The Jewel of the Sahara


Ruins of great Ghana

Ruins of great Ghana

Glorious Timbuktu, the jewel of the Sahara, and the ancient destination for camel driven caravans laden with goods has been talked about for centuries. Just like it’s ancient namesake, modern Timbuktu is still a formidable city sitting on the north side of the River Niger on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. This area of the central Sahara is one of the most inhospitable places on earth, where rain is marked by decades not years, and the people have adapted to rigors of a landscape that travelers call a sea of sand, it’s grains like waves extended deep into the Tuareg heartlands of Mali. The amazing rise of this city, deep within north central Africa, is as much a testament to the ancient kingdoms that founded her, as to the great scholars, artists, warriors and kings who shlepped to establish one of the great ancient wonders of the world.

Initially, a seasonal gathering place for caravans moving from the Mediterranean coast, south into Subtropical West Africa, Timbuktu became a permanent settlement in the 12th century.  As other trade routes though northern Africa were disrupted, the city grew to became the major transport hub for caravans laden with jewels, spices, salt, gold, ivory and and most importantly slaves, that now numbered in the thousands.  And as its strategic importance grew, Timbuktu was absorbed by the growing might of the Mali Empire early in the 14th century  and flourished as a cultural mecca for artisans, craftsmen, and some of the greatest minds in Ancient Africa. Finally, the city became a bastion for Tuareg tribes until eventually falling under the dominion of the expanding Songhai Empire in 1468. The eventual decline of this great city was a result of the defeat of the Great Songhai Empire in 1591 by the Moroccan Kingdom, that  made Timbuktu their regional capital. The splendor that was Royal Timbuktu still exists in some of the remaining historic buildings and citadels.

“The rich king of Tombuto hath many plates and sceptres of gold, some whereof weigh 1300 pounds. … He hath always 3000 horsemen … (and) a great store of doctors, judges, priests, and other learned men, that are bountifully maintained at the king’s cost and charges. – Leo Africanus (15th Century)

The settling of and early reports of Timbuktu

Map of the Saharan Trade Routes (1889)

Although Timbuktu does not enter the historical records until medieval times, early Iron Age settlements have been discovered near Timbuktu that predate the traditional foundation date of the town. The early predecessor to Timbuktu was probably a season settlement whose population ebbed and flowed. The the early site of Timbuktu was first continuously occupied during the 5th century BC and then continued to thrived until it’s collapse in the late 10th or early 11th century AD.

The city was then reborn as new trade routes took a hold in the early medieval period, and we first begin to hear of cities springing up within the Sahara like Djenné, Gao, and Dia. But unlike these cities, Timbuktu is not mentioned by the early Arab geographers such as al-Bakri or al-Idrisi. Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta who visited Timbuktu in 1353 when returning from the capital of the Mali Empire was the first. The known Arab records then remained silent until about a century and a half later, when in 1510, Leo Africanus visited Timbuktu and gave a description of the town in his monumental “Descrittione dell’Africa”. A book that was first published in 1550, and became a sensation in Europe because of its depictions of the exotic lands on sub-Saharan Africa.

Two fascinating early accounts that shed light on the city are the 17th century chronicles of al-Sadi’s “Tarikh al-Sudan” and Ibn al-Mukhtar’s “Tarikh al-fattash”. These are some of the earliest surviving manuscripts to describe the city, and its great mosque which still stands today. It is said that when Abd al-Sadi wrote his chronicle the “Tarikh al-Sudan”, based on oral tradition, he dated the foundation at ‘the end of the fifth century of the hijra’ or around 1100 AD. He saw Maghsharan Tuareg as the founders, and he accurately related the ancient tradition that their summer encampment grew from temporary settlement to a travelers’ meeting place settled year round. The Arab chroniclers depicted how the the city originated from a local trade between Saharan pastoralists and continued to expand as boat trade within the Niger River Delta fed the growing metropolis. These early chroniclers were aware of the work of ancient Greek historians like Herodotus, and because of the importance of the river Niger in settling the city, they described the Timbuktu as ‘a gift of the Niger’, in analogy to Herodotus’ own description of Egypt as ‘gift of the Nile’. The similarities did not end there, as Timbuktu increasingly became the most prosperous city in the northern Africa.

