Thursday, August 22, 2013

In darkest Africa . . .

Despite the common misconception that Africa is backward,

on the edge of the Sahara desert lies one of the world’s great centres of learning and a cluster of libraries that is unlike anything elsewhere in the world.

First, a brief history.

Commonly regarded in popular language as the place farthest away from anywhere else on the planet, there is the city of Timbuktu (Tombouctou in French) in the country of Mali.

Yes, it really exists!  Not only that, it has public and private libraries that house an incredible collection of ancient texts.

Founded about nine hundred years ago as a resting place for Tuareg nomads, Timbuktu grew rapidly and by 1400 was at the centre of prosperous gold and salt trade routes across the Sahara.  It also became a focus of Islamic studies and culture.

The walls of Timbuktu

In 1324, the Mali emperor, Mansa Mūsā, went on a pilgrimage to Mecca and returned with the idea of building a mosque.  The result was the Great Mosque called Djinguereber, which has been rebuilt many times since.

Next, Abū Isḥāq al-Sāḥili, an architect from Grenada, Spain, was commissioned to design and build the Sankore Mosque, which still stands today, thanks to an ingenious design that allowed easy repairs after the annual rainy season.  Sankore University was built around the mosque.

The Sankore Mosque

The Sankore Mosque
Inside the Sankore Mosque
By 1450, the population of Timbuktu was estimated to be about 100,000, of which 25,000 were scholars.  In 1593, Morocco attacked and captured the city.  The ruler of Morocco, Ahmad I al-Mansur, accused the scholars of being disloyal and killed or exiled many of them.  The city then started a long decline. 

It was first discovered by Europeans in the early 1800s by Scottish explorer, Alexander Laing, and taken over by the French in 1894.  In 1960, what is now the country of Mali became independent, with Timbuktu becoming an administrative centre.

What is there now?

The amazing thing about Timbuktu, other than its remoteness, is the collection of ancient manuscripts, numbering as many as 700,000, many dating back four and five hundred years.  These manuscripts cover topics such as religion (of course), art, science, medicine, and philosophy.  They are kept in both public and private libraries – the latter coming about because families used to sponsor students, housing them in dormitory-like rooms.  Families such as these also bought or commissioned manuscripts, often now-priceless personal copies of the Qur’an, which resulted in Timbuktu becoming a bustling centre for the book trade.

A member of the Kounta clan from which the Il Kounti library gets its name

Science text

Looks like a map to me

Mathematics text

Page from a 14th Century Qur'an

10th Century North African Qur'an

What is remarkable to me is that most of these documents have survived for centuries despite repeated invasions by different powers or groups.  Families have preserved the manuscripts by hiding them in the walls of their buildings or burying them in the desert.

When rebels took over the city at the beginning of this year and, because of religious differences, started destroying both manuscripts and ancient shrines, it was feared that hundreds of thousands of documents had been destroyed.  But forethought prevailed again.  Most of the documents had been taken out of the city to Barnako in southern Mali and so avoided destruction.  However, the humid climate there is posing another threat – mold.  Now a fund-raising drive has been started to provide dry environments for the documents until Timbuktu is peaceful enough to return them. 

Here is a short video of how one US-based book-preservation expert helped rescue these invaluable treasures (

So when you hear someone say that Africa (that always means black Africa) has no cultural or intellectual history, point them towards Timbuktu.

The centre of Timbuktu is a World Heritage Site, as well as being on the list of endangered Heritage Sites.  Put it on your bucket list - and visit when the rebels have left!

Stan - Thursday


  1. Stan, What an interesting post. Thank you! --Joe Barone.

  2. Your post today, Stan, is a fine companion piece to Yrsa's post yesterday about the teaching of history (or the failure thereof). In both of them, I see the battle of the forces of ignorance and self-righteousness against the ramparts of knowledge and tolerance.

    I can only begin to imagine what Jesper...uh...Jeff will come up with to tie into this theme on Saturday. No, wait, been there, done that, "Mykonos in August." 'Nuff said.

  3. Just before I left for Greece I saw a documentary on the Timbuktu library. Simply fascinating and utterly ignored in every reference I recall from my school days of that part--or any part--of Africa. Though to be fair, I probably wasn't paying much attention back in those ancient times.

    And, Everett, funny you should mention my post for Saturday in the context in which you did. In fact, not funny, chilling. Are you shadowing my computer key strokes? The piece is already written and in line to post, and believe it or not hones in on "the battle of the forces of ignorance and self-righteousness against the ramparts of knowledge and tolerance." I shall leave to your imagination the side on which I wade in.

    1. Not only shadowing your computer key strokes, but you ARE aware (I hope) that video cameras and microphones can be turned on remotely? Oh, the things I have poised for release onto the internet, should anything happen to me...

      As for my imagination, not necessary. I may not be the BEST student of history, but I HAVE been paying attention to your past writings. Besides, with a chin like that, there's only ONE side you could be on: Truth, Justice and the Mykonian Way!

    2. Everett, I guess winter is coming early to your part of the country because you sound very snow'din.

  4. It's good to see this post. I have known about Timbuktu being a center of learning and collections of massive numbers of scrolls and books. I wish that it were better known.

    It has a tremendous history, which was written about by W.E.B. DuBois decades ago. This is how I learned about the city's historical and intellectual importance.

    It's important for this to be known.

    I always worry about the term "darkest Africa," as I just encountered it in a book from Denmark. How do African people feel about this word? African Americans I know here don't use the term and are put off by it.

  5. The term "darkest Africa" never had any resonance with me. As a child, I always thought of it as sunny with lions, elephants, and giraffes and women in bright colored cotton garments carrying tall terra cotta pots on their heads. That image is not entirely true either, but I grew up thinking of it as a beautiful place. And now that I have seen it, I know I was right. And your pictures here, Stan, certainly show how glorious it is. I propose an MIE tour; as soon as we can safely go to Timbuktu, let's do it together.

  6. Timbuktu is on my bucket list. I hope things improve for the people there -- it's a terrible tragedy all around. But I'm very glad to hear that most of the ancient manuscripts were saved -- I'd only heard about their supposed destruction. Very good news!