical school of popular Islam which honors its saints with ornate shrines. The Islamic rebels attacked the Sufi shrines, graves, and mausoleums with pick-axes, shovels, and bulldozers. The Islamic militants view these things as a form of idolatry and feel they should be destroyed. Most recently, they burned a library housing thousands of ancient manuscripts which scholars have described as a priceless heritage of Africa and Islam. This was one of the greatest libraries of Islamic manuscripts in the world.

The burning of the library appears to have been an act of retaliation against the French and Malian troops who were retaking the city.

Timbuktu (also spelled Timbuctoo and Tombouctou)  was originally founded by the nomadic Tuareg sometime in the tenth century.  The Tuaregs, as a nomadic people, used Timbuktu as a seasonal settlement, staying there primarily in the summer when water was scarce.

Linguistically, the Tuareg language is a Berber language and belongs to the Afro-Asiatic language family as do the Semitic languages Arabic and Hebrew. Linguistic and archaeological evidence suggests that the ancestors of the Tuareg were living in North Africa by about 50,000 years ago. They acquired camels from the Arabs about 2,000 years ago and established the trans-Saharan caravan trade routes which connected the great cities on the southern edge of the Sahara with Africa’s Mediterranean coast. Their nomadic lifestyle was based on trade and the seasons.

Prior to the diffusion of Islam into the region, the Tuareg were animists. Among the spirits who were important to them was Ouagadou-Bida, a water-serpent of the Niger River.

In the eleventh century, Muslim merchants from Djenne set up markets and built permanent dwellings in Timbuktu. They introduced Islam to the region and with it the reading of the Qur’an. Timbuktu rapidly became a major trading depot for the caravans of the Sahara Desert. The goods that flowed through the trade center included salt, gold, ivory, and slaves.

Trade map

The map shows the primary camel caravan trade routes across the Sahara. Djenne is located south of Timbuktu.

The permanent settlement at Timbuktu was built with local materials: primarily mud brick. The nature of this material tends to restrict heights. For the minarets of the mosques, wooden beams with exposed ends were used to reinforce the towers. The high walls in the minarets are not load-bearing. The buildings in Timbuktu were constructed in the classical style of West African Islamic architecture.

Timbuktu Mosque

Timbuktu Mosque 2

Timbuktu Mosque 3

The exposed ends of the logs which support the minarets can be seen in the photographs above.

The mosques functioned not only as centers of worship, but they were also places of education. They often housed extensive libraries of manuscripts from throughout the Islamic world.


The mud brick architecture can be seen in the above photo.

The houses, warehouses, and trading centers were all built of mud brick. The extensive use of locally produced mud brick means that the city had one primary color: tan. House doors were generally made out of wood and were often decorated in individualized styles. Shade in the courtyards of the houses is provided by palms trees.

During the fourteenth century, the legend of Timbuktu as a rich cultural center spread through the world. The beginning of the legend can be traced to 1324, when the Emperor of Mali made his pilgrimage to Mecca via Cairo. In Cairo, the merchants and traders were impressed by the amount of gold carried by the emperor, who claimed that the gold was from Timbuktu. Furthermore, in 1354 the great Muslim explorer Ibn Batuta wrote of his visit to Timbuktu and told of the wealth and gold of the region. Thus, Timbuktu became known as an African El Dorado, a city made of gold.

During the fifteenth century Timbuktu grew in importance, but its homes were never made of gold. Timbuktu produced few of its own goods but served as the major trading center for salt trade across the desert region. The city also became a center of Islamic study and the home of a university and extensive library. The city's maximum population during the 1400s probably numbered somewhere between 50,000 to 100,000, with approximately one-quarter of the population composed of scholars and students.

The legend of Timbuktu's wealth refused to die and only grew. A 1526 visit to Timbuktu by a Muslim from Grenada, Leo Africanus, told of Timbuktu as a typical trading outpost. This only incited further interest in the city. In 1618, a London company was formed to establish trade with Timbuktu. Unfortunately, the first trading expedition ended up with the massacre of all its members and a second expedition sailed up the Gambia River and thus never reached Timbuktu.

17 cent map

Shown above is a 17th century European map of the region. Timbuktu first began appearing in European maps in 1375 when the Catalan Atlas showed it as a commercial center linked to North African cities.

Timbuktu was not only a trading center, but a center for education as well. Many individuals travelled to Timbuktu to acquire knowledge. The city was also home to one of the earliest universities in the world. The city became famous for scholars with pan-Islamic reputations. The reputation of the University of Timbuktu as a place of outstanding scholarship and knowledge was well-known throughout the Islamic world.

The University of Timbuktu was actually made up of a range of informal institutions called madrasahs. The three main madrasahs—Djinguereber, Sidi Yahya, and Sankore—served about 25,000 students. The madrasahs were explicitly religious and focused on the study of the Qur’an, Islamic law, and the writings of Islamic scholars.

By the fourteenth century, at a time before the printing press, books were being written and copied in Timbuktu. While its book production was anchored in the methods of Islamic book production, the books manufactured in Timbuktu had some unique features. The bindings of the Timbuktu manuscripts are unique: they are decorated with incised markings that are unique to the area. Unlike other Islamic manuscripts, their pages are not attached to the binding.

Books were both written and copied in Timbuktu. In addition, the many resident scholars in the city imported manuscripts from other parts of the Islamic world. Thus there are today manuscripts in the city’s many libraries which have been copied in other areas.  

The Library of Congress Islamic Manuscripts from Mali features 32 manuscripts from the Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library and the Library of Cheick Zayni Baye of Boujbeha, both in Timbuktu, Mali. The manuscripts presented online are displayed in their entirety and are an exemplary grouping that showcase the wide variety of subjects covered by the written traditions of Timbuktu, Mali, and West Africa.

Book page

Shown above is one of the pages from a Timbuktu manuscript in the Library of Congress.

Manuscript pages

Shown above is a page from a manuscript about astronomy and mathematics.

1855 city map

Shown above is an 1855 map of the city.

Today there are an estimated 60-70 private and public libraries in Timbuktu which contain an estimated 700,000 manuscripts. Many of the manuscripts are vulnerable to insect damage and theft. The Timbuktu Manuscript Project was started in 2008 to catalog and preserve these ancient manuscripts. At the present time, the extent of the damage to these libraries and their manuscripts is unknown.

Originally posted to Ojibwa on Wed Jan 30, 2013 at 08:15 AM PST.

Also republished by History for Kossacks and Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter.

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