Positive Progress Through The Benevolent Use Of Knowledge

Friday, April 30, 2010


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.

An old West African proverb

“The African love for knowledge, literature and learning although now filtered through the religion of Islam, never died. As it has been in the days of the early Egyptian Kingdom, so it was in the days of Askia Mohammed. In fact, Leo Africanus, a historian of the XVIth century wrote about Timbuktu:

There are many judges, doctors and clerics here, all receiving good salaries from King Askia Mohammed of the State of Songhay. He pays great respect to men of learning. There is a great demand for books, and more profit is made from the trade in books than from any other line of business.”


The Timbuktu Manuscripts showing both mathematics and astronomy.


By the 14th century, important books were written and copied in Timbuktu, establishing the city as the centre of a significant written tradition in Africa.

“Astronomy, botany, pharmacology, geometry, geography, chemistry, biology,” said Ali Imam Ben Essayouti, the descendant of a family of imams that keeps a vast library in one of the city’s mosques. “There is Islamic law, family law, women’s rights, human rights, laws regarding livestock, children’s rights. All subjects under the sun, they are represented here.”


The manuscripts and libraries of Timbuktu


The most outstanding treasure at Timbuktu are the 100,000 manuscripts kept by the great families from the town. These manuscripts, some of them dated from pre-Islamic times and 12th century, have been preserved as family secrets in the town and in other villages nearby. The majority were written in Arabic or Fulani, by wise men coming from the Mali Empire. Their contents are didactic, especially in the subjects of astronomy, music, and botany. More recent manuscripts deal with law, sciences and history (with the important 17th century chronicles, Tarikh al-fattash and Tarikh al-Sudan), religion, trade, etc.

The Ahmed Baba Institute (Cedrab), founded in 1970 by the government of Mali, with collaboration of Unesco, holds some of these manuscripts in order to restore and digitize them. More than 18,000 manuscripts have been collected by the Ahmed Baba centre, but there are an estimated 300,000-700,000 manuscripts in the region.

Dating from the 16th to the 18th centuries, these manuscripts cover every aspect of human endeavor and are indicative of the high level of civilization attained by West Africans at the time. In testament to the glory of Timbuktu, for example, a West African Islamic proverb states that "Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom come from Timbuktu."


Goods coming the Mediterranean shores and salt were traded in Timbuktu for gold. The prosperity of the city attracted both black scholars, blacks merchants and Arabs traders from North Africa. Salt, books and gold were very much in demand at that time. Salt was came from Tegaza in the north, gold, from the immense gold mines of the Boure and Banbuk and books, were the refined work of the black scholars and scholars of the Sanhaja descent.

The Tuareg Messufa captured the salt mine of Tegaza and thus took control of the salt trade. The Messufa exported the salt to Timbuktu via camel caravans. This second factor that helps us better explain how the so-called manuscripts of Timbuktu evolved, developed and expanded throughout the whole empire. Thus, the intellectual importance of Timbuktu and the reasons it flourished are not exclusively based upon “strategic position.” It is important to convey that someone in a position of power was responsible for encouraging the attitude toward learning that prevailed in Timbuktu.As Dr. Molefi Asante has put it so conclusively in his book entitled, Classical Africa (page 134):

The first constructions in Timbuktu were designed by African architects from Djenne and later on by Muslim architects from North Africa. Trade and knowledge were at their height. It was at this time that the King of Sosso invaded the empire of Ghana, thus causing the exodus of the scholars of Walata to Timbuktu.

By the 12th century, Timbuktu became a celebrated center of Islamic learning and a commercial establishment. Timbuktu had three universities and 180 Quranic schools. These universities were the Sankore University, Jingaray Ber University and Sidi Yahya University.

This was the Golden Age of Africa. Books were not only written in Timbuktu, but they were also imported and copied there. There was an advanced local book copying industry in the city. The universities and private libraries contained unparalleled scholarly works. The famous scholar of Timbuktu Ahmad Baba who was among those forcibly exiled in Morocco claimed that his library of 1600 books had been plundered, and that his library, according to him, was one of the smaller in the city.

The booming economy of Timbuktu attracted the attention of the Emperor of Mali, Mansa Mussa (1307-1332) also known as “Kan Kan Mussa.”

In the annals of African history, no one has left more of an imprint on the outside world than Mansa Kankan Musa, ruler of Mali from 1312-37 A.D. Also known as Gongo Musa, he became one of the most powerful leaders of his time and was to make Mali's name renowned throughout the European and Islamic countries. Beginning in the 14th century, his name and that of Mali were to become synonymous with opulence, learning and justice.

