History Of Timbuktu

Timbuktu exists in modern-day Mali in West Africa, but the mystery of the city that drew adventurers such as Rene Caille has clearly diminished.

Nothing better denotes remoteness and mystery than Timbuktu. Your mother threatened to send you there if you didn't clean your room. Yet European explorers literally killed themselves in attempts to find the fabled city. Timbuktu certainly does exist. However, the mystery that drew those first European adventurers has diminished while Timbuktu's remoteness continues to increase.

Timbuktu originated as a meeting point in the 11th century for Tuareg tradesmen. By the 14th century the city was conquered and incorporated into the Mali Empire. Situated near the Niger River that conveniently flooded canals during the rainy season, Timbuktu evolved into an entrepot for caravans on their trans-Saharan migrations. North African traders and their camels would arrive in Timbuktu loaded with valued commodities such as salt and cloth, and barter for gold and slaves.

In 1468, ownership of Timbuktu transferred to the Songhai Empire. Under their leadership the city flowered into the commercial and religious Mecca, which would stir the passions of European adventurers. The famous African explorer, Leo Africanus, arrived in Timbuktu in the 16th century and provided one of the best accounts of life during Timbuktu's golden age. According to Leo Africanus, the King of the Songhai Empire living in Timbuktu would travel throughout the city accompanied on camel back by his royal court. The King possessed no less than 3000 foot soldiers armed with poison arrows. All those refusing to pay appropriate homage to the King were executed. After battle victories, the King would sell the enemy in the Timbuktu slave markets where all bartering was done in pure gold nuggets rather than coinage. Leo found the city residents very peaceful and often given to singing and dancing until late in the evening.

During this time Timbuktu was also well known as a center for Islamic scholarship. Muslim travelers, such as Leo Africanus and Ibn Battuta, specifically traveled to the city to take advantage of its intellectual capital in preparation for the Hajj -- or pilgrimage to Mecca. Scholars of Timbuktu were renown throughout the entire region. Libraries full of hand-written documents were treasured (and well-preserved in the dry desert climate). Citizens of Timbuktu were so enthusiastic about Islamic scholarship that all social classes received access to teachers. Even strangers traveling through town were encouraged to participate.

The published descriptions of Leo Africanus and other Muslim travelers are what sparked the imagination of Europeans in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Europeans believed Timbuktu to be a fabled city with roofs made of gold and canals full of rosewater. Exploration societies held competitions guaranteeing fame and fortune to the first man to live to see Timbuktu. Plenty tried, but few succeeded. On the edge of the Sahara desert, Timbuktu during the 18th and 19th centuries was highly inaccessible. The only entry was by camel or via the Niger River. Most camel caravans were reluctant to take on the risk of a stranger for the long journey. Others would simply rob the explorers and leave them for dead in the desert. The Niger River access was best only during the brief rainy season. Dehydration and dysentery provided more hurdles for adventurers.

But when Rene-Auguste Caille set out to discover Timbuktu, he planned to avoid the mistakes of his predecessors like Gordon Laing. Caille already had a solid knowledge of Africa. By the age of twenty he had explored regions around Senegal. Before setting off for Timbuktu, Caille learned Arabic and studied Islam. Posing as an Arab trader en route to Egypt, he left Senegal in April 1827. Caille was delayed for five months due to sickness, but arrived in Timbuktu in April 1828. His arrival was disappointing. By the 19th century, the state of the city had sharply declined. Morocco had conquered the city in 1591 but had little success in holding firm. Several smaller raids by such groups as the Berbers, Fulani and Bambara slowly chipped away at Timbuktu's glory. Little by little traders moved elsewhere. Caille described Timbuktu as gray and dingy. The gold-topped roofs imagined by Europeans were really flat mud slabs atop adobe structures. The sand dunes surrounding the city seemed to be slowly drowning the town. The only aspect of the city still thriving was its devotion to scholarship. Rene Caille found so little of interest in Timbuktu that he stayed a mere two weeks before heading back to France via Morocco.

Unfortunately many tourists experience Caille's same sense of disappointment upon arriving at Timbuktu in modern day Mali. Timbuktu is full of heat, sand and crumbling mud homes - hardly the mysterious city of gold. But if one looks hard enough (or pays enough for a good guide) little treasures of Timbuktu's past still exist in the forms of old tombs and ancient mosques. The tomb of Abd al-Rahman al-Sadi, a famous historian who wrote Tarikh al-Sudan (History of Sudan), which gives the best description of Timbuktu during the Middle Ages, is still preserved. The Sankore Mosque remains in good condition while the Market Mosque is in need of repair. The most famous mosque of Timbuktu, Jengerebir, is still a central feature of the city. In 1325 the fabulously wealthy King of Mali, Mansa Musa, entered Timbuktu and ordered his Grenadan architect to build the city's most beautiful mosque. Today Jengerebir continues to draw citizens for daily prayers and major festivals.

Timbuktu was captured by the French in 1893 and became part of the Republic of Mali upon Mali's independence in 1960. Whether conquered by the Empire of Mali or Songhoi, the Moroccans or the French, Timbuktu was never sacked or destroyed. Each invading army sought to preserve the legacy of Timbuktu even when it was well on the way to its decline. Much of that legacy was told through the written manuscripts of her heyday, many of which are now stored safely by the families of the original Timbuktu residents.

Sources: Leo Africanus. "The Description of Timbuktu". The Description of Africa (1526). Available from http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~wldciv/world_civ_reader/world_civ_reader_2/leo_africanus.html

The Islamic Legacy of Timbuktu at http://users.erols.com/gmqm/timbuktu.html

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