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Timbuktu is an historic city in Mali which was once a centre of trade, religion and culture, although it is today thought of as inaccessible and even mythical, thanks to phrases such as “from here to Timbuktu”.

Established in the twelfth century, the city of Timbuktu quickly flourished, prospering from the trans-Saharan trade routes in items such as salt and precious metals.

By the fourteenth century, Timbuktu was not only a thriving trade hub, but an important site within the Muslim religion, attracting spiritual and intellectual figures from around the world. It was at this time that the Dyingerey Ber Mosque, which still stands today, was constructed together with other religious sites, schools and libraries. Visitors can enter Dyingerey Ber Mosque, although it is advisable to do so with an official guide.

Timbuktu was first part of the Mali Empire and then fell under the rule of Maghsharan Tuareg before being incorporated into the Songhay Empire. When this latter empire collapsed in the sixteenth century, Timbuktu’s fortunes waned too.

Today, Timbuktu is a shadow of its former self. Some sites remain, such as Dyingerey Ber Mosque (shown on the map). It is also worth seeing the over 23,000 Islamic manuscripts at the Centre de Recherches Historiques Ahmed Baba, the earliest of which date back to the twelfth century.

Timbuktu also houses a small commonwealth World War II cemetery for two British seamen, John Graham and William Soutter, who died there. This occurred when British merchant sailors were being held there. The two graves are located by a wall running along the road between Timbuktu’s centre and Kabara.

Another monument – the Flame of Peace – commemorates a more recent historical event, namely the Tuareg rebellion.

Timbuktu - History

Saudi Aramco World : The Islamic Legacy of .

The ranks of the city's elite were limited, however: Six families have provided two-thirds of Timbuktu's qadis, or judges, during the last 500 years. By the mid-16th century—the so-called golden age of Timbuktu—the city boasted well over 150 schools, and the curricula were rigorous.

History and Mystery of Timbuktu--The Lost .

Thus Timbuktu became known as an African El Dorado, a city made of gold. In the 1700s and early 1800s, many explorers attempted to reach Timbuktu but none returned. Many unsuccessful and successful explorers were forced to drink camel urine, their own urine, or even blood to attempt to survive the barren Sahara Desert.

The Golden Age of Timbuktu | JSTOR Daily

All of the gold, claimed the stories, came straight from Timbuktu (though, in fact, Moussa brought it from mines west of the city). Arabic explorer Ibn Battuta visited the famed city 30 years later, and his descriptions of the bustling metropolis stoked the flames of European imagination.

Timbuktu | Ancient Origins

Ancient Origins articles related to Timbuktu in the sections of history, archaeology, human origins, unexplained, artifacts, ancient places and myths and legends. (Page of tag Timbuktu)

Timbuktu - Ancient Africa's Greatest Trading City .

Timbuktu was located near several salt mines in the Sahara Desert. Caravans hauled salt from the mines to trade for gold. Timbuktu began as a trading city, but in time it developed into the educational and spiritual center of West Africa. By 1330, Timbuktu became part of the Kingdom of Mali.

The Golden Age of Timbuktu | JSTOR Daily

All of the gold, claimed the stories, came straight from Timbuktu (though, in fact, Moussa brought it from mines west of the city). Arabic explorer Ibn Battuta visited the famed city 30 years later, and his descriptions of the bustling metropolis stoked the flames of European imagination.

Techno: History Of Timbuktu - Ancient City Of .

History Of Timbuktu - Ancient City Of Gold Posted by sathishkumar at 20:15. Email This BlogThis! Share to Twitter Share to Facebook Share to Pinterest. No comments: Post a comment. Newer Post Older Post Home. Subscribe to: Post Comments (Atom) About Me. sathishkumar View my complete profile. Blog Archive

Life in Timbuktu: how the ancient city of gold is .

Life in Timbuktu: how the ancient city of gold is slowly turning to dust - Once a hub of Arab-African trade, it's now a city on the edge – with the desert encroaching, water supplies disappearing, & rebel fighters threatening new attacks.

The decline of Timbuktu | History Forum

04.11.2011· But 500 years ago, Timbuktu was the legendary city of gold. It was a transit point and a financial and trading center for trade across the Sahara. It dominated the gold trade. It was a place of mystery and faraway riches. Timbuktu was founded in 1080 and within 300 years had become one of the era's most important trading points.

Journey to Timbuktu: the lost city of gold - .

Timbuktu! No city in the world conjures such images of romance and adventure. NBC News' Richard Engel journeys to the lost city of gold — the end of the earth, terra incognita — where old maps .

History Of Timbuktu – Ancient City Of Gold – .

21.11.2016· History Of Timbuktu – Ancient City Of Gold. Share this: Twitter Facebook Like this: Like Loading. Related. Author deepthi002 Posted on November 21, 2016. Leave a Reply Cancel reply. Enter your comment here. Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

History Of Timbuktu – Ancient City Of Gold .

16.11.2016· This is a text widget. The Text Widget allows you to add text or HTML to your sidebar. You can use a text widget to display text, links, images, HTML, or a combination of these.

Gold Gold Mining Ancient City Of The Timbuktu

Title: Gold Gold Mining Ancient City Of The Timbuktu Author: ��Jana Fuhrmann Subject: ��Gold Gold Mining Ancient City Of The Timbuktu

History Of Timbuktu – Ancient City Of Gold – .

21.11.2016· History Of Timbuktu – Ancient City Of Gold. November 21, 2016. Share this: Twitter Facebook Like this: Like Loading. Related. Permalink. Post navigation. Lost City Of Heracleion – History Of Heracleion City. Sodom And Gomorrah – The Sin City On Earth . Leave a Reply Cancel reply. Enter your comment here. Fill in your .

Ancient city of timbuktu Flashcards | Quizlet

Start studying Ancient city of timbuktu. Learn vocabulary, terms, and more with flashcards, games, and other study tools.

The hidden treasures of Timbuktu - Elizabeth .

Let's Begin.. On the edge of the vast Sahara desert, citizens snuck out of the city of Timbuktu and took to the wilderness. They buried chests in the desert sand, hid them in caves, and sealed them in secret rooms. Inside these chests was a treasure more valuable than gold: the city's ancient books. Why were they hiding these priceless manuscripts?

History Of Timbuktu – Ancient City Of Gold | .

16.11.2016· History Of Timbuktu – Ancient City Of Gold. November 16, 2016

endoftheworldvideos. Share this: Twitter Facebook Like this: Like Loading. Post navigation Sodom And Gomorrah – The Sin City On .

History Of Timbuktu – Ancient City Of Gold | .

16.11.2016· History Of Timbuktu – Ancient City Of Gold. November 16, 2016 / endoftheworldvideos. Share this: Twitter Facebook Like this: . Sodom And Gomorrah – The Sin City On Earth .

History Of Timbuktu – Ancient City Of Gold – .

21.11.2016· History Of Timbuktu – Ancient City Of Gold. November 21, 2016. Share this: Twitter Facebook Like this: Like Loading. Related. Permalink. Post navigation. Lost City Of Heracleion – History Of Heracleion City. Sodom And Gomorrah – The Sin City On Earth . Leave a Reply Cancel reply. Enter your comment here. Fill in your .

History Of Timbuktu – Ancient City Of Gold – .

21.11.2016· History Of Timbuktu – Ancient City Of Gold. Share this: Twitter Facebook Like this: Like Loading. Related. Author deepthi002 Posted on November 21, 2016. Leave a Reply Cancel reply. Enter your comment here. Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

The search for King Solomon's gold - The Globe .

"I can't say it's the first evidence of ancient gold mining in the Arabian Peninsula, but certainly the first evidence in Yemen," said report co-author Leanne Mallory-Greenough, a Canadian .

Timbuktu: The Sahara's Fabled City of Gold .

Timbuktu: The Sahara's Fabled City of Gold (Book) Book Details. ISBN. 0802714978. Title. Timbuktu: The Sahara's Fabled City of Gold. Author. de Villiers, Marq & Hirtle, Sheila. Publisher. Walker Books. Publication Date. 2007. . The Ancient History Encyclopedia logo is a registered EU trademark.

Timbuktu: The Sahara's Fabled City of Gold by .