The rise of the Mali Empire


Drawing by Renè-Auguste Caillie, (1827)

During the twelfth century, the Ghana empire, the first great African state in west Africa fragmented and its remnants were invaded by the Sosso Empire king, Soumaoro Kanté. The crumbling of this Empire had an immediate impact on the nobility of these regions, and Muslim scholars from Walata fled to Timbuktu and solidified the position of Islam in that city. Islam had gradually spread throughout West Africa, mainly through commercial contacts with traders, and because of the advanced Arab mercantile economy that connected the known world at the time. In time, Timbuktu’s prominence within Islam grew, and was reinforced through its openness to strangers that attracted religious scholars from all of Africa.

At the dawn of the 14th century the Mali Empire established by Sossa had grown in size and was on the fringes of the territory of Timbuktu, which by now had become an important trading center. In 1324, Timbuktu was peacefully annexed by King Musa I when returning from his pilgrimage to Mecca and the city became part of the Mali Empire. After entering the city Musa was so enamored that be began construction of a royal palace, and it perhaps at this time that Tarikh al-Sudan and the Tarikh al-fattash attribute the building of the Djinguereber Mosque, which has come down to us as the Great Mosque of Timbuktu. (The current mosque is much bigger, and was the result of one that was built in 1570, when Qadi al-Aqib had Musa I’s original mosque pulled down and rebuilt on a larger scale.)

Timbuktu finally appeared in European sources in the great Catalan Atlas of 1375, showing that Timbuktu was now a commercial centre linking north Africa and the Mediterranean,and important destination for Venetian, Ottoman and Catalan traders.

Timbuktu under the Songhai Empire


Timbuktu seen from a distance by Heinrich Barth’s party, September 7, 1853

By the first half of the 15th century the Mali Empire waned in influence and power, and once again Timbuktu became relatively an autonomous commercial center. In the west, the rising Songhai Empire expanded under Sunni Ali Ber, taking the fragmenting Mali kingdoms under its reach, until finally absorbing Timbuktu in 1469. At the beginning of the 16th century, Timbuktu ushered in it’s golden age under Askia Mohammad I (1493–1528). Askia Mohammad strengthened the Songhai Empire and governed Timbuktu through an efficient regional administration, allowing the city’s commercial centers to flourish.

Merchants from the rising cities of Ghadames, Awjilah, and numerous other cities of North Africa gathered there to buy gold and slaves in exchange for the Saharan salt of Taghaza, North African weavings, and the strong Tuareg horses that had a reputation for surviving the harsh climate. During this time the streets of Timbuktu were crowded with traders from every corner of the known world, some carrying goods from as far as China, via the silk road. Slaves captured from the Congo, could be seen being auctioned off by Arab merchants, destined for the courts of the Moorish Kingdoms of Spain, and even much coveted Slavic women could be sold as concubines, captured from Ottoman raids in eastern Europe. The mosque produced some of the greatest ancient histories of the world at this time, along with books on medicine, music, language and the arts, that flourished though the writing of dedicated scribes. The streets were kept free of crime in order to ensure the mercantile nature of Timbuktu was not disrupted, and hotels, restaurants, and supply stores opened to support the weary traders. Languages as diverse as Fulani and Armenian could be heard on the streets of Timbuktu, and everywhere caravans filled with good stretched in long lines fanning out into the desert on the backs of horses and camels.

“Having then traversed the rubbish which has accumulated round the ruined clay wall of the town and left on one side a row of dirty reed huts which encompass the whole of the place we entered the narrow streets and lanes or as the people of Timbuktu say the tijeraten which scarcely allowed two horses to proceed abreast But I was not a little surprised at the populous and wealthy character which this quarter of the town the Sane Giingu exhibited many of the houses rising to the height of two stories and in their facade evincing even an attempt at architectural adornment. “- Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa (1858)

The final collapse of the mercantile economy had a tremendous impact on Timbuktu thoughout the end of the 16th century, as the new world and the far east become the focus of world wide trade. Leadership of the Empire stayed in the Askia dynasty until 1591, but the faltering economy and lack of strong heirs to succession weakened the dynasty’s grip and led to a decline of prosperity in the city.

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