Called by historians Musa the Magnificent, he was a very successful leader, celebrated for his enlightenment, justice and piety. Inheriting a great empire, he extended its boundaries and made his country a world power. Perhaps his greatest contribution to Mali history was the spread of its fame and prestige to other lands.


He captured the city in 1325. As a Muslim, Mansa Mussa was impressed with the Islamic legacy of Timbuktu. On his return from Mecca, Mansa Mussa brought with him an Egyptian architect by the name of Abu Es Haq Es Saheli. The architect was paid 200kg of gold to built Jingaray Ber or, the Friday Prayers Mosque. Mansa Musa also built a royal palace (or Madugu) in Timbuktu, another Mosque in Djenné and a great mosque in Gao (1324-1325). Today only the foundation of the mosque built in Gao exists. That is why there is an urgent need to restore and protect the mosques that remain in Djenné and Timbuktu..

Mansa Mussa's pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 had made Mali known worldwide. The great rulertook 60,000 porters with him. Each porter carried 3 kilograms of pure gold, that is, 180,000 kilograms or at least 180 tons of gold (Reference: Volume IV UNESCO General History of Africa, pages 197-200). He had so much gold with him that when he stopped in Egypt, the Egyptian currency lost its value and as result, the name of Mali and Timbuktu appeared on the 14th century world map.

A relative, Abu Bakar the II, decided to find a way by sea to go to Mecca. Abu Bakar II is said to be Mansa Musa’s uncle. In 1324 while visiting Cairo, Mansa Musa reported how he became the King of Mali. He explained that he became King of Mali, his predecessor, Abu Bakar II (who belonged to the senior branch of the ruling family), decided to sail in order to discover what lies behind the Ocean, he had never come back .What Mansa Musa (who belongs to the Junior branch of the ruling family) said, then, was recorded by Ibn Amir Adjib, Governor of Cairo and Karafa.

Abu Bakar and his maritime expedition left the shores of Senegal and sailed in the Atlantic Ocean. They encountered so much difficulties and challenges that they came back to Senegal. Abu Bakar reorganized his expedition, took enough provisions and a huge army with him. This expedition has never been seen again. Today, there is a strong historical evidence pointing to the possibility that this Malian prince was the first one to discover America. In Brazil for instance, there is a presence of the mandinka language, traditions and customs.

In 1339, The Mossi king invaded Timbuktu. The Mossi caused a lot of corruption, killing and destruction in the city. The Mandika dynasty, however, succeeded in repulsing the invaders. Timbuktu remained under the protection of the descendants of Mansa Musa until 1434 when the Tuareg under the leadership of Akil Akamalwal invaded and captured the city. Akil was very pious. He respected the Ulemas or scholars. Akil reappointed Mohammed Naddi, a Sanhaja Tuareg as the governor of the city. When Mohammed Naddi died, Akil appointed his oldest son Umar to take his place. The Tuareg, later on however, spread so much injustice, corruption and tyranny, that Umar ibn Mohammed Naddi, the new governor of Timbuktu sought the help of Soni Ali Ber, ruler of the Songhai Empire.

In 1464, Soni Ali Ber conquered the city of Timbuktu. He came to Timbuktu as Emperor from Sokoto, in present-day Nigeria. His mother, Baraka, was from this area. Akil fled the city. Sonni Ali Ber knew he had to unite his Empire which was composed of Islamic people and those who kept their traditional African beliefs. He went so far that he took a Muslim name himself, in his attempt to placate Africans who had become followers of Islam. However, he resisted letting Islam or any other religion destroy traditional religions of Africa. That is what brought him into conflict with Muslim scholars. As Dr. Molefi Asante has written:

“One reason that Sonni Ali Ber had a peace keeping strategy, was that he wanted to reestablish the presence of African culture in religion, education, and traditions throughout the empire. He was a reformer. He cleaned out the religious leaders in the institutions of learning and replaced them with intellectuals who understood the African traditions of the people.”( Asante, Classical Africa, page 126)

As a result of this policy, many of the scholars fled to Walata which is the actual Mauritania. This is the reason why many of the manuscripts of Timbuktu are found in Mauritania. One of the generals of Soni Ali who is a devout Muslim by the name of Askia Mohammed could not tolerate the tragic treatment Soni inflicted on the Ulemas or scholars of Timbuktu.

