Timbuktu, the symbol of all places exotic and remote, has returned to headlines recently because of its capture by rebel Tuareg forces. Existing on the margin between the desert and the regional thoroughfare of the Niger River, Timbuktu has weathered many such changes in its political fortunes throughout its nearly 1,000 year history.
Founded by the Tuareg in the 11th century, Timbuktu prospered as a hub of the trans-Saharan trade. Its merchants handled gold, ivory, salt, and slaves from Africa and exchanged them for the bulk commodities, luxury cloth, and metalwork of mediaeval Europe. Its location at the centre of these trade networks also contributed to the intellectual legacy of the city, since it became a centre of learning and Islamic study.
By the 12th century, Timbuktu boasted not only three universities of the highest calibre, but also 180 Qur’anic schools, or madrasahs. Because of the high concentration of students and scholars (both Arab and black African), Timbuktu became a centre not only of learning, but also of manuscript production. Works of religious commentary, medicine, the sciences, and trade were all written and copied here, until the city was renowned throughout northern Africa for its libraries.
As is often the case, however, Timbuktu’s fabulous wealth attracted unwanted attentions. Between 1300 and 1600, the city underwent several conquests and invasions, some to its benefit, some not. For example, the Emperor of Mali, Mansa Musa, captured the city in 1325 and inaugurated the building programme that created it’s distinctive mosques. In 1591, however, Moroccan forces looted the city. As a result, many of Timbuktu’s manuscripts were dispersed regionally, spreading from Mauritania in the south to Marraketch in the north. Others were hidden away by local families, either in desert caches or inside the walls of their homes.
Fortunately, large numbers of these manuscripts have come to light in recent years. Many families, worried that members of the younger generation will be unable to protect their manuscripts, have begun to donate them to newly set up libraries. Numbered in their thousands, these manuscripts have kept alive a tradition of learning unique to the city. In Timbuktu alone, more than 14 libraries have been set up to study and preserve these manuscripts, many of which are brittle, faded, or marked by termites.
Thanks to careful husbandry by their owners, as well as the manuscript-friendly local climate, these texts are allowing scholars to reconstruct more fully the literate history of Africa, its native kingdoms, religious beliefs, and trade contacts. Due to the sheer number of texts, however, it may take years, even decades, before the majority of these manuscripts are physically restored, transcribed, edited, and translated for a local and international community of scholars to study!
Thus, this rediscovered library’s impact upon our understanding of Africa’s history, and Timbuktu’s place within it, will continue throughout this century and beyond, as a collection of primary cultural significance.
If you are unwilling to wait for the entirety of these manuscripts to be translated, there are several ways to experience the history of Africa straight from your living room. The Library of Congress, for example, hosts an online exhibition of the manuscripts entitled ‘Ancient Manuscripts from the Desert Libraries of Timbuktu.’
The BBC show ‘Lost Kingdoms of Africa’ is also an excellent and enjoyable introduction to the regional histories of the continent before colonisation. Now in its second series, the show is available to American viewers via Netflix!