Man reading a manuscript on the roof of Djingareyber Mosque, Timbuktu. (Source)

Once a thriving centre of learning and culture, Timbuktu is home to notable architecture and one of the world’s greatest collections of ancient manuscripts.

A West African city with a name long synonymous with the unknown edges of the world, Timbuktu flourished from trade in salt, gold and ivory and was part of the Mali Empire of the 14th century. Its Sankore University, together with a thriving book trade and the presence of numerous famous scholars established the city as a renowned scholarly centre in Africa.

On the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, north of the River Niger, a city of beige towers and dusty roads appears out of the sand. Its reputation is heavy with the weight of nearly a millennium’s worth of history. For centuries it’s been blessed - and cursed - by rumors of being a hidden paradise. It has passed from the hands of a famed sultan to invading northerners to European imperialists, growing from a tiny nomadic outpost to a major cultural hub. Over the course of its history, the desert city was famed for being dense with gold, for being impenetrable, and for bearing witness to one of the great ecological calamities of the 20th century. Even now, in the age of Google Maps, its name is synonymous with the unknown edges of the world: welcome to Timbuktu.
Lorraine Boissoneault, The Golden Age of Timbuktu

"Timbuktu, French Tombouctou, city in the western African country of Mali, historically important as a trading post on the trans-Saharan caravan route and as a centre of Islamic culture (c. 1400–1600). It is located on the southern edge of the Sahara, about 8 miles (13 km) north of the Niger River. The city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988. In 2012, in response to armed conflict in the region, Timbuktu was added to the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger." Encyclopædia Britannica.

Timbuktu has become a byword for the farthest corner of the earth. But it was once an important cultural and artistic center. Put us on the ground during its golden age."
Joshua Hammer, 
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

The mosque Djenne - a great clay monument of Timbuktu, Mali (Source)

The Rise of Timbuktu as a Centre of Learning 

"Musa's legacy today is tremendous, both in terms of his crazy monetary exploits and for things like creating one of the world's best libraries and universities in the city of Timbuktu, but until recently, few people knew this incredible man's name." (Source)

According to Al-Djazairi, until the Western intrusion, some African parts, under the aegis of Islam, and acting as great trading centres, became during the high middle ages great centres of civilisation. Mali was one such place. As the remotest place on the gold road, Mali became famous in the Mediterranean world in the 14th century. Its ruler, known as the Mansa Musa (r. 1312-37), reached legendary proportions. He was one of three Mansas to go on the hajj (proof of both power and stability of the Mali state, as the pilgrimage took over a year.) He travelled with 80 or 100 camels, ‘each weighed down with 300 pounds of gold. It was the ritual magnificence and wealth of the court of Mali that impressed beholders. "Everything about the Mansa exuded majesty." On his return from his pilgrimage to Makkah in 1324, Mansa Musa brought back with him the Muslim poet and architect, Es Saheli, who built the famous mosques and learning academies of Timbuktu and Gao. Timbuktu, then, was seen as a great centre of learning. The news of the Mansa's splendour reached Europe, and in Majorcan maps from the 1320s, and in the lavish Catalan Atlas of 1375, the ruler of Mali was portrayed like a Latin monarch, save only for his black face:

Everything about the Mansa exuded majesty... Bearded, crowned and throned, with panoply of orb and sceptre, he is perceived and presented as a sophisticate not a savage: a sovereign equal in standing to any Christian prince...
Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Before Columbus 

This is a close up view of a famous Catalan Atlas drawn by Abraham Cresques in 1375 in Europe, which depicts Emperor Mansa Musa (Source)

The Scholars of Timbuktu

Like many of the learning centres of the golden age of Muslim Civilisation, TImbuktu boasted many scholars. Some of the key names included Modibo Mohammad Al Kaburi, Al Qadi Al Hajj, Abu Abdallah And Ag Mohammad ibn Mohammad ibn Uthman, Sheik Sidi Abu Al Barakaat Mahmud ibn Umar ibn Aqit, Al Moctar Ag Mohammad ibn Utman, Abd Arahman Ag Mohammad ibn Utman, Abu Al Abbas Ahmad Buryu ibn And Ag Mohamad ibn Utman, Abu Abdallah And Ag Mohammad ibn Al Moctar ‘n-Nahawi, Al Moctar ibn Mohammad ibn Al Moctar ‘n-Nahawi ibn And Ag Mohammad, Ahmed Baba Es Sudane, Mohammad Bagayogo Es Sudane Al Wangari Al Timbukti and many more.*

