To Timbuktu and Back

(Originally published September 12, 2643)
by Dr. Abubakari Djata, Temporal Anthropologist with the University of Mali

Timbuktu--the name evokes mystery. Many use it to mean the edge of the Earth. Most believe the place to be mythical. It is no more mythical than I, for I was born in Timbuktu.

The city of Timbuktu
Timbuktu owes its existence to the fact that it is where the boats of the great Niger River meets the camel trains of the Sahara Desert. It has survived over the centuries as a trade center in the salt traffic. Salt was so scarce and so necessary that it was once literally worth it’s weight in gold, sometimes more so. Just to the south of the city were some of the world’s richest gold mines. They supplied more than half of the world’s gold. Although no Europeans braved the trip, most of their gold came originally from this region of Africa. The British gold coin was called a “Guinea”, a corruption of the name “Ghana,” an older empire Mali absorbed.

So the people from the north brave the huge desert to bring down salt to trade for gold with the eager natives. Timbuktu has neither salt or gold, but as the trade hub, it lives well off the tariff it charges both sides. At least it did in its Golden Age. In the 14th century Timbuktu was the cultural center of the Mali Empire. By 1350 that empire was 1,138,000 square kilometers. Only the Mongol Empire was larger at that time.

Mali’s greatest emperor was the great Mansa Musa. He was so wealthy that when he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca he took 80 camels laden with gold, along with 60,000 men and 12,000 slaves. Every town and city he passed through he gave out massive quantities of gold as alms or to buy supplies. Rather than being a boon to the local economies he in fact caused high inflation by bringing down the value of gold. And we are not just talking little towns, but Cairo and Mecca themselves. This inflation was felt as far away as the Mediterranean.

Mansa Musa as imagined by the Europeans
Mansa Musa had a special love for Timbuktu, building mosques and even a palace for himself. Suffice to say, Timbuktu was one of the richest cities in the 14th century. So what great luxuries did the city import, would you guess? Jewels? Silks? Incense? No...books.

Sankore Mosque
Timbuktu is not only a crossroads for trade, but one for ideas. Scholars have come from all over Africa and the Middle East to study at the Sankoré Madrasah (The University of Sankoré).

Not only does these universities and its mosques have libraries, but many of the scholars have personal libraries. The books are stored on shelves like in Europe, except not standing on their edges. The bibliophiles of Timbuktu store them flat, atop one another in small stacks.

Every book is lovingly written by hand, each a rare treasure. These are copies of the teaching theologians, scientists and poets from the Arabian world as well as the ancient Greece, Romans and India. In these books are also the records of all the accumulated verbal knowledge our people have memorized over the generations. The Arab traders not only brought Islam; they brought writing and a new way to share knowledge. Timbuktu also has a thriving business in calligraphers producing copies as well as their own works.

a manuscript on astronomy from Timbuktu
When the Mali Empire falls, the Songhai Empire will arise. Timbuktu will become an even greater center of learning under the protection of their also enlightened leaders. Those heady times will end in 1591 with the Moroccan conquest. In 1593 Ahmad I al-Mansur, fearful of intelligent men, will have most of the scholars killed or exiled, thus destroying the University of Sankore.

Besides studying the events and culture of my ancient ancestors, my main aim for traveling into the past is to record all these books. Thanks to the extremely dry climate of the area, many manuscripts will survive into the 21st century when they could be recorded electronically, but these are only a fraction of the books that once were. War, invasions, fires, insects, and other calamities, both large and small, have taken their toll.

That any of these books survived into this time is testament to the great love the people of Timbuktu have for books. That love has survived into the 27th century. In our day solid books have become a curiosity, as anachronistic as a sundial. However, I do not know of one person in Timbuktu who does not own at least a dozen books.

Timbuktu has had her ups and downs in her long history. She will go from one of the richest to one of the poorest cities on earth. She has since claimed back some of her glory. I have tried to give her back her history. While I cannot bring back the actual books themselves from the past, I can film each page and preserve their knowledge--their soul. It is to this end that I have devoted my life.

The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu - BBC Documentary

How Timbuktu Saved Her Books in 2013 from terrorists

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