A great description and history of the "City of Gold". Timbuktu lays the foundation for the scholar or arm-chair philosopher/historian alike. It draws the reader to mindful considerations of cause and effect, the passage of time, and the majesty of bygone eras -- a time where the glint of gold towers signaled the presence great cities long before travelers could lay their weary eyes upon it.

The search for King Solomon's gold - The Globe .

"I can't say it's the first evidence of ancient gold mining in the Arabian Peninsula, but certainly the first evidence in Yemen," said report co-author Leanne Mallory-Greenough, a Canadian .

Timbuktu - Ancient History Encyclopedia

22.02.2019· Rock salt from the Sahara was another highly valued commodity and was exchanged for gold dust. Timbuktu operated as the middle-trader in this exchange of northern and West African resources. A 90-kilo block of salt, transported by river from Timbuktu to Djenne (aka Jenne) in the south could double its value and be worth around 450 grams of gold.

Journey to Timbuktu: the lost city of gold - .

Timbuktu! No city in the world conjures such images of romance and adventure. NBC News' Richard Engel journeys to the lost city of gold — the end of the earth, terra incognita — where old maps .

Life in Timbuktu: how the ancient city of gold is .

Worldevents is dedicated to fleshing out the historical, political and cultural context of current events (other than US news that does not.

The Golden Age of Timbuktu | JSTOR Daily

All of the gold, claimed the stories, came straight from Timbuktu (though, in fact, Moussa brought it from mines west of the city). Arabic explorer Ibn Battuta visited the famed city 30 years later, and his descriptions of the bustling metropolis stoked the flames of European imagination.

History of Timbuktu - Wikipedia

Following the Battle of Tondibi, the city was captured on 30 May 1591 by an expedition of mercenaries, dubbed the Arma.They were sent by the Saadi ruler of Morocco, Ahmad I al-Mansur, and were led by the Spanish Muslim Judar Pasha in search of gold mines. The Arma brought the end of an era of relative autonomy. (see: Pashalik of Timbuktu) The following period brought economic and intellectual .

The Golden Age of Timbuktu. Some say Timbuktu .

the Great mosque of Djingarey Ber /timbuku, Photo credit : Marco Dormino. Some say Timbuktu is the end of the world but for natives of city it's the beginning of the world and a brilliant future.


Timbuktu was established by the nomadic Tuareg perhaps as early as the tenth century along the caravan routes that connected the southern coast of West Africa with the trans-Saharan trade. While conveniently located for trade, the geographic location of Timbuktu left it vulnerable to attacks from Tuareg raiders from the Sahara. The constant attacks and threats of invasion prevented Timbuktu from growing into a political center, hindrances that were not shared by neighboring Gao. While Gao grew into a political capital, Timbuktu was never considered safe enough to establish it as a stable community.

Over the long history of Timbuktu the geographical weakness of the city led it to be conquered by the Mali Empire, the Songhai Empire, the Tuareg, and the Fulani before being subdued by French colonial invaders in 1893.

Timbuktu as a Trading Center

Like its predecessor, Tiraqqa (a neighboring trading city of the Wangara), Timbuktu became immensely wealthy due to its role in the traffic of gold, ivory, slaves, and salt. These goods originated mainly from the Tuareg, Mandé and Fulani merchants in the north who used Timbuktu as a stepping stone to connect to the southern coast of West Africa. After stopping in Timbuktu and trading with other merchants, traders would transfer their Saharan goods to boats on the Niger River. Eventually these boats were destined for larger ports, including major coastal trading ports where European traders purchased goods to take back to their home countries.

Timbuktu's prime trade position made it an obvious target for West African empires seeking to expand their wealth or control over the trade routes. While Timbuktu's history is punctuated by repeated attacks, and it often fell victim to conquering armies, it maintained its position as a trading center despite the political entity that held it in thrall. For example, it retained its status as a key city in the Ghana Empire, the Mali Empire from 1324, and the Songhai Empire from 1468. Under Songhai rule Timbuktu dramatically increased its wealth, and set itself on the road toward reaching its height in the sixteenth century. The eventual decline of the city, while due in some part to its military losses at the hands of Moroccan adventurers in 1591, can be primarily traced to the influx of Portuguese goods into the West African trading system. By choosing to send goods to the Niger River's mouth instead of up the river, Portuguese traders bypassed Timbuktu leading to the deterioration of the city's economic authority.

Timbuktu as an Intellectual Center

Timbuktu, while a prominent trading center, also gained recognition in the early fifteenth century as a center for intellectual and religious study. The physical history of the intellectual past of Timbuktu is found in the many mosques and other Islamic institutions that can be found throughout the city. The most famous of these is the Sankore Mosque, also known as the University of Sankore. While Islam was the prominent religion in the city, the majority of the rural population were non-Muslim traditionalists.

University of Sankore

The most prominent of the Islamic institutions of Timbuktu, the University of Sankore, was established in 1581 C.E. Considered Timbukto's center of Islamic study, it was built on the remains of an older site, which archaeologists date to the thirteenth or fourteenth century. It exhibited a dramatically different structure than contemporary European universities and consisted of multiple, entirely independent colleges, as opposed to the European idea of a single college at a university. Students at Sankore dedicated themselves to individualized study under one single teacher, and often attended courses in the open courtyards of mosque complexes or private residences. Due to the religious affiliation of the university, most instruction focused on teaching the Qur'an, although broader instruction in fields such as logic, astronomy, and history also took place. As part of their education, students were expected to write books based upon their research, the profits of which were second only to the gold-salt trade. The most famous scholar of Sankore was Ahmed Baba—a highly distinguished historian frequently quoted in the Tarikh-es-Sudan and other works.

The Libraries of Timbuktu

The historical importance of Timbuktu was preserved for posterity through a system of libraries that cross the city and West Africa in general. Among the libraries that play a vital role in preserving the history of Timbuktu are: Institute des Hautes Etudes et de Recherche Islamique—Ahmed Baba, Timbuktu, Mamma Haidara Library, Fondo Kati Library, Al-Wangari Library, and Mohamed Tahar Library. Considered part of the African Ink Road that connects West Africa to North Africa and East Africa, these libraries are just a few of the 120 libraries that previously existed in Timbuktu and the surrounding areas.

The manuscripts housed in Timbuktu's libraries document all aspects of daily life and cover all aspects of human endeavor. As a historical source, the Timbuktu manuscripts have proven particularly valuable due to their detailed historical documents. Over one million objects have been preserved through the library system, most of which are found in Sokoto, Nigeria. The complete extent of the collections is not known, however, as many documents and artifacts were hidden after colonialists removed complete libraries to Paris, London and other parts of Europe. It is believed that there are still many hidden libraries that have not been discovered.

Timbuktu as a Mythical City

Tales of Timbuktu's fabulous wealth helped prompt European exploration of the west coast of Africa. Exploration of Timbuktu was often motivated by outrageous tales of wealth that glossed over the reality of the city and cemented its reputation as a mythical land of wealth. Among the earliest descriptions of Timbuktu are those of Leo Africanus and Shabeni.

Leo Africanus

Leo Africanus is possibly the most famous author to describe life in the fabled city of Timbuktu. He first came to the city in 1512, while the Songhai Empire was at its peak and exercised control over the city.

He described the wealth of the city thus:

The rich king of Tombuto hath many plates and sceptres of gold, some whereof weigh 1300 pounds. He hath always 3000 horsemen. (and) a great store of doctors, judges, priests, and other learned men, that are bountifully maintained at the king's expense. ΐ]


Shabeni visited Timbuktu as a 14 year old around 1787 with his father. Raised in Tetuan to become a merchant, he was captured and spent his adult life in England.

A version of his story is related by James Grey Jackson in his book An Account of Timbuctoo and Hausa, 1820:

On the east side of the city of Timbuctoo, there is a large forest, in which are a great many elephants. The timber here is very large. The trees on the outside of the forest are remarkable. they are of such a size that the largest cannot be girded by two men. They bear a kind of berry about the size of a walnut, in clusters consisting of from ten to twenty berries. Shabeeny cannot say what is the extent of this forest, but it is very large.