Sonni Ali Ber was a planner, a fearless conqueror and he is cited in all the Tarikhs as the only Emperor who reigned 28 years, waged 32 wars, won 32 victories and was always the conqueror, never conquered. He developed the army administration, agriculture and irrigation techniques and tax controls. He died in 1492 when America was about to be discovered. His son Sonni Baro replaced him. Askia Mohammed, who was Sonni Ali Ber’s General, could no longer support the loose manner by which Sonni Baro handled the affairs of the State. So, he overthrew him and took the power in 1493.

Askia Mohammed recomforted the scholars, financially rehabilitated them and stood by them. In fact for all Islamic legal rulings on how to run the state, Askia Mohammed consulted the scholars. There are manuscripts in Timbuktu today where the answers to the questions of Askia are recorded. Under the Askia dynasty, Timbuktu prospered both intellectually and trade-wise until 1591 when the Moroccan army under the leadership of Pasha Mahmud ibn Zarqun sacked the city of Timbuktu.

The Moroccan army plundered the wealth of the city, burned the libraries, put to death many scholars who resisted them and deported many to Fes and Marrakech including the eminent scholar of Timbuktu, Ahmed Baba es Sudane meaning "Ahmed Baba, the black" as he preferred to be called.

The scholars of Timbuktu were righteous, devout and were not afraid of anything except GOD. It was in this context that when Pasha Mahmud tried to deceive the scholars by signing a treacherous treaty, the black eminent scholar and professor of Sidi Yahya University Mohammed Bagayogo objected and told the Pasha: " I would rather have you cut my hand up to the shoulder than to bear a false testimony." Hundreds of manuscripts left the city of Timbuktu under the Moroccan invasion to find their way to Fes and Marrakech.


What caused the decline of Timbuktu?

When was Timbuktu discovered by Europeans?

How did Islam shape the development of Mali and of Timbuktu?

In the popular imagination, Timbuktu is the most remote and isolated part of the world. But 500 years ago, Timbuktu was the legendary city of gold. It was a transit point and a financial and trading center for trade across the Sahara. It dominated the gold trade. It was a place of mystery and faraway riches.

Timbuktu was founded in 1080 and within 300 years had become one of the era's most important trading points. Timbuktu was an influential Islamic intellectual centre, a cosmopolitan multicultural city of commerce and learning and the second-largest imperial court in the world.

When much of Europe was struggling out of the Dark Ages, the emperor of Timbuktu was having stunning mosques built, and thousands of scholars from as far as Islamic India and Moorish Spain were studying in the city.

Then it was a city of 100,000 and so rich that even the slaves were decorated with gold. In 1324, a king of Mali, Mansa Musa, traveled with a caravan of a hundred camels bearing 300 pounds of gold each (equal to perhaps $135 million today).

The legend of his wealth was recorded in maps, particularly the Catalan Atlas of 1375, which showed an African ruler enthroned like a European monarch with a crown on his head and an orb and scepter in his hand.

As recently as 1963, a famous British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper said: "Perhaps in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none. There is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness."

Trever-Roper was wrong. Timbuktu was once a center of religion, culture, and learning, as well as a commercial crossroads on the trans-Saharan caravan route.


Situated at the strategic point where the Sahara touches on the River Niger, it was the gateway for African goods bound for the merchants of the Mediterranean, the courts of Europe and the larger Islamic world. It was involved in a thriving commerce in gold, salt, and slaves. When the Renaissance was barely stirring in Europe, wandering scholars were drawn to Timbuktu's manuscripts all the way from North Africa, Arabia and even Persia.

In 1591, Moroccan soldiers invaded and looted Timbuktu, ending the city’s grandeur and taking thousands of inhabitants as slaves. By the time Timbuktu was discovered by Europeans, the palaces of its kings and other fine buildings had crumbled to dust.


Chirfi Alpha Sane, an archivist in the Ahmed Baba Centre in Timbuktu, says there are lessons for the entire world in the 20,000 ancient Arabic manuscripts in the centre - some of which date back to the second century.

"There is everything here.

"Islamic law with lessons for peace through dialogue, as well as science, astronomy, medicine.

Timbuktu is one of the richest cities in Africa

Ismael Diadie Haidara, philosopher

"In Timbuktu these scholars said that gold came from the south, salt came from the north, money came from the lands of the white men, but they believed that wisdom and the word of God were to be found only in Timbuktu.

