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.
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|
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|
|Looks like a map to me|
|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 (http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/28/world/africa/timbuktu-manuscripts).
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