Africa’s Great Civilizations: The Fabled & Majestic City of Timbuktu

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A great deal of African history and culture has intentionally been made to be obscure. Civilizations existed in Africa long before European colonization. From the African continent, great civilizations have risen to glory. Through its peoples, astounding cultures have grown and flourished. Yet many myths remain about Africa. We can’t pretend that Africans have no history as if we just dropped from the sky argued the great Chinua Achebe and always sharing this Igbo proverb: “If you do not know where the rain began to beat you then you cannot tell where you dried your body.” As in if you don’t know where you come from then you cannot tell where you are going. Scholars have concluded that civilization developed in West Africa as much as one thousand years earlier than they once believed. We now know that Africa had an Iron Age culture with cities and trade routes about 250 years before the Common Era. In Henry Louis Gates, Jr’s “Africa’s Great Civilizations,” an insightful and outstanding six-hour series about the history of Africa, from the birth of humankind to the dawn of the 20th century. Gates argued that “in the lush forests of modern-day Central African Republic, sometime between 1800 and 1500 BC, craftsmen are believed to have discovered iron. New evidence indicates that ironworking began in the heart of Africa.”

Based on oral accounts mainly from the griots, Timbuktu was a trading point founded around the 12th century AD by the nomadic Tuaregs. Timbuktu lies just South of the Sahara desert in a region known as the Sahel region. It is said to be the city where the “camel meets the canoe” in order words where you can swap your desert camels to continue your journey by river. It grew into a commercial hub that connected the Arab and Berber traders of the desert with the black tribes of the Sahel, Mali, and Ghana. According to  Steve Kemper’s blog In the Labyrinth, “Like any crossroads town, it contained a babel of languages—Tamasheq, Songhai, Hausa, Arabic, Mandinka, Fulfulde, Wolof, Bambara. These eventually mixed and merged into a hybrid argot spoken only in Timbuktu. Residents called it Koyrachini (variant spelling Koyra Chiini), which loosely translates as ‘town talk.’”

Located in modern-day Mali, Timbuktu is a city situated 20 km north of the Niger River. The town is the capital of the Tombouctou Region, one of the eight administrative regions of Mali. No name brings ancient Africa to mind more than the fabled city of Timbuktu, a great city that flourished for more than four hundred years. Timbuktu was at the end of the camel caravan route that linked sub-Saharan Africa to North Africa and Arabia. It was a major trading route for Gold, ivory, and kola nuts, but the most important commodity was salt. Timbuktu was located near several salt mines in the Sahara Desert. Caravans hauled salt from the mines to trade for gold.

A crossroads for salt, gold, and slave trade, it developed great wealth between the 14th and 16th centuries. Gold arrived from mines in the tropical south and was traded for salt from mines in the desert north. Salt was a major commodity since it was used not just for food to taste better rather than bland but also important for preservation especially fish and other kinds of seafood before the invention of the refrigerator. “Unlike Kano (a city in northern Nigeria) or Kukuwa Timbuktu created few goods of its own. Its prosperity stemmed from its location,” argued Steve Kemper. Though surrounded by the Sahara, it sat only eight miles north of the Niger, on the big bend where the river juts into the desert.

Timbuktu flourished during the saga of Mansa Musa. Mansa Musa was a Mande not a Tuareg. Mandépeoples are speakers of Mande languages. Various Mandé groups are found in every country in mainland West Africa. The Mandé languages are divided into two primary groups: East Mandé and West Mandé. The Mandinka or Malike People, a western branch of the Mandé, are credited with the founding of the largest ancient West African empires. Other large Mandé groups include the Soninke, Susu, Bambara, and Dyula. Mansa is a Mandinka word for Emperor. When Mansa Musa arrive at the city of Timbuktu on his way from Hajj (pilgrimage) from Mecca (modern-day Saudi Arabia) around 1325, he recognizes that Timbuktu was strategically located within the bounds of his kingdom and therefore, decided to invest in the city and invest in his legacy. It was at this time that he founded his great mosque. Consequently, it became part of the Mali Empire early in the 14th century.

The Mali Empire was founded by Sundiata Keita (c. 1214 – c. 1255) and became renowned for the wealth of its rulers, especially Mansa Musa (Musa Keita). Under Mansa Musa’s reign, the empire grew in unfathomable wealth which came from primarily gold and salt. Gold and salt were in abundant supply so much so that at the time approximately half of all gold in the old world which includes Africa, Asia, and Europe came from three of the main gold mines in the Mali Empire.

Timbuktu began as a trading city, but in time it developed into the educational and spiritual center of West Africa with the influence of Mansa Musa. Mansa Musa built a great mosque, ( Islamic temple), in Timbuktu. The mosque attracted scholars from as far away as Saudi Arabia. The heart of Timbuktu’s intellectual life was its libraries. Between the 14th and the 17th centuries, they acquired hundreds of thousands of books, mostly written by African authors working in the city. According to Bridget Kendall from the BBC, the Forum Podcast, “To 16th-century Muslim scholars, it was the cosmopolitan hub of Islamic learning in West Africa. Believed to be the richest person ever in history, it was Mansa Musa – the emperor of the vast Mali Empire – who first developed the desert settlement into a place of intellectual debate in the 1300s. The golden age of Islamic learning he began still survives today.”

In its Golden Age, the town’s numerous Islamic scholars and extensive trading network supported an important book trade: together with the campuses of the Sankore Madrasah, an Islamic university, this established Timbuktu as a scholarly center in Africa. Consequently, this gave rise to advance learning in theology, astronomy, mathematics, and jurisprudence. Considered a beacon of Islamic knowledge, the city will produce, consume and preserve the most valuable of all trade goods which was books. Several notable historic writers, such as Shabeni and Leo Africanus, wrote about the city. These stories fuelled speculation in Europe, where the city’s reputation shifted from being extremely rich to being mysterious. “To European explorers 300 years later, it was a place of mystery, whose name remains synonymous with being at the end of the Earth,” argued Bridget Kendall.

Timbuktu began to decline in influence when the Portuguese showed that it was easier to sail along the coast of Africa than travel through the desert. The city was destroyed at the end of the sixteenth century by the war between Morocco and Songhai. At one time, historians estimate that more than 100,000 people lived in Timbuktu, but today it remains a shadow of its former self, a mud-built town of 20,000 people on the edge of the Sahara Desert. In the first half of the 15th century, the Tuareg tribes took control of the city for a short period until the expanding Songhai Empire absorbed the city in 1468. A Moroccan army defeated the Songhai in 1591 and made Timbuktu, rather than Gao, their capital. The invaders established a new ruling class, the Arma, who after 1612 became virtually independent of Morocco. However, the golden age of the city, when it was a major learning and cultural center of the Mali Empire, was over, and it entered a long period of decline. Different tribes governed until the French took over in 1893, a situation that lasted until it became part of the current Republic of Mali in 1960. Its three great mosques, Djingareyber, Sankore, and Sidi Yahia, recall Timbuktu’s golden age. Although continuously restored, these monuments are today under threat from desertification. Timbuktu is also on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Most recently, in 2013, Timbuktu was at the center of the world’s attention again, after Islamist militants threatened thousands of valuable historic manuscripts stored in the city’s famous libraries. In 2012, due to regional fighting, the city was placed on the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger, where it still remains in 2018.

Visit our site to learn more about Africa’s Great Civilizations and how we are incorporating many of these landmarks in our African Homecoming Itinerary.

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