Many Timbuktu scholars possessed personal libraries of hundreds or thousands of books. Scholars offered instruction inside mosques such as Sankore, Sidi Yahya, and Jingerer Ber, the largest mosque colleges in Timbuktu, but most scholars imparted knowledge to students in a special room in their own homes, which also housed their books. Masters delivered authorization to teach specific texts to their students.The prestige of the authorization depended on the pedigree of a scholar. The expectation still today is that a scholar authorized by a famous master who himself is a former student of another famous master to transmit knowledge will have more solid credentials than a scholar taught by a less famous master."
Ousmane Oumar Kane, Beyond Timbuktu 

Imaginary potrait of Ahmed Baba (Source)

Here comes the sand
To cover everything -
But before it does, 
I honour an African Teacher,
Of Ahmed Baba I must sing

Ahmed Baba of Timbuktu

Abu al-Abbas Ahmad ibn Ahmad al-Takruri Al-Massufi al-Timbukti, otherwise commonly known as Ahmad Baba for short, was a well-known teacher, professor, philosopher, Arabic grammarian and an author of over forty books and various works.

Ahmad Baba's work ranged from biographies to commentaries - and he was one of the most celebrated professors. He was also the last Chancellor at the University of Sankore, Timbuktu. The University of Sankore has been compared to other higher education universities during Muslim civilisation such as Al-Azhar in Egypt, Al-Qayrawan in Tunisia, Al-Qarawiyyin in Morocco and Qurtuba University in Spain. It is also said to be a source of pride amongst African-Caribbean communities worldwide as it was a great intellectual institution dating back to civilisations in Mali, Ghana and Songhai particularly during the 12th to 16th centuries. Ahmad Baba (also spelled as Ahmed Baba or Ahmet Baba), like many scholars, naturally spent much of his time reading as he did writing and his personal library consisted of over 1,600 different volumes.

From "Ode to Ahmad Baba" by Natty Mark Samuels

The Guardian"A worker stands over examples of ancient Islamic manuscripts at Ahmed Baba Library in Timbuktu, Mali - Ben Curtis/AP"


The wooden protrusions... The Sankore Madrasah is also remarkable for its large pyramidal mihrab (Source)

Learning Institutions of Timbuktu

At one of the most southerly points of the Muslim lands was the University of Sankore, in Timbuktu, and it was the intellectual institution of Mali, Ghana, and Songhay.

It developed out of the Sankore Mosque, founded in 989 by the eru-dite chief judge of Timbuktu, Al-Qadi Aqib ibn Mahmud ibn Umar. The inner court of the mosque was in the exact dimension of the Ka'bah in holy Mecca. A wealthy Mandika lady then financed Sankore University, making it a leading center of education. It prospered and by the 12th century, student numbers were at 25,000, an enormous amount in a city of 100,000 people.

The university had several independent colleges, each run by a single master. Subjects included the Quran, Islamic studies, law, literature, medicine and surgery, astronomy, mathematics, physics, chemistry, philosophy, language and linguistics, geography, history, and art. It was not all cerebral, as the students also spent time learning a trade, the business code, and ethics. These trade shops offered classes in business, carpentry, farming, fishing, construction, shoemaking, tailoring, and navigation. 

The highest "superior" degree, equivalent to a Ph.D., took about ten years, and produced world-class scholars who were recognized by their publications and for their erudition. The Ph.D. thesis was called Risaleh (literally meaning "letter"), and those graduating with this degree were named Ayatullah, as they still are in the theological Shiite centers Qum (Iran) and Najaf (Oraq). 

Sankore's achievement in higher education is important to Muslim civilisation even though it was less known in comparison to Al-Azhar, Al-Qayrawan, Al-Qarawiyyin and Qurtuba Universities.