Great mosques

Three large mosques were constructed at Timbuktu and have become some of the most iconic monuments in the city. The sticks seen on the sides of the buildings serve not only an aesthetic purpose, but also as scaffolding for re-plastering the surface of the monuments.

Researchers Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair write in the "Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture" (Oxford University Press, 2009) that around A.D. 1325, after the ruler of the Malian Empire (which at the time controlled Timbuktu) returned from a gold-laden pilgrimage to Mecca, construction of the Djingueré Ber (also known as the &ldquoGreat Mosque&rdquo) was undertaken in the southwestern part of the city. The efforts were led by the poet and architect Abu Ishaq al-Saheli. It was then reconstructed in the 16th century and altered again in the 19th.

&ldquoBuilt of mud-brick and stone rubble, with the ends of beams projecting out of the fabric of the building, the mosque has squat, conical corner towers, a minaret c. 16 m [50 feet] high, a flat roof supported on arcades of mud piers and several vaulted limestone arches,&rdquo Bloom and Blair write.

Another mosque called Sankoré was built in the northern part of the city and became a center for scholarship. &ldquo[T]he interior walls of which conform to the exterior dimensions of the Ka῾ba at Mecca&rdquo write Bloom and Blair, the Ka’ba being a cube-shaped shrine that is the holiest place on Earth for Muslims.

The area of the city where the Sankoré mosque is located, known as the Sankoré quarter, became associated with learning. &ldquoThe Sankoré quarter attracted many scholars to live, study and teach, thus gaining a reputation for higher learning,&rdquo write Hunwick and Boye.

Another mosque known as Sidi Yahyia was built in the center of the city in the 15th century, write Bloom and Blair. It too was later restored and was &ldquoreconstructed in stone by the French in the 20th century.&rdquo

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Most of Timbuktu’s priceless manuscripts are in private hands, where they’ve been hidden for long years, and some have vanished into the black market in a trade that threatens to take with it part of Timbuktu’s soul. There is hope that libraries and cultural centers can be established to preserve the precious collection and become a source of tourist revenue. Some fledgling efforts toward this end are now under way.

Religion wasn’t the city’s only industry. Timbuktu sits near the Niger River, where North African’s savannas disappear into the sands of the Sahara, and part of its romantic image is that of a camel caravan trade route. This characterization had roots in reality and in fact continues to the present in much reduced form. Salt from the desert had great value and, along with other caravan goods, enriched the city in its heyday. It was these profitable caravans, in fact, that first brought scholars to congregate at the site.

In the 16th century Moroccan invaders began to drive scholars out, and trade routes slowly shifted to the coasts. The city’s importance and prestige waned and scholars drifted elsewhere. French colonization at the close of the 19th century dealt another serious blow to the former glories of Timbuktu.

Things in Timbuktu deteriorated to the point that, though recognized as a World Heritage site only a few years before, it was placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 1990. But with major improvements to the preservation of the three ancient mosques Timbuktu earned its way off that list in 2005.

Timbuktu struggles to draw tourist revenue and develop tourism in a way that preserves the past—new construction near the mosques has prompted the World Heritage Committee to keep the site under close surveillance. Perched as it is on the edge of the Sahara, relentless encroachment of the desert sands is also a threat to Timbuktu.

In 2012, Timbuktu was once again placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger because of threats related to armed conflict.


Oh wow… I always knew Timbuktu (Tombouctou in Mali) because of the story of the great emperor of the kingdom of Mali , Mansa Kankan Musa . I knew it was the center of his empire, but it is only lately that I realized that it was one of the world’s first and oldest thriving university! Students came from all over the world to study at Timbuktu. Imagine that, students from the middle east, and Europe coming to Africa to study! oooohhhh … Goodness Gracious, that sight only would make me proud! Well, to those who say Africa only has an oral tradition, go and check out the 700,000 manuscripts at the great Sankore University in Timbuktu, and tell me what you think! Oh la la…

In one documentary, the speaker mentions that they translated one of the manuscript on Algebra from Arabic to

Sankore University in Timbuktu

French, and sent it to France to be evaluated educationally well, that manuscript revealed that the mathematics it contained was currently studied in 2nd year of university in France, and the speaker then says “ and that was taught at universities in Timbuktu before the 16th century “! Wow… my Goodness!

The Treasures of Timbuktu

White robe fluttering in the desert breeze, Moctar Sidi Yayia al-Wangari leads me down a sandy alley past donkeys, idle men and knapsack-toting children rushing off to school. It is a bright morning, my second in Timbuktu, in the geographic center of Mali, and al-Wangari is taking me to see the project that has consumed him for the past three years. We duck through a Moorish-style archway and enter his home, a two-story stone structure built around a concrete courtyard. With an iron key, he unlocks the door to a storage room. Filigrees of light stream through a filthy window. The air inside is stale, redolent of mildew and earth.

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As my eyes adjust to the semidarkness, I take in the scene: cracked brown walls, rusting bicycles, pots, pans, burlap sacks of rice labeled PRODUCT OF VIETNAM. At my feet lie two dozen wood-and-metal chests blanketed in dust. Al-Wangari flips the lid of one of them, revealing stacks of old volumes bound in mottled leather. I pick up a book and turn the yellowing pages, gazing at elegant Arabic calligraphy and intricate geometric designs, some leafed in gold. Turquoise and red dyes are still visible inside grooved diamonds and polygons that decorate the cover.

Perusing the volumes, I draw back: the brittle leather has begun to break apart in my hands. Centuries-old pages flutter from broken bindings and crumble into scraps. Some volumes are bloated and misshapen by moisture others are covered by white or yellow mold. I open a manuscript on astrology, with annotations carefully handwritten in minute letters in the margins: the ink on most pages has blurred into illegibility. "This one is rotten," al-Wangari mutters, setting aside a waterlogged 16th-century Koran. "I am afraid that it is destroyed completely."

In the mid-16th century, Mohammed abu Bakr al-Wangari, an Islamic scholar from the town of Djenné, migrated north to Timbuktu, then a city of perhaps 100,000 and a religious, educational and trading center, and founded the University of Sankoré, a loose affiliation of mosques and private homes that provided subsidized instruction to thousands of students. During the next 30 years, al-Wangari amassed handwritten books on subjects ranging from history to poetry to astronomy, from both Timbuktu and other parts of the Islamic world. After the scholar's death in 1594, the books passed to his seven sons, and subsequently dispersed to an ever-widening circle of family members. And there they remained until three years ago, when al-Wangari, 15 generations removed from the original collector, set out to recover his family's treasures. "It's a colossal task," says al-Wangari, 42. Slim and intense, he studied Arabic literature in Fez, Morocco, and later worked as a UNESCO consultant in Dakar, Senegal. "I'm working at this every waking minute, and I'm not even getting paid a franc."

A little later he leads me farther down the alley to a half-finished building, marked by a sign that reads AL-WANGARI LIBRARY RESTORATION PROJECT, where laborers are mortaring concrete-block walls and laying bricks to dry in the sun. We cross a courtyard, enter a gloomy interior and walk past dangling wires, stacks of marble tiles and gaping holes awaiting windows. "This will be the reading room," he tells me, gesturing to a bare cell with a dirt floor. "Over here, the workshop to repair the manuscripts." Then al-Wangari points out the centerpiece of his new creation: a vault reserved for the bones of his ancestor, Mohammed abu Bakr al-Wangari, who lived in the house that once stood on this spot. "He would be happy to know what's happening here," he says.

For centuries, manuscripts such as these remained some of Africa's best-kept secrets. Western explorers who passed through Timbuktu in the early 1800s, some disguised as Muslim pilgrims, made no mention of them. French colonizers carted off a handful to museums and libraries in Paris, but for the most part left the desert empty-handed. Even most Malians have known nothing about the writings, believing that the sole repositories of the region's history and culture were itinerant-musician-entertainers-oral historians known as griots. "We have no written history," I was assured in Bamako, Mali's capital, by Toumani Diabate, one of Mali's most famous musicians, who traces his griot lineage back 53 generations.

