AfricaAfrican Kingdoms and EmpiresMali

Timbuktu, the legendary African city

According to tradition, Timbuktu is the “well of Bouctou”, an old Targui woman who settled in the 12th century in the “camel hump”, a loop formed by the Niger River. Ideally located between Saharan, Arab-Berber, and Sudanese Africa, the city developed considerably under Kanga (or Mansa) Musa who reigned over the Mali Empire in the 14th century.

This legendary king, who derived his immense income from the salt and gold trade, remained famous for his generosity during his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1325: he would have distributed so much wealth in his passage that he caused the fall of gold price in Cairo for several years! Many historians consider him as the wealthiest man in history.  Very pious, he is behind the construction of the largest mosque in Timbuktu, the Djinguereber.

After having been dominated by the Tuaregs (14th century), the merchant city places itself under the protection of the Songhai Empire and multiplies exchanges with large shopping centers to the point of overflowing in the 15th century with luxury items from Venice or Orient. But it is especially by taking advantage of the development which takes place in Sudan in the 15th century, concomitant with european “Renaissance”, that it becomes “a black pearl of the desert”.

The wealth of the region has long fascinated Europeans. This reputation was nourished by the accounts of great travelers, like the Moroccan Ibn Battuta who stayed there in 1352. He describes here the imperial court:

The (audience) room has three wooden windows covered with silver plates and, below, three others covered with gold plates … The squires arrive with magnificent weapons: quiver of gold and silver, sabers decorated with gold and their scabbards, spears of gold and silver, clubs of crystal […]. On certain days, the sultan held an audience in the palace courtyard under a tree. He was seated on a platform covered with silk carpet, and surmounted by a silk parasol, crowned with a golden bird. The Sultan wears a gold headdress. He is wearing a red velvet tunic made from precious fabrics from Europe. He is preceded by musicians whose guitars are made of gold and silver. Behind him, 300 slave soldiers ”. (Ibn Battuta, Voyages, 1352-1353)

Kanga Moussa was not satisfied with spreading his wealth during his pilgrimage: he took advantage of his trip to building up a veritable court of scholars which he installed in Timbuktu. This patronage policy was continued by his successors until the 15th century, which constituted the golden age of intellectual life in the region: attracted by the patronage policy of Askia Mohammed, the Moorish scholars expelled from Spain just like Moroccan intellectuals do not hesitate to come and settle in the Niger loop while exchanges are increasing with major foreign universities, such as Cairo or Damascus.

Timbuktu sees the number of its schools explode, to the point of welcoming in its 180 establishments nearly 20,000 students for 80,000 inhabitants.

The teaching, in Arabic, relates primarily to religious texts but also to many other subjects: linguistics, literature, Greek philosophy, law…

Medicine is also in the spotlight, in particular eye surgery.

In this high place of Islamic culture, thousands of manuscripts were circulating.

According to the traveler Léon l’Africain (XVIe century), who revealed to the Europeans the existence of Timbuktu, one even obtained from the sale of these works more money than “of all the rest of the goods”! True mines of knowledge and masterpieces of calligraphy, they are today the target of Islamists in present days.

It is from Morocco that the signal of decadence will come: Sultan Al Mansour, worried about the aims of Charles V and the Algerian Turks on his kingdom, directs his gaze to the south.

At the end of the 16th century, after the Battle of Tondibi, Timbuktu was ransacked by Spanish mercenaries and their scientists were deported to Morocco. The city went into a long sleep.

It was therefore in a dazzling city that René Caillié, a young self-taught explorer, clandestinely entered in 1828, attracted by the ancient reputation of the “city of 333 saints”. Disappointed by this “simple pile of sordid houses built of earth”, he quickly left the place.

His triumphant return to France should not make us forget that it was the Englishman Gordon Laing who was the first European to enter there in 1826, shortly before being assassinated.

Subsequently, Peuls, Bambaras, Touaregs and Toucouleurs succeed one another in the city until the arrival of the French in 1863. After the country’s independence in 1960, Timbuktu turned to tourism, which became its first source of income until ‘to the upheavals of 2012.

Like its Malian cousin Djenné, the old capital is famous for its monuments with original architecture. Essentially mosques and mausoleums that keep the memory of pious men and earn the city its nickname “city of 333 saints”.

No marble or stone in the streets. Timbuktu is a city of raw earth. It is built using the Adobe (or mud) technique, which uses molded and dried earth bricks arranged around palm beams constituting the framework.

Very fragile, these monuments are, each year, on a specific date, consolidated by the inhabitants under the direction of the imam. In 1988, the city was listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The decision, taken on June 28, to put it on the list of “World Heritage in Danger” provoked the anger of the Islamist invaders who undertook to destroy its monuments and manuscripts on the pretext of their idolatrous or polytheistic character.

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