Imagine a city that has preserved its role as a center for Islamic culture and education in Africa for centuries. A place that captivates the world with its architecture built from the earth and its rich history. In this city, precious handwritten manuscripts are being studied and explored for the advancement of contemporary knowledge. Yes, we are talking about the city of Timbuktu!
Origins of the Name Timbuktu
According to legend, the name Timbuktu comes from an elderly woman named Buktu who lived there. In the language of the Tuareg people, who were the original inhabitants of the region, it is believed to be related to the word “Tin,” meaning a place. According to this tale, Timbuktu could mean “The Place of Buktu.”
A gateway to civilization opening onto the Sahara Desert: Timbuktu. Positioned on the shores of Lake Niger in Western Africa, Timbuktu has held significant importance throughout history due to its strategic location. Its proximity to the river and fertile lands has facilitated settlement and cultivation for centuries.
Under the Mali Empire
Timbuktu became a prominent Islamic center under the rule of Sultan Mansa Musa during the early 14th century, when it was within the boundaries of the Mali Empire. Mansa Musa, often described as history’s wealthiest individual, contributed to Timbuktu’s development with his vast gold wealth, promoting the city’s and the empire’s reputation. He commissioned the Djingareyber (Jingereiber) Mosque after his pilgrimage to Mecca and invited scholars from neighboring countries to Timbuktu. This era saw an increase in prosperity and migration due to various construction activities in the city. Notable architectural structures built during this period include the Sidi Yahya Mosque, Madugu Palace, and Sankore Mosque. An interesting feature of these structures is that they are made from earth.
University of Sankore
One of the oldest universities in Africa, the University of Sankore, provided advanced education in the Quran and Islamic sciences, along with subjects such as medicine, mathematics, history, geography, philosophy, and astronomy. It is believed to have hosted around 25,000 students. The individuals educated here played a significant role in the spread of Islam across West Africa and also contributed to other Islamic centers of learning.
Precious Manuscripts of Timbuktu
As knowledge expanded and evolved, rich libraries were established in Timbuktu to document the accumulated wisdom. The manuscripts are predominantly written in Arabic and regional languages. Despite the numerous works produced, only a limited number have survived to the present day. Reasons for this scarcity include destruction during wars, theft, sale, or preservation by hiding them in the desert. After Mali gained independence, various institutes were established to collect and protect these manuscripts. Families that inherited these books also maintained them in their homes or secret libraries.
Late 19th Century French Colonization
After passing from the Mali Empire to the Songhai Empire and then enduring battles to bring it under the rule of different states, Timbuktu was occupied by French colonial forces in the late 19th century. During this period, some manuscripts were taken to Europe. Following the French arrival and the establishment of French as the dominant language, the majority of the population gradually lost access to their city’s rich knowledge, rendering them unable to read their valuable manuscripts. From this point on, Timbuktu’s centuries-old wealth and splendor began to fade.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Timbuktu was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1988. However, in 2012, due to ongoing attacks in the city, many of its valuable books and architectural structures were perceived to be under threat, leading to its inclusion in the “List of World Heritage in Danger.”