"That wisdom is here, in these manuscripts."


"In the Middle Ages this was almost the centre of the world.


Timbuktu philosopher and historian, Ismael Diadie Haidara, points out that Timbuktu, which was inhabited by Muslims, Christians and Jews for hundreds of years, has always been a centre of religious and racial tolerance.

"All three groups co-existed peacefully in Timbuktu up until the end of the 19th century.


“The manuscripts of Timbuktu add great depth to our understanding of Africa’s diverse history and civilizations,”


Researchers have been struck by the range of subjects that attracted Timbuktu’s scholars over several centuries and into the 19th century. Most of the first digitized ones are from the 17th through 19th centuries. The topics include the sciences of astronomy, mathematics and botany; literary arts; Islamic religious practices and thought; proverbs; legal opinions; and historical accounts.

These are works of law and history, science and medicine, poetry and theology, relics of Timbuktu’s golden age as a crossroads in Mali for trade in gold, salt and slaves along the southern edge of the Sahara. If the name is now a synonym for mysterious remoteness, the literature attests to Timbuktu’s earlier role as a vibrant intellectual center.

This is our family’s story,” he said, carefully leafing through the unbound pages. “It was written in 1519.”

The geography that has doomed Timbuktu to obscurity in the popular imagination for half a millennium was once the reason for its greatness. It was founded as a trading post by nomads in the 11th century and later became part of the vast Mali Empire, then ultimately came under the control of the Songhai Empire.

For centuries it flourished because it sat between the great superhighways of the era — the Sahara, with its caravan routes carrying salt, cloth, spices and other riches from the north, and the Niger River, which carried gold and slaves from the rest of West Africa.

Traders brought books and manuscripts from across the Mediterranean and Middle East, and books were bought and sold in Timbuktu — in Arabic and local languages like Songhai and Tamashek, the language of the Tuareg people.

Timbuktu was home to the University of Sankore, which at its height had 25,000 scholars. An army of scribes, gifted in calligraphy, earned their living copying the manuscripts brought by travelers. Prominent families added those copies to their own libraries. As a result, Timbuktu became a repository of an extensive and eclectic collection of manuscripts.

Moroccan invaders deposed the Songhai empire in 1591, and the new rulers were hostile to the community of scholars, who were seen as malcontents. Facing persecution, many fled, taking many books with them.


Its rise to prominence began in the 11th century when it became a key location in trans-Sahara trade. Gold and slaves were moved up the Niger River from deep inside West Africa and were exchanged for fabric, tobacco and dates from the Mediterranean, as well as Saharan salt. By the 14th century two thirds of the world`s gold came from the Malian Empire and most of it passed through Timbuktu, which was then twice the size of London

Around that time a black African Emperor, Kanka Musa, within whose vast lands Timbuktu lay, stopped in Cairo on his way to Mecca. There he spent so lavishly that there was a devaluation in the city`s currency. From then on stories circulated in Europe of an African city whose streets were paved with gold, though European explorers didn`t make it there until the 19th century. The first to do so — and also make it back alive — was René Caillé in 1827. But he was distinctly underwhelmed. “A mass of ill-looking houses built of earth,” he wrote in his account of reaching the city of gold.

It is only relatively recently that the Timbuktu manuscripts came to the attention of the outside world, by which I mean the existence of thousands of texts written in Arabic, dating back 800 years and hidden for more than a century. Every week more manuscripts are being unearthed from their hiding places behind walls, down wells, in the sands of the desert.

In 2001 President Mbeki of South Africa visited Timbuktu to see the manuscripts for himself, hailed them as one of the continent`s most important treasures and allocated funds to help to conserve them as one of the first cultural projects of the New Partnership for Africa`s Development (Nepad). So far around 70,000 manuscripts have been recovered, the earliest dating to the 13th century, though three times that number are thought to be still out there. Alexio Motsio, likens the discovery of the manuscripts to the gold at the end of the rainbow: “A dream come true for an African conservator.”

The story of how Timbuktu came to possess such riches and why they were hidden for so long is one of the quest for knowledge, of power, conquest and pillage, and of how a town in Africa became one of the world`s greatest seats of learning, with its own university — the Sankore University — and 25,0000 scholars. And then lost it all.

The trade routes carried more than salt, gold and slaves out of Africa. They also carried Islam into West Africa. Arabic was the language of Islam, just as Latin became the language of Christianity. The sons of wealthy merchants in Timbuktu learnt to read and write Arabic so they could study Islamic texts, and a community of scholars and scribes arose. Though Timbuktu was to come under the control of several African emperors over the next few hundred years, it maintained its status as a centre of learning.