Lately, however, the manuscripts have begun to trickle out into the world. Local archaeologists are chasing down volumes buried in desert caves and hidden in underground chambers, and archivists are reassembling lost collections in libraries. South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. have lent their names and prestige to restoration projects. Foreign academics and book restorers have arrived in Timbuktu, providing expertise, money and materials to rescue the manuscripts before it is too late. Improperly stored for centuries, many of these works have already been ruined. Heat and aridity have made pages brittle, termites have devoured them, dust has caused further damage, and exposure to humidity during the rainy season has made the books vulnerable to mildew, which causes them to rot. "We are in a race against time," says Stephanie Diakité, an American based in Bamako who runs workshops in Timbuktu on book preservation.

The manuscripts paint a portrait of Timbuktu as the Cambridge or Oxford of its day, where from the 1300s to the late 1500s, students came from as far away as the Arabian Peninsula to learn at the feet of masters of law, literature and the sciences. At a time when Europe was emerging from the Middle Ages, African historians were chronicling the rise and fall of Saharan and Sudanese kings, replete with great battles and invasions. Astronomers charted the movement of the stars, physicians provided instructions on nutrition and the therapeutic properties of desert plants, and ethicists debated such issues as polygamy and the smoking of tobacco. Says Tal Tamari, a historian at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, who recently visited Timbuktu: "[These discoveries are] going to revolutionize what one thinks about West Africa."

Some scholars believe that the works might even help to bridge the widening gap between the West and the Islamic world. Sixteenth-century Islamic scholars advocate expanding the rights of women, explore methods of conflict resolution and debate how best to incorporate non-Muslims into an Islamic society. One of the later manuscripts discovered, an 1853 epistle by Sheik al-Bakkay al-Kounti, a spiritual leader in Timbuktu, asks the reigning monarch, the Sultan of Masina, to spare the life of German explorer Heinrich Barth. The sultan had ordered Barth's execution because non-Muslims were barred from entering the city, but al-Bakkay argued in an eloquent letter that Islamic law forbade the killing. "He is a human being, and he has not made war against us," al-Bakkay wrote. Barth remained under the protection of al-Bakkay and eventually made it back to Europe unscathed. "The manuscripts show that Islam is a religion of tolerance," says Abdel Kader Haidara, who owns one of the largest private collections of manuscripts in Timbuktu, including the letter from al-Bakkay. Haidara is raising funds to translate some of them into English and French. "We need to change people's minds about Islam," he says. "We need to show them the truth."

The last time I'd visited Timbuktu, in 1995, there were only three ways to get there: a three-day journey upriver by a motorized pirogue, or canoe, from the trading town of Mopti a chartered plane or a flight on the notoriously unreliable government airline, Air Mali, mockingly known as Air Maybe. But when I returned last February, at the end of the cool, dry season, to check on the city's cultural revival, I flew from Bamako on a commercial flight operated by a new private airline, Mali Air Express—one of four flights to Timbuktu each week. The Russian-made turboprop, with a South African crew, followed the course of the Niger River, a sinuous strand of silver that wound through a pancake-flat, desolate landscape. After two hours we banked low over flat-roofed, dun-colored buildings a few miles east of the river and touched down at Timbuktu's tarmac airstrip. Outside a tiny terminal, a fleet of four-wheel-drive taxis waited to ferry tourists down a newly constructed asphalt road to town. I climbed into a Toyota Land Cruiser and directed the driver, Baba, a young Tuareg who spoke excellent French and a few words of English, to the Hotel Colombe, one of several hotels that have opened in the past three years to cater to a rapidly expanding tourist trade.

At first glance, little had changed in the decade that I'd been away. The place still felt like the proverbial back of beyond. Under a blazing late winter sun, locals drifted through sandy alleys lined by mud-walled and concrete-block huts, the only shade provided by the thorny branches of acacia trees. The few splashes of color that brightened the otherwise monochromatic landscape came from the fiery red jerseys of a soccer team practicing in a sandy field, the lime green facade of a grocery store and the peacock blue bubus, or traditional robes, of the local Tuareg men. The city petered out into a haphazard collection of domed Tuareg tents and piles of trash that goats were feeding on.

Yet Timbuktu's isolation has become a bit less oppressive. Ikatel, a private cellular phone network, came to town two years ago, as their ubiquitous billboards and phone-card booths testify. I noticed a white-robed imam talking emphatically on his Nokia in front of the Djingareyber Mosque, a massive mud fortress built in the 1320s that rises in the town center. Three Internet cafés have opened. Hammering, sawing and bricklaying are going on all over town, as new libraries prepare to open to the public. The day I arrived, a delegation of imams from Morocco, several researchers from Paris, a team of preservationists from the University of Oslo and a pair of radio reporters from Germany were on hand to look at manuscripts.

Timbuktu is also no longer immune to the ideological contagions that have plagued the wider world. On the southeast edge of town, Baba pointed out a bright yellow concrete mosque, by far the best constructed new building in town, built by Saudi Wahhabis who have tried, without much success, to export their hard-line brand of Islam to the Sahara. Not far from the Wahhabis' haunt, on the terrace of the Hotel Bouctou, I ran across five clean-cut young U.S. Special Forces troops, dispatched to train the Malian Army in counterterrorism. Joint military operations have become common in the Sahel since an Algerian Islamic terrorist cell, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, seized dozens of European hostages on the border between Algeria and Mali three years ago and held them for six months in the Malian desert.

Most historians believe that Timbuktu was founded in the 1100s by a Tuareg woman named Bouctou, who ran a rest stop for camel caravans on a tributary of the Niger River. ("Tin Bouctou" means "the well of Bouctou.") The city reached its peak in the early 16th century, during the reign of King Askia Mohammed, who united West Africa in the Songhai Empire and ruled for 35 prosperous years. The Tariqh al-Sudan, a history of Timbuktu written in the 17th century, described the city in its heyday as "a refuge of scholarly and righteous folk, a haunt of saints and ascetics, and a meeting place for caravans and boats." In 1509, Mohammed al-Wazzan al-Zayati, a 16-year-old student from Fez, arrived by camel with his uncle, a diplomat, and found a bustling commercial crossroads. Timber, gold and slave traders from Ghana, salt sellers from the Sahara, and Arab scholars and merchants from the Levant mingled in bazaars packed with spices, fabrics and foodstuffs, and conducted transactions with cowrie shells and nuggets of gold. "In the middle of the town there is a temple built of masoned stones and limestone mortar. and a large palace where the king stays," al-Zayati wrote in an account published in 1526 under the name Leo Africanus. "There are numerous artisans' workshops, merchants, and weavers of cotton cloths. The cloths of Europe reach Timbuktu, brought by Barbary merchants."

Al-Zayati was astonished by the scholarship that he discovered in Timbuktu. (Despite his encouragement of education, the emperor himself was not known for his open-mindedness. "The king is an inveterate enemy of the Jews," al-Zayati noted. "He does not wish any to live in his town. If he hears it said that a Barbary merchant. does business with them, he confiscates his goods.") Al-Zayati was most impressed by the flourishing trade in books that he observed in Timbuktu's markets. Handwritten in classical Arabic, the books were made of linen-based paper purchased from traders who crossed the desert from Morocco and Algeria. Ink and dyes were extracted from desert plants, and covers were made from the skins of goats and sheep. "Many manuscripts. are sold," he noted. "Such sales are more profitable than any other goods."

Eighty-two years after al-Zayati's visit, the armies of the Moroccan sultan entered the city, killed scholars who urged resistance and carried off the rest to the royal court in Marrakesh. The forced exodus ended the city's days as a center of scholasticism. (Timbuktu soon faded as a commercial center as well, after slave traders and other merchants from Europe landed in West Africa and set up ocean networks to compete with the desert routes.) For the most part, the volumes of history, poetry, medicine, astronomy and other subjects that were bought and sold by the thousands in Timbuktu's bazaars vanished into the desert. And there they remained, hidden in rusting trunks in musty storage rooms, stashed in mountain caves or buried in holes in the Saharan sands to protect them from conquerors and colonizers, most recently the French, who left in 1960.

