Thursday, May 10, 2007


"Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, and silver from the country of the white men, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom are only to be found in Timbuktu."
West African Proverb

Overview of Timbuktu
Photo by the Center for Development and Environment

Timbuktu a.k.a Tombouctou in French is on the southern edge of the Sahara, 1000 kilometres by road north-east of Bamako, the capital of Mali. It began its existence in the 12th century as an encampment of the Tuaregs, the nomads who roamed the southern Sahara and the Sahel region. 'Bouctou' or 'Buktu' was a Tuareg woman who is said to have discovered the well around which the encampment was established. 'Tim' means well - 'Tombouctou' or 'Timbuktu' thus means "Well of Bouctou".

Bouctou's well
Photos by American Robin

With the growth of trans-Saharan trade in gold, ivory, kola nuts and slaves, Timbuktu developed into a commercial hub. By the mid-14th century, under the influence of Mansa Moussa, king of the empire of Mali, it had become a significant cultural and religious centre. Mansa built a tower for the Great Mosque (Djingereyber) and a royal residence, the Madugu (the former has since been rebuilt many times, and of the latter no trace now remains).By the 15th century, Timbuktu had 100,000 inhabitants and had become an international centre of Islamic learning. This period was the height of Timbuktu's commercial and intellectual development. During the early 15th century, a number of Islamic institutions were erected. The most famous of these is the Sankore mosque, also known as the University of Sankore.The city's scholars, many of whom had studied in Mecca or Egypt, attracted students from all over. Merchants from Wadan, Tuwat, Ghudamis (Ghadames), Augila, and the cities of Morocco gathered there to buy gold and slaves in exchange for the Saharan salt of Taghaza and for North African cloth and horses.

680-year-old Djingareiber Mosque in Timbuktu. It was built by El Saheli, the man credited with inventing this style of mud-brick architecture. Abu Es Haq es Saheli who was paid 200 kg (40,000 mithqals) of gold by Mansa Kankan Musa, emperor of the Mali Empire.

Timbuktu achieved legendary status in Europe and was regarded as a place of wealth and wonder, a mystical city of gold. It was not until 1828, however, that the first European visited the place and lived to tell the tale. It is reported that the first European to visit Timbuktu, in 1826, was killed. Rene Caillie, a Frechman disguised as an Arab, was the first to survive a visit, in 1828. Today, most people travel to Timbuktu through the Niger river or camel.

By this time Timbuktu had seriously declined because of invasion from Morocco in the north and the rise of the European maritime powers, whose sea routes made the trans-Saharan passage largely obsolete.

Clay oven in Timbuktu

Today Timbuktu is a town of 15,000 people and is struggling to avoid being overrun by the Sahara. In 1988 it was included on UNESCO's World Heritage list and in 1990 it was included on the "in-danger" list. There are very few cars in Timbuktu. People walk on sand filled roads. Timbuktu buildings are made of mud. Behive-shaped communal ovens for bread baking are scattered throughout the lanes.

This 19th-century engraving depicts an Arab slave-trading caravan transporting black African slaves across the Sahara. The trans-Saharan slave trade developed in the 7th and 8th centuries as Muslim Arabs conquered most of North Africa. The trade grew significantly from the 10th to the 15th century and peaked in the mid-19th century.

Timbuktu is historically important as a post on the Trans-Saharan caravan route that extended from the Sub-Saharan West African kingdoms across the Sahara desert to Europe. The Saharan Trade linked such African empires as Ghana, Mali, and Songhay to the European world. While the present day regions of Sudan, Ghana , possessed a large amount of gold, the region lacked adequate salt supply. The Desert regions of present-day Morocco and Algeria, however, had abundant salt resources, and desert inhabitants were always in search of valuables. Not surprisingly, the gold/salt trade between the Ghana Empire and the Arab desert merchants flourished.

Salt blocks on camels en route to trade market

Timbuktu has been described as being so remote, and so desolate, and incredibly difficult to get to because of the terrain and heat. Nevertheless, Timbuktu is a remote city rich in culture and history, and wonderfully picturesque.

"Until the lion has his historian, the hunter will always be a hero." African Proverb



Anonymous said...

Habari Liz,

I once came across a story connecting the ancient Kilwa Empire and Songhai Empire. It was said that the Sultan of Kilwa met Sundiata Keita in Makkah (Saudi Arabia, Hijaz by then)during Islamic pilgrimage and the former travelled to west Africa and introduced/grasped some architectural knowledge.

But it is also said that buildings in Kilwa Kisiwani (Kilwa island) were designed to imitate Arabic and Persian styles. However, there is much resemblence between the Great Kilwa Mosque with various mosques in some ancient west African kingdoms!

I think I got this information from the Internet; I can't remember though. But if you search stories of Kilwa and Ibn Batuta on the web you may get something of this sort, probably!



Sema Tanzania Boy!

With regards to Ibn Batutta, he was a Moroccan trader. One of the by products of trade is the cross pollination of cultures. So alongside the Arab traders influence over the Kilwa region I wouldn't be surprised if the regions, that is Timbuktu and Kilwa, had similar characteristics. As for the meeting in the Islamic holy city of Mecca, that I was not aware of. I will most definately look into it and ask my Malian friends for insight.

Thanks for the ideas.