Imagine a city in 16th century West Africa where thousands of Black African students pondered over the latest ideas in science, mathematics, and medicine. A fabled town in the middle of the scorching desert, overflowing with countless numbers of valuable books, expensive crafts, exquisite fabrics, and unrivalled gold jewellery! Imagine a community of highly cultured, wealthy people whose forbidden streets were the subject of legends and whose ochre walls were sought after by some of the greatest adventurers of the times.
From its grand mud structures which have stood the test of time and still fulfil their role as centres of prayer and learning, to the collections of scrolls and writings hidden in chests buried under the desert sands, Timbuktu is a treasure of African intellectual and spiritual History.
The story begins with a Tuareg woman named Buktu who founded a settlement in the 11th century, some 12 kilometres (eight miles) north of the Niger River flood-plain along the southern edge of the Sahara. It was a perfect resting place for the nomadic Tuareg who roamed the desert in the rainy season and were in need of a malaria-free base for their animals to graze during the scorching heat of the summer.
Buktu’s camp had fresh water wells, and she would protect their heavy goods when they left the camp at the first rains. This small, seemingly insignificant campsite, known as “Tim-Buktu” or the well of Buktu became the cornerstone of a thriving, bustling city.
To an enlightened centre of learning
DSC03284 Timbuktu’s skyline has always been dominated by its houses of worship. It is to the famous mosques that the old city with its triangular layout owes its different quarters. These adobe mosques have become famous throughout the world for their unique shapes and their long histories. In the northern quarter, at the apex of the triangle lies the Sankore Mosque with its pyramid shaped minaret laced with protruding wooden support beams. It was here that the Sankore University housed its thousands of students and produced some of the greatest scholars in Africa.
Timbuktu is a reminder of what we can achieve Tb4 003Today, many of these great works have been unearthed from private collections and stored in documentation centres. The most famous is the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation which began its collection around 1970 through a UNESCO educational grant. Named after one of the greatest scholars in Timbuktu history, this centre has been chosen by President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa as the focus of a major drive to preserve the manuscripts of Timbuktu and train Malians in modern art of archival science.
African History by Africa
Passage way in the mosque in Timbuktu
Timbuktu’s history has come to us from a series of historical works or Tarikhs written from the mid 17th century through the 18th century. These well written Arabic treasures enable us to enter the African world of scholarship and deep intellectual thought.
Some of them were bound with beautiful leather binding and have stood the test of time. The most famous chronicle in this period was the Tarikh-as-Sudan, or the History of the Sudan, written in 1653 by Timbuktu’s most illustrious historian ‘Abd ar-Rahman as-Sa’di.
Timbuktu lives on The first non-Muslim to enter the city was the French explorer Rene Caille on April 20, 1828. He was disappointed at the state of the buildings of Timbuktu but noted that “apparently all of the population could read the Qur’an and even know it by heart.” The golden age of Timbuktu had passed but the spirit of scholarship and piety still remained.
DSC03024Timbuktu with its thousands of manuscripts and its deep legacy destroys racist notions of Black inferiority and educational backwardness. Timbuktu gives solid proof of a powerful African past and an unbroken chain of African scholarship. Timbuktu also brings out Islam’s great legacy of development in Africa and its proper place in the annals of African achievement. It’s well preserved lessons of spirituality and peace making may very well hold some of the answers to today’s complex problems of war and never ending conflict.
Maybe the heat of the desert sands and the emptiness of its expanse can provide direction for the African Renaissance and even the whole human race.
Dr Abdullah Hakim Quick
Cape Town, 2005