The campaign to rescue Mali's manuscripts began in 1964, four years after Mali won its independence. That year, UNESCO representatives met in Timbuktu and resolved to create a handful of centers to collect and preserve the region's lost writings. It took another nine years before the government opened the Centre Ahmed Baba, named after a famed Islamic teacher who was carried to exile in Marrakesh in 1591. With funding from the United Nations and several Islamic countries, including Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the center dispatched staff members into the countryside to forage for lost manuscripts. One collector was Mohammed Haidara, an Islamic scholar and manuscript maker from Bamba, a village midway between Timbuktu and the village of Gao. Haidara helped build a collection of 2,500 volumes. Soon after his death in 1981, the center's director turned to Haidara's son, Abdel Kader, then in his 20s, and asked him to take over his father's job.

Abdel Kader Haidara spent the next decade traveling on foot and by camel throughout Mali, and taking pirogues along the Niger River and its tributaries. "I went looking for manuscripts in all the villages," he told me. A tall, ebullient man with a Falstaffian goatee and tufts of black curly hair framing a shiny, bald pate, Haidara is widely considered the most important figure in Timbuktu's renaissance. "Everybody knew my father. They all said, ‘Ah, you are his son,' but the work was difficult," he said. Many villagers were deeply distrustful of an interloper trying to take away possessions that had been in their families for generations. "People said, ‘He's dangerous. What does he want with these manuscripts? Maybe he wants to destroy them. Maybe he wants to bring us a new religion.'" Others drove hard bargains. One village chief demanded that Haidara build a mosque for his village in exchange for his collection of ancient books after construction was finished, he extracted a renovation for the local madrasa (Islamic religious school) and a new house as well. Some chiefs wanted cash, others settled for livestock. But Haidara negotiated hard—he had grown up around ancient manuscripts and had developed a keen sense of each book's worth. "I gave out a lot of cows," he said.

In 1993, Haidara decided to leave the center and venture out on his own. "I had a lot of my own manuscripts, but my family said it was not permitted to sell them. So I told the Ahmed Baba director, ‘I want to create a private library for them,' and he said, ‘fine.'" For three years, Haidara searched for financing with no success. Then, in 1997, Henry Louis Gates Jr. stopped in Timbuktu while making a television series about Africa. Haidara showed his manuscripts to the Harvard scholar, who had known little about black Africa's written history. "Gates was moved," Haidara says. "He cried, and he said, ‘I'm going to try to help you.'" With Gates' endorsement, Haidara got a grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation, which allowed him to continue searching for family books and to construct a library to house them. The Bibliothèque Mamma Haidara opened in Timbuktu in 2000 today the collection contains 9,000 volumes.

In 1996 a foundation that Haidara established, Savama-DCI, to encourage others with access to family collections to follow in his footsteps, received a $600,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to construct two new libraries in Timbuktu, the Bibliothèque al-Wangari and the Bibliothèque Allimam Ben Essayouti. The funds will also allow Haidara to renovate his own library and to purchase computers to digitize the works, hire experts to restore damaged books and give instruction to local archivists. Haidara has become the driving force behind manuscript preservation in the Sahara. "We want people to be able to touch and read these manuscripts," he told me. "We want to make them accessible. But first, they must be protected."

The work is gaining momentum. After meeting with Haidara, I visited the Centre Ahmed Baba, a handsome complex of stone buildings with Moorish archways set around a sand courtyard planted with date palms and desert acacias. Director Mohamed Gallah Dicko escorted me into the atelier. Fourteen workers were making storage boxes and carefully wrapping crumbling manuscript pages in transparent Japanese paper called kitikata. "This will protect them for at least 100 years," he said. A total of 6,538 manuscripts at the center have been "dedusted," wrapped in acid-free paper and placed in boxes, Gallah Dicko said there are another 19,000 to go. The workers have flown to workshops in Cape Town and Pretoria paid for by South Africa's National Archive, part of a program that the South African government initiated after President Mbeki visited Timbuktu in 2002. In an airless room across the courtyard, a dozen archivists huddle over Epson and Canon scanners, creating digital images of the works, page by page. The manuscript collection is growing so fast that the staff can't keep up. "We're expanding our search to the northwest and the northeast," Gallah Dicko tells me. "There are hundreds of thousands of manuscripts still out there."

Yet placing the books in Timbuktu's libraries under the care of experts doesn't guarantee their protection. Seven years ago, heavy rains caused the Niger to overflow its banks. The worst flood in decades swept through Timbuktu, destroying 200 houses and many valuable works. Only rapid salvaging prevented the ruin of 7,025 manuscripts at the Spanish-funded Bibliothèque Fondo Kati, whose treasures include a priceless illuminated Koran made in Ceuta, Andalusia, in 1198. "We put bags of sand around the house, and we saved it from collapse," I was told by the library's creator, Ismael Diadie Haidara (no relation to Abdel Kader Haidara), whose paternal ancestor fled Toledo in 1468 and brought hundreds of manuscripts, including the Ceuta Koran, to Africa. "We could have lost everything."

Two days after our meeting, Abdel Kader Haidara arranges for me to travel to the Tuareg village of Ber, 40 miles east of Timbuktu. It is one of a handful of remote Saharan settlements where Islamic scholars and others, under Haidara's tutelage, have begun building their own manuscript collections. The sun is just rising when we depart Timbuktu, and a chill wind whips through the open windows of our battered Land Cruiser. Baba steers the vehicle over an undulating sand track, passing encampments of nomads who have pitched tents on the city's outskirts to sell jewelry and offer camel rides to Western tourists. Then we're in the heart of the Sahara, fishtailing past dunes and scraggly acacias.

Fida ag Mohammed, the collection's curator, fiddles with a set of prayer beads in the rear seat. A gaunt man in his late 40s or early 50s with wispy sideburns that blow outward in the breeze, Mohammed was initially reluctant to take me, a stranger, to Ber. But Haidara reassured him that I was a journalist, not a spy, and he finally consented. "There are evil people out there who want to steal from us our traditions, our history," he explains as Baba swerves to avoid a speeding pickup truck packed with blue-robed, white-scarved Tuaregs. "We have to be careful."

After two hours we reach Ber, a shadeless collection of mud-brick huts and tents scattered across a saddle between two low desert ridges. There is a veterinary clinic, a health center and a primary school, but few other signs of permanence. Mohammed leads us to his two-room house, where we sit on mats on the dirt floor. He disappears into his kitchen and returns with a pot filled with something dark and smelly: minced gazelle, Baba whispers. Nervously, I taste a few spoonfuls of the meat, finding it gamy and gristly, and decline the warm camel milk that Mohammed offers as a digestif.

Ber once had 15,000 manuscripts dating as far back as the 15th century, the men tell me. Most of these were in the possession of village marabouts, or "knowledge men," often the only individuals who know how to read and write. But in the early 1990s, after a period of droughts and neglect by the government, the Tuaregs launched a violent rebellion. Tuareg villages were attacked, looted and sometimes burned by government troops and mercenaries from other desert tribes. (Ber was spared.) Before the Tuaregs and the government concluded a peace deal in 1996, Ber's inhabitants dispersed all but a few hundred manuscripts to settlements deep in the Sahara, or buried them in the sand. It was a modern-day version of a story that has played out in Mali for centuries, a story of war, depredation and loss. "I'm starting to locate the manuscripts again," Mohammed tells me. "But it takes time."

We cross a sandy field and enter a tin-roofed shack, Mohammed's "Centre de Recherche." Mohammed opens a trunk at my feet and begins to take out dozens of volumes, the remains of Ber's original collection, along with a few he has recovered. He touches them reverently, delicately. "Dust is the enemy of these manuscripts," he murmurs, shaking his head. "Dust eats away at them and destroys them over time." I pick up a miniature Koran from the 15th century, thumb through it and stare in amazement at an illustration of the Great Mosque of Medina. It's the only drawing, besides geometrical patterns, that I've seen in four days of looking at manuscripts: a minutely rendered, pen-and-ink depiction by an anonymous artist of Saudi Arabia's stone-walled fortress, two pencil-thin minarets rising over the central golden dome, date palm trees at the fringes of the mosque and desert mountains in the distance. "You are one of the first outsiders to see this," he tells me.