Then in 1593, at the height of the town`s aptly named Golden Period, Morocco invaded, expelling and exiling thousands of Timbuktu`s scholars. Though the truth is that the seeds of Timbuktu`s decline had been sown a hundred years before when Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas. Soon European kings and queens were getting their gold from across the sea. French colonial rule in the 19th century was the final indignity. When the colonial administrators seized and shipped several whole libraries of manuscripts to museums in France, families scrambled to hide their collections. The manuscripts literally went underground.

Today the rediscovery of the manuscripts is prompting a reappraisal of African history. Africa does have a written tradition after all, not just an oral one. As the manuscripts are slowly translated, the contents are revealed to include Islamic science and law, medicine, astronomy and most vitally and importantly, historic treatises, which tell of a pre-colonial Africa of empires and kings — all written by black African scholars.

Timbuktu is why writing didn`t spread farther into Africa, as it did in Europe? In West Africa literacy did spread down the length of the Niger, to other trading settlements as far as modern Guinea.

“Writing took the path of business and trade. Wherever business stopped so did the culture of writing. The Arabs didn`t penetrate the river either side. They followed it like a vertebrae.” And the dense tropical forests of much of West Africa acted as natural barriers to the spread of trade.

In Christian Ethiopia, literacy did become more widespread. And historians tell us that literacy is one of the building blocks of the modern nation state, something Ethiopia alone in Africa achieved before colonisation. Ethiopia, with its own standing army, was the only African power to repel a colonial advance, defeating the Italians at Adwa in 1896. Who knows what would have happened had literacy had the chance to gain a foothold throughout Africa?

John Knox`s translation of the Bible from Latin into English — didn`t occur in West Africa until the 19th century, when African scholars began to translate Arabic texts into local languages such as Songhay and Peul: the Ajami texts. But by then it was too late.

The French were already at the door and overnight the language of learning changed from Arabic to French. The manuscripts were hidden away until the French left, and as the years passed there were fewer and fewer scholars who could read them. The owners of the manuscripts hid them to save them. And for the most part they succeeded. Thanks to them an almost complete account of a people`s history has survived the ravages of time and termites to shine a new light on to the past of the so-called dark continent.

The relatively small city in Mali is over 900 years old and is home to manuscripts which date back to the 13th and 14th centuries.


Tombouctou is the large northern-most region of Mali, comprised mostly of the Southwestern section of the Sahara desert. Elevation histogram of the surface of the Earth approximately 71% of the Earths surface is covered with water.

The English language is a West Germanic language that originates in England. Koyra Chiini (koyra ʧiini, literally town language), or Western Songhay, is a variety of Songhai in Mali, spoken by about 200,000 people (as of 1999) along the Niger River in Timbuktu and upriver from it in the towns of DirÃ, Tonka, Goundam, and NiafunkÃ, as well as in the.

The Djinguereber Mosque (Masjid) in Timbuktu is a famous learning center of Mali built in 1327, and cited as Djingareyber or Djingarey Ber in various languages. Sankorà Madrasah, The University of Sankora, or Sankore Masjid is one of three ancient centers of learning located in Timbuktu, Mali, West Africa. Sidi Yahya is a mosque and madrassa of Timbuktu in the West African country of Mali dating back the early 15th century.

From 60 to 80 private libraries in the town have been preserving these manuscripts: Mamma Haidara Library; Fondo Kati Library (with approximately 3,000 records from Andalusian origin, the oldest dated from 14th and 15th centuries); Al-Wangari Library; and Mohamed Tahar Library, among them. These libraries are considered part of the "African Ink Road" that stretched from West Africa connecting North Africa and East Africa. At one time there were 120 libraries with manuscripts in Timbuktu and surrounding areas.

There are more than one million objects preserved in Mali with an additional 20 million in other parts of Africa, the largest concentration of which is in Sokoto, Nigeria, although the full extent of the manuscripts is unknown. During the colonial era efforts were made to conceal the documents after a number of entire libraries were taken to Paris, London and other parts of Europe.

Some manuscripts were buried underground, while others were hidden in the desert or in caves. Many are still hidden today. Effort began investigating the Timbuktu manuscripts to assess the level of scientific knowledge in Timbuktu and in the other regions of West Africa.

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