When someone mentions ‘Timbuktu,’ our minds often invoke mythical images of a mysterious, otherworldly place. However, when we study a map of Africa, we realize that it is very much a physical city in the country of Mali. What’s more, Timbuktu actually gained legendary status because of its riches and scholarship after Muslims permanently settled there early in the twelfth century.
Originally, Timbuktu was only a seasonal encampment for residents from nearby towns and a temporary outpost for traders and travellers. Its proximity to the Niger River made it a natural meeting point for nearby settlers and visitors alike. The foundation for the Sankore Mosque of Timbuktu was laid late in the tenth century. It was financed by a wealthy lady, who supported a desire to see the town turn into a centre of learning. Over the centuries, it gradually solidified its position as an important trading stop and this vision became a reality. Merchants from around the world visited the mosque, bringing with them ideas and books. Books became the most circulated commodity in Timbuktu, and libraries flourished. Meanwhile, Muslims decided to inhabit the town.
The Mosque grew into a University and by the end of the twelfth century, “student numbers were at twenty-five thousand, an enormous amount in a city of a hundred thousand people,” according to “1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World”. Students first studied Arabic and memorized the Quran, followed by a rigorous syllabus consisting of math, sciences, logic, astronomy, history, etc., culminating in philosophical and religious research work.
The nearby salt ranges and gold mines only spurred trade; Timbuktu’s devotion to scholarship also attracted scholars and thinkers who arrived to settle there in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. This led to Timbuktu’s Golden Age in the next two centuries, turning the town into an intellectual and spiritual hub amidst its economic boom. Other mosque-universities, such as Jingaray Ber University and Sidi Yahya University, sprouted, all three together comprising the University of Timbuktu.
Subsequently, thousands of manuscripts were written, copied and passed on through generations. In this way, Timbuktu contributed a legacy of written scholarship in Africa, which has survived through the centuries. These documents are now being discovered from cellars, safes in mud-walls and treasure chests. Today, they are being collected and placed in various libraries in Timbuktu.
Timbuktu has endured a long decline in the years since its glorious past, after falling victim to Moroccan invasion, tribal rule and French colonization. As a result, Timbuktu’s vast scholarship can also be found in the museums of Morocco and France.
The Republic of Mali finally gained independence in 1960. Presently, Timbuktu is an impoverished city with only a few remaining landmarks of the city’s magnificent times. Yet, it remains a tourist attraction, complete with an international airport.
In recognition of its scholarly contributions and intellectual legacy, Timbuktu was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.