After an hour inspecting the works, Mohammed brings out a guest register, a thin, grade-school composition book, and asks me to sign it. A total of six visitors have registered since 2002, including a former U.S. ambassador to Mali. "The next time you come to Ber, I'll take you into the desert for a week," Mohammed tells me before we part. "I'll show you where they buried the books, deep in the ground, so that nobody can find them." They are still out there, thousands of them, guarded by fearful villagers, disintegrating slowly in the heat and dust. But thanks to Mohammed, Haidara, al-Wangari and others like them, the desert has at last begun to surrender its secrets.

Writer Joshua Hammer lives in Cape Town, South Africa. Photographer Alyssa Banta is based in Fort Worth, Texas.

On Slavery

Slavery is a delicate subject but as it is such an integral part of Timbuktu’s history it should be touched upon. In discussing slavery it is important to note that Africa’s history is rife with slavery. Virtually all ethnic groups have had slaves. The continual rivalry, warfare and conquest of neighbouring tribes, clans, kingdoms, and empires gave rise to the practice early on with the victors taking the vanquished as captives and selling them as slaves. This is why most all groups especially those who have had “empires” have slave casts. The Bambara, Mandinke, Peul, Songai, Soninke, Toucouleur, and Wolof, to name a few and not just the “white” populations of the Arabs, Moors, and Tuaregs.

Much ado is made about slavery in places like Mauritania and Northern Mali. Researchers and journalists come to Timbuktu to study slavery among the Tuareg. Magazine articles and radio reports are done about the issue of Tuareg's and Moor's slave practices. These reports often try to characterize the issue as a "white master" versus a "black slave". I have seen in certain guide books a discussion of the Tuareg rebellion and they also colour the problem as white former slave holders vs. black former slaves. The issue of slavery is far from black and white. in any sense of the term.

Today people tend to forget that slavery has many sides, many victims and many accomplices. It becomes an issue of colour depicting white people as the exploiters of black people not only in the western world but also among the darker and paler peoples in Africa. As one Tuareg said when discussing the issue of “the [black population’s] unfair tendency to blame all their problems on us. Our ancestors were just taking advantage of what was on the market. If their brothers hadn’t put them up for sale to begin with we wouldn’t have been able to buy them” The reality is that black Africans were buying and selling slaves as well, and slavery has only recently (as recent as the 1980’s) been abolished in many African countries.

One other thing of note is that slavery in Africa was not what we typically imagine it to be. Western history of the slave trade in the West Indies, the southern states of the USA and so forth is ugly and terrible to contemplate. It is full of atrocities and inhumanities of the worst sort. In Africa, at least in the north amongst the "white" populations that are villianized for keeping slaves, while slaves were owned and could be bought and sold at the will of the master the conditions were less severe. Instead of being abused and terrorized into submission they were given tasks and expected to do them in exchange for the right to expect to be fed, clothed and sheltered.

Early explorers such as René Caillé remarked on this in their travel journals.

"In general, the slaves are better treated at Timbuctoo than in other countries. They are well clothed and fed, and seldom beaten. They are required to observe religious duties, which they do very punctually but they are nevertheless regarded as merchandise, and are exported to Tripoli, Morocco, and other parts of the coast, where they are not so happy as at Timbuctoo. They always leave that place with regret, though they are ignorant of the fate that awaits them elsewhere."

Henri Duverier, the first european to give a detailed description of the Tuareg in 1864 remarks that slavery among the Tuareg was “very mild and has nothing in common with the forced labour of the colonies”

And more recently according to a retired commander in the Malian Army, Amidou Mariko (a black, Bambara man), in his book Memoires d'un Crocodile:"

This slavery which existed in the North was calmer than that of other regions and the captives were better treated than elsewhere. [. ]Those who said later [about the rebellion] that the black soldiers wanted to revenge themselves on on the white slave holders of the north were completely in error. Most of the military were Bambara and didn't even know who the Tuaregs were! Many of them came from families who had had or still had their own captives. The Bambara were never the captives of the Tuaregs! So there was no feeling of vengeance.

Many of the ethic groups have some sort of cast structure that resembles the feudal system of Europe in the middle ages with nobles, vassals and serfs. The nobles being the learned and the warriors, the vassals the managers of their goods and land and supervising the serfs or slaves, who did the labour. The exact system varies between ethnic groups, some having complicated system of hierarchies amongst the non-noble non-slaves, each craft or trade having its place. Even if nobles were more “important” than artisans and jewellers were higher than potters, the different groups were interdependent and the nobles were expected to take care of their “dependants”.

While Most ethnic groups had slaves, not every family did, only those wealthy enough to afford to purchase and maintain them. Each ethnic group had a slightly different system. Among the Tuareg, slaves actually had a lot of power. Slaves were in charge of the herds, in charge of the fields and in charge of the house. They had the keys to the storehouse and when they opened it to take out the daily rations for the family they served they removed rations for their own family as well. Being the ones to do much of the labour they could regulate just how much they got. When milking they could drink what they wanted with nobody the wiser, when removing stores again they would help themselves. The Tuaregs having no artisan cast, the slaves became the smiths, wood and leather workers for their masters, and thus indispensable. They were also the griots, the musicians, praise-singers, town-criers and keepers of history all rolled into one, thus privy to all the secrets of the the chiefs and other important people. This gave them incredible power and sway.

In Mali The French took some steps to reduce slavery, but it was only officially abolished upon Malian independence in 1960. The following two paragraphs are notes taken from an ethnographic study The Primitive City of Timbuctoo done on Timbuktu in the 1940s by professor of anthropology ---.

The French have eliminated some aspects of slavery. They have forbidden the use of the French word for "slave" and substituted "captive." The capture of new slaves and the sale of slaves, except for concubines, has been stopped. The purchase of concubines is looked upon as marriage and actually frees slaves. Moslem law states that if a concubine bears a child by her master, she becomes free upon his death. A mistreated slave may appeal to the French for freedom or simply run away, for now the danger of being re-enslavesd is gone. The determining fact in the eyes of the French as to whether a person is freeman or slave is who pays the head tax-the individual or master.

Many aspects of the old system of slavery were not particularly harsh and the household slave was probably in a more favourable position than a poor freeman today. . many slaves still prefer slavery to economically precarious freedom. . An alternative employment is household work of the type which used to be done by slaves. Arabs who have no slaves speak of "hiring a household "slave" Such services may be secured in return for poor clothes and food and forty cents a month." (a foot note adds that the wage paid to native domestic help by the French was three dollars a month no clothing or food included.)

In Mali two things happened in recent history to dramatically rearrange the roles between former masters and former slaves. One is during colonial times the French insisted families send their children to school the proud and suspicious nobles, bargained with their slaves and paid them to send the slaves’ children in place of the noble children. A generation later came independence and the majority of the educated people, those capable of running the country in the modern sense were the former slaves, who suddenly held most of the positions of administrative power and authority. Then successive droughts decimated herds and the many nobles found themselves with little left to them but their pride, while the former slaves used their education and positions to grow wealthy.

This is not universal and has not completely changed the face of relations between groups. Africans continue to cling to traditional ideas, according prestige based on family name and social castes. Some families may still exploit the families of former slaves demanding services that the former slave families feel bound by tradition to render. Some former slave families who want to be free of prejudices and the stigma of slavery have changed their names to the family name of another racial group so as not to be identified as a slave simply by his name.

Other former slaves cling to their place in society as strongly as any other group, not wanting to give up the responsibilities and rights they see as theirs. For example the tradition has it that the people called upon to prepare the meals for a marriage or other fete have the right to all the left overs including the soap, detergent, scrubbing pads, large quantities of food etc. In a poor village, being able to take all that home is important and the people do not want to loose that. They would be as insulted not to be asked to prepare as someone of another cast would be insulted to be asked. Many are loath to give up the security of having someone to take care of them. If they leave the protection of the family they are connected with they will be at the mercy of the uncertainty of the job market, obliged to fend for themselves and no longer be able to count on assistance from the former masters when in necessity.

Some nobles now find themselves exploited. One man explains, “you see these tents around here, the inhabitants are the slaves of my family. When they need something they come to me and say that since I am their master I should help them. They will come and sing my praises and massage my feet a little to puff up my ego and then ask for money. I am obliged to give it. But when I need a service I have to pay for it and I pay twice as much as anyone else. They think since I am noble, since I am light-skinned, I am wealthy. Every family here has at least a few animals. I don’t have even one goat or sheep of my own.”