From "1001 Inventions The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization" [School Zone - Universities Section]

and "The University of Sankore, Timbuktu" by Zulkifli Khair

Sankore Mosque that houses the University Campus in Mali

Manuscripts of Timbuktu

Ancient Timbuktu was a center of Islamic learning. It had libraries full of manuscripts. The manuscripts were handwritten in Arabic, the language of Islamic scholars. In modern times, about seven hundred thousand ancient manuscripts still remain in Timbuktu.The manuscripts are kept in public and private libraries. They cover topics such as mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, medicine, history, and religion. Many of the manuscripts are in danger of being lost. Age has made their pages brittle. The paper crumbles when it's touched. Insects, moisture, and mold have also damaged the manuscripts. Officials in Timbuktu are collecting money to preserve the manuscripts and store them in better conditions." 
Michael & Mary B. Woods, Seven Wonders of Ancient Africa

"Timbuktu" is something of a metaphor for a long tradition of Islamic learning and writing in West Africa that is subsumed (and sometimes lost) in the fabled name of the northern Malian city. This was well illustrated in the recent crisis in Timbuktu when international alarm was rightly sounded over the possible destruction of manuscripts. The much larger manuscript repositories of this literary tradition in Mauritania, and the equally important collections in Niger and Nigeria, for instance, had no part of the story. These many manuscript collections, separated by multiple national borders, of course represent a single Islamic scholarly heritage (that is, in part, linked to Timbuktu). But this can only be demonstrated by examining the most commonly found teaching texts found in manuscript collections across West Africa.

From "Lecture on Timbuktu Manuscripts at Al-Furqan Foundation"

Timbuktu Manuscripts or (Tombouctou Manuscripts) is a blanket term for the large number of historically important manuscripts that have been preserved for centuries in private households inTimbuktu, Mali. (Source)

Beyond Timbuktu

If Timbuktu was the bright star, the central phenomenon in the teaching constellation, the other centres of learning were complimentary satellites of often equal brilliance.

Daily Mail: Forgotten: The ancient city of Chinguetti, in the west-African nation of Mauritania, is home to around 6,000 ancient manuscripts

To name but a few renowned scholars of African origin in Muslim civilisation, one can observe the great works of zoologist Al-Jahiz, geographer Al-Idrisi, mathematicians such as Labana of CordobaMuhammed ibn Muhammed al-Fulani al-KishnawiAbu Kamil Shuja ibn Aslamal-Qurashīal-HassārIbn al-YāsamīnIbn Mun‘im; founder of the Al-Qarawiyyin university Fatima al-Fihri, important figures like Nana Asma’uSheikh Abdul al-AmawiAl-Hajj Salim SuwariKing Idris Alooma; inventor Abbas Ibn Firnas and many more by exploring the Muslim Heritage website.

From "African contributions to Muslim Civilisation"

Postcard published by Edmond Fortier showing Sankoré Mosque in Timbuktu, Mali 1905-06 (Source)

Timbuktu on the news

NewYork Times: A cache of African manuscripts stored in Abdel Kader Haidara’s home, 2009. Credit Brent Stirton/Getty Images Reportage (Source)

BBC News Timbuktu damage to Mali historic sites 'underestimated'

CNN News Opinion: Timbuktu tomb attack is an attack on our humanity
by Irina Bokova

National Geographic 'Badass Librarians' Foil al Qaeda, Save Ancient Manuscripts

The Globe and Mail Why the Timbuktu case is a breakthrough for International Criminal Court

Huffington Post Destroying History Is Now Being Charged As A War Crime

Telegraph Radical Islamist asks forgiveness for vandalising ancient monuments of Timbuktu

The Guardian From Timbuktu to Grimsby, heritage deserves to be restored and revered

BBC Four The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu

Click here for more news


Evacuation Manuscripts Timbuktu (Source)

Timbuktu seen from a distance by Heinrich Barth’s party, 1853 (Source)

Evacuation Manuscripts Timbuktu (Source)

View of Timbuktu by Heinrich Barth 1858 (Source)

Evacuation Manuscripts Timbuktu (Source)

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