Another important aspect that helps confuse the issue of slavery to the western visitor or researcher is that of vocabulary and habits of usage. As noted by Heller above, the Arabs spoke of hiring a "slave" clearly if you hire someone that person is not a slave, yet the person needs a domestic servant which in their mind set is work done by slaves and the person hired will most likely be of the slave caste, a descendant of former slaves. Thus for purposes of nomenclature he will still be nominally a slave. I have observed this clinging to the trappings of traditional roles in several of the West African ethnic groups. Even if a person has become a nurse, teacher, or bureaucrat he is still tagged with the social caste from which he comes. The nurse in one town was a "fisherman" because he came from a family that had always been fisherman. A popular singer has had to overcome much teasing because he was from a "noble" family and nobles aren't griots. The mayor in another town was a "slave" this did not stop him from being re-elected or from being one of the wealthiest men in town whom others sought out for assistance. But people would talk about him as a slave and to western ears used to political correctness this could come across as very racist and a circumstance for a human rights watch group to look in to. In truth it is a question of semantics, tradition and culture that is going to take several generations more to smooth out.

The link between slaves and masters is a complex bond formed of long history as a family of slaves would serve the same masters for generations, being something like indentured servants or the serfs of the feudal system. Today the links between slave and master families still exists. Families of former slaves or the descendants of slaves are still closely associated with the former master’s family. In some cases they still work for them or serve them when a call is made for assistance, though rarely for free. Often they are just like members of the family, the head of household feeds and clothes everyone with an equal hand. His children, nieces nephews, kids of his former slaves who still live in his household, all call him dad and all receive new clothes for the various fetes. When a chore needs to be done the nearest person is asked without preference for status.

This is not so say that there are no exceptions, no cruel and tyrannical chiefs or nobles who did or do mistreat people under their care, nor that slavery is an acceptable institution but it should be seen in its proper context.

It is human nature to use every tool available to improve his condition. People everywhere exploit their status as a minority or member of a disadvantaged group when it will make them more competitive for limited resources, grants, employment, etc. It is well known that slavery is a sensational hot ticket item for the western nations, one of those issues for which they are willing to offer resources and fund projects and programs aimed at fighting it. Thus some people exploit this hyping up the slavery issue or inventing stories to garner financial contributions. Sympathetic travels who have had the horrors of western style slavery drummed into them and carry subconscious guilt for the slaving histories of their own countries are also easy marks. Journalists who come blundering in with preconceived notions of slavery and the issues surrounding it are liable to be duped as the first person they talk to will see thier chance and fabricate any sort of tale. I have read articles where the reporter told the story of a “slave” that had escaped his master in the desert where he had been obliged to get up at dawn and take the camels out to graze all day coming home only at dusk when he must then milk them be for falling into exhausted sleep will little food. One day fed up he just abandoned the camels and walked away finally making it to the capital. While it sounds horrible to the uninformed this life describes the typical tribulations of any nomad herder and they all have to work hard from dawn to dusk with little food or material wealth. As for just walking away, if he were truly out in the desert it is unlikely he would manage that without dying. Another article told of a girl who kyaked up the Niger river to Timbuktu with a goal coin with which she was going to purchase the freedom of a slave. She believes she did so. I believe she was had by the first guide she stumbled on. Hearing her folly he would have easily set us a scam wherein some woman played the role of freed slave especially since the owner insisted on remaining invisible and anonymous.

History of Timbuktu

The popular statement, ” From here to Timbuktu.” conjures up images of remote, isolated and distant parts of this earth. Very few people are aware of this ancient city’s location, and fewer still ascribe any kind of civilization to this historic area. Timbuktu is located in the western African nation of Mali at the edge of the sahara.

Timbuktu was founded by the Tuareg Imashagan in the 11th century. During the rainy season, the Tuaregs roam the desert up to Arawan in search of grazing lands for their animals. During the dry season, however, they returned to the Niger river where the animals grazed on a grass called “burgu.” Whenever they camped by river they got sick from mosquitoes and stagnant water. Because of these unfavorable conditions, they decided to settle few miles away from the river where they dug a well. Whenever it started raining in the desert, the Turareg will leave their heavy goods with an old Tuareg women called Tin Abutut who stayed at the well. In the Tuareg language, Tin Abutut means “the lady with the big naval”. With the passage time, the name Tin Abutut became Timbuktu.

The historic town of Timbuktu is located at the precise point where the Niger flows northward into the southern edge of the desert. As a result of its unique geographical position, Timbuktu has been a natural meeting point of Songhai, Wangara,Fulani, Tuareg and Arabs. According to the inhabitants of Timbuku, gold came from the south, the salt from the north and the Divine knowledge, from Timbuktu. Timbuktu is also the cross-road where “the camel met the canoe.” It is to this privilege position that the city owes much of its historical dynamism. From the 11th century and onward, Timbuktu became an important port where goods from West Africa and North Africa were traded.

Goods coming the Mediterranean shores and salt were traded in Timbuktu for gold. The prosperity of the city attracted both black scholars, blacks merchants and Arabs traders from North Africa. Salt, books and gold were very much in demand at that time. Salt was came from Tegaza in the north, gold, from the immense gold mines of the Boure and Banbuk and books, were the refined work of the black scholars and scholars of the Sanhaja descent.

The Tuareg Messufa captured the salt mine of Tegaza and thus took control of the salt trade. The Messufa exported the salt to Timbuktu via camel caravans. This second factor that helps us better explain how the so-called manuscripts of Timbuktu evolved, developed and expanded throughout the whole empire. Thus, the intellectual importance of Timbuktu and the reasons it flourished are not exclusively based upon &ldquostrategic position.&rdquo It is important to convey that someone in a position of power was responsible for encouraging the attitude toward learning that prevailed in Timbuktu.As Dr. Molefi Asante has put it so conclusively in his book entitled, Classical Africa (page 134):

&ldquoThe African love for knowledge, literature and learning although now filtered through the religion of Islam, never died. As it has been in the days of the early Egyptian Kingdom, so it was in the days of Askia Mohammed. In fact, Leo Africanus, a historian of the XVIth century wrote about Timbuktu:

There are many judges, doctors and clerics here, all receiving good salaries from King Askia Mohammed of the State of Songhay. He pays great respect to men of learning. There is a great demand for books, and more profit is made from the trade in books than from any other line of business.&rdquo

It is here in Timbuktu that African merchants from Djenne traded with the Tuareg and the Arabs from the north. The Tegaza mines are 1850 km from Timbuktu. It took six months to compile such a journey. The merchants from Djenne were for the most part Marka, Wangara, Sarakole and Mandikapeople. These African merchants and the Tuareg were the first settlers of Timbuktu.

The first constructions in Timbuktu were designed by African architects from Djenne and later on by Muslim architects from North Africa. Trade and knowledge were at their height. It was at this time that the King of Sosso invaded the empire of Ghana, thus causing the exodus of the scholars of Walata to Timbuktu.

By the 12th century, Timbuktu became a celebrated center of Islamic learning and a commercial establishment. Timbuktu had three universities and 180 Quranic schools. These universities were the Sankore University, Jingaray Ber University and Sidi Yahya University. This was the golden age of Africa. Books were not only written in Timbuktu, but they were also imported and copied there. There was an advanced local book copying industry in the city. The universities and private libraries contained unparalleled scholarly works. The famous scholar of Timbuktu Ahmad Baba who was among those forcibly exiled in Morocco claimed that his library of 1600 books had been plundered, and that his library, according to him, was one of the smaller in the city.

The booming economy of Timbuktu attracted the attention of the Emperor of Mali, Mansa Mussa (1307-1332) also known as &ldquoKan Kan Mussa.&rdquo He captured the city in 1325. As a Muslim, Mansa Mussa was impressed with the Islamic legacy of Timbuktu. On his return from Mecca, Mansa Mussa brought with him an Egyptian architect by the name of Abu Es Haq Es Saheli. The architect was paid 200kg of gold to built Jingaray Ber or, the Friday Prayers Mosque. Mansa Musa also built a royal palace (or Madugu) in Timbuktu, another Mosque in Djenné and a great mosque in Gao (1324-1325). Today only the foundation of the mosque built in Gao exists. That is why there is an urgent need to restore and protect the mosques that remain in Djenné and Timbuktu..

The Emperor also brought Arabs scholars to Timbuktu. To his great surprise, the Emperor has found that these scholars are underqualified compared to the black scholars of Timbuktu. Abd Arahman Atimmi had such a low level that he was obliged to migrate to Marrakech to complete his prerequisites so he can sit in the classes as a student.

Mansa Mussa’s pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 had made Mali known worldwide. The great rulertook 60,000 porters with him. Each porter carried 3 kilograms of pure gold, that is, 180,000 kilograms or at least 180 tons of gold (Reference: Volume IV UNESCO General History of Africa, pages 197-200). He had so much gold with him that when he stopped in Egypt, the Egyptian currency lost its value and as result, the name of Mali and Timbuktu appeared on the 14th century world map.

A relative, Abu Bakar the II, decided to find a way by sea to go to Mecca. Abu Bakar II is said to be Mansa Musa&rsquos uncle. In 1324 while visiting Cairo, Mansa Musa reported how he became the King of Mali. He explained that he became King of Mali, his predecessor, Abu Bakar II (who belonged to the senior branch of the ruling family), decided to sail in order to discover what lies behind the Ocean, he had never come back .What Mansa Musa (who belongs to the Junior branch of the ruling family) said, then, was recorded by Ibn Amir Adjib, Governor of Cairo and Karafa. Abu Bakar and his maritime expedition left the shores of Senegal and sailed in the Atlantic Ocean. They encountered so much difficulties and challenges that they came back to Senegal. Abu Bakar reorganized his expedition, took enough provisions and a huge army with him. This expedition has never been seen again. Today, there is a strong historical evidence pointing to the possibility that this Malian prince was the first one to discover America. In Brazil for instance, there is a presence of the mandinka language, traditions and customs.

In 1339, The Mossi king invaded Timbuktu. The Mossi caused a lot of corruption, killing and destruction in the city. The Mandika dynasty, however, succeeded in repulsing the invaders. Timbuktu remained under the protection of the descendants of Mansa Musa until 1434 when the Tuareg under the leadership of Akil Akamalwal invaded and captured the city. Akil was very pious. He respected the Ulemas or scholars. Akil reappointed Mohammed Naddi, a Sanhaja Tuareg as the governor of the city. When Mohammed Naddi died, Akil appointed his oldest son Umar to take his place. The Tuareg, later on however, spread so much injustice, corruption and tyranny, that Umar ibn Mohammed Naddi, the new governor of Timbuktu sought the help of Soni Ali Ber, ruler of the Songhai Empire.

In 1464, Soni Ali Ber conquered the city of Timbuktu. He came to Timbuktu as Emperor from Sokoto, in present-day Nigeria. His mother, Baraka, was from this area. Akil fled the city. Sonni Ali Ber knew he had to unite his Empire which was composed of Islamic people and those who kept their traditional African beliefs. He went so far that he took a Muslim name himself, in his attempt to placate Africans who had become followers of Islam. However, he resisted letting Islam or any other religion destroy traditional religions of Africa. That is what brought him into conflict with Muslim scholars. As Dr. Molefi Asante has written:

&ldquoOne reason that Sonni Ali Ber had a peace keeping strategy, was that he wanted to reestablish the presence of African culture in religion, education, and traditions throughout the empire. He was a reformer. He cleaned out the religious leaders in the institutions of learning and replaced them with intellectuals who understood the African traditions of the people.&rdquo( Asante, Classical Africa, page 126)

As a result of this policy, many of the scholars fled to Walata which is the actual Mauritania. This is the reason why many of the manuscripts of Timbuktu are found in Mauritania. One of the generals of Soni Ali who is a devout Muslim by the name of Askia Mohammed could not tolerate the tragic treatment Soni inflicted on the Ulemas or scholars of Timbuktu.

Sonni Ali Ber was a planner, a fearless conqueror and he is cited in all the Tarikhs as the only Emperor who reigned 28 years, waged 32 wars, won 32 victories and was always the conqueror, never conquered. He developed the army administration, agriculture and irrigation techniques and tax controls. He died in 1492 when America was about to be discovered. His son Sonni Baro replaced him. Askia Mohammed, who was Sonni Ali Ber&rsquos General, could no longer support the loose manner by which Sonni Baro handled the affairs of the State. So, he overthrew him and took the power in 1493.

Askia Mohammed recomforted the scholars, financially rehabilitated them and stood by them. In fact for all Islamic legal rulings on how to run the state, Askia Mohammed consulted the scholars. There are manuscripts in Timbuktu today where the answers to the questions of Askia are recorded. Under the Askia dynasty, Timbuktu prospered both intellectually and trade-wise until 1591 when the Moroccan army under the leadership of Pasha Mahmud ibn Zarqun sacked the city of Timbuktu. The Moroccan army plundered the wealth of the city, burned the libraries, put to death many scholars who resisted them and deported many to Fes and Marrakech including the eminent scholar of Timbuktu, Ahmed Baba es Sudane meaning “Ahmed Baba, the black” as he preferred to be called.

The scholars of Timbuktu were righteous, devout and were not afraid of anything except GOD. It was in this context that when Pasha Mahmud tried to deceive the scholars by signing a treacherous treaty, the black eminent scholar and professor of Sidi Yahya University Mohammed Bagayogo objected and told the Pasha: ” I would rather have you cut my hand up to the shoulder than to bear a false testimony.” Hundreds of manuscripts left the city of Timbuktu under the Moroccan invasion to find their way to Fes and Marrakech.

In 1893, with the colonization of West Africa by France, Timbuktu was brought under the French rule until Mali received her independence in 1960. To this day, many manuscripts originating from Timbuktu can be found in French museums and universities.

The tent of Tin Obutut
– the founder of Timbuktu

The well of Tin Obutut
– the founder of Timbuktu

Boats sailed by Mansa Mussa’s
uncle, Abu Bakar II to
the Americas

Timbuktu library – a treasure house of centuries of Malian history

Timbuktu's main library, officially called the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Islamic Studies and Research, is a treasure house containing more than 20,000 manuscripts covering centuries of Mali's history.

Named after the famous medieval writer and scholar, the manuscripts are housed in a purpose-built 4,600 sq metre (50,000 sq ft) complex completed in 2009 at a cost of around £5m. Designed by South African architects and replacing a crumbling 40-year-old building, the new institute features air conditioning to preserve the manuscripts and an automatic fire-fighting system.

It is not known how much damage was caused to the building, which had reportedly been used as a sleeping quarters by the Islamist fighters who seized it.

Some of the 20,000 ancient manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Institute. Photograph: Ben Curtis/AP

Timbuktu's famous manuscripts, believed to number in the hundreds of thousands, mainly date from the 14th to 16th centuries, when the city was an important hub for trade and Islamic knowledge. Often written in Arabic but also some local languages, they cover areas such as medicine and astronomy, as well as poetry, literature and Islamic law. Many were kept for centuries in private family libraries, passed down through the generations.

The city's huge and priceless cultural heritage, a legacy of its medieval status as an African equivalent to Oxford or Cambridge, complete with bustling university, was little known in the outside world, with even the French, Mali's colonial rulers until 1960, carrying away some manuscripts to museums but doing little to unearth the full story behind them.

As outside interest began to grow, in part when the infamously remote city became more accessible, the Ahmed Baba Institute started to collect and preserve significant parts of this cultural heritage, protecting it from damage through poor storage or being sold to collectors.

Manuscripts on display in Timbuktu. Photograph: Evan Schneider/AFP/Getty Images

Separately, a Unesco scheme run by Norway and Luxembourg called the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project began to scan the documents to provide digital versions.

According to reports from Mali, many private owners have sought to save their own collections from destruction by hiding or removing their manuscripts, in some cases burying them in the desert.

Mohamed Galla Dicko, formerly director of the Ahmed Baba Institute, told Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper: "The old pages can be damaged just by touching them. And the people who are moving them are not specialists in handling them."

Watch the video: Timbuktu UNESCONHK (August 2022).