Timbuktu gives a proof of Africa’s enriched history

Africa Tamalika Basu
© Teodoro Ortiz Tarrascusa | Dreamstime.com

Timbuktu, for a long period of time known as a legendary city. In fact, its actual existence made some people astonished for whom it is a mythical place. Think of a city of 16th century rich with the latest ideas in Science, Mathematics and medicine. The town is in the middle of the scorching desert. It is full of countless books and culture. In reality, Timbuktu became famous for its riches after it was conquered by Muslims.

Located in the West African nation Mali, this city is known for its rich culture. From 12th to 17th centuries, the city fostered a reputation as intellectual and spiritual capital. The city also experienced its Golden Era in the 15th and 16th centuries.

How Timbuktu was founded

The oral history says that there was a Tuareg woman named Buktu who founded a small settlement in the 11th century in the Sahara desert. The settlement was situated some 12 kilometres north of Niger river flood plain along with the south edge of the desert. It was a resting and eating place for the nomadic Tuareg herdsmen. They used to roam the desert in the monsoon.But they needed a shelter in the hot summer. Buktu’s settlement had freshwater wells. Thus, this place was known as ‘Tin-Buktu’ or the well of Buktu. Slowly, this small significant became the vibrant city of Timbuktu.

The expansion of the city

From its inception, Timbuktu was in a unique position to serve all the people of West Africa. It was a natural meeting place for the herdsmen like Tuareg, Arabs, Wangara and the Fulani. The Islamic Wangara merchants were the first permanent settlers. They slowly befriended with Tuaregs. Then, the first mosques were built and Islam stepped in the city.

Mansa Musa and his decision

In the year 1325, Mansa Musa who was the sultan of the empire of Mali returned from his pilgrimage to Makkah. He had so much of wealth that he changed the economy of every land he touched. He even built a mosque on every place he took rest. When he reached Timbuktu, he ordered his architect Abu Ishaq As-Saheli to build the biggest mosque of West Africa. This mosque is called Al-Masjid Al-Kabir. It is still the primary site for Jummah prayers in Timbuktu.

Islam in Timbuktu

Thus, Islamic thoughts got spread in Timbuktu. It became a centre of learning. It also produced the highest number of rare Islamic books. Renowned Muslim travellers like Ibn Battuta and Hasan al-Wazan visited Timbuktu. They were at awe at the high level of study materials in Arabic. They also appreciated peoples’ love for Holy Quran.

Hasan al-Wazan wrote in his book: ‘Here are brought diverse manuscripts or written books, which are sold for more money than any other merchandise.’

The city was a main staging point in the pilgrimage to Makkah. So it became the central point for scholars and ulemas to the pilgrimage. This resulted in the spreading of Islamic knowledge and ideas. There were many books and manuscripts depicting the history and socio-cultural condition of Islam.

Today, many of these great works have been excavated from private collections. Then these works are stored in documentation centres. For example, Ahmad Baba Center for documentation began its collection around 1970. It is named after one of the greatest scholars in Timbuktu.

Mosques in Timbuktu were education centres too

There are a lot of mosques in Timbuktu. The city’s skyline has always been dominated by its the minarets of mosques. These mosques are famous in the world for their histories and unique features.

For example, in the the northern part of the city lies Sankore Mosque. It has a pyramid-shaped minaret with wooden beams. It was once Sankore university which housed thousands of students. Ofcourse, it produced some of the great scholars of Africa. The university taught Islamic history, sociology, politics, medicine, Quran and so on. In the western quarter, lies Al-Masjid built by Mansa Musa. It is now considered the oldest standing mosque in West Africa. The third mosque is the Sidi Yahia Mosque which was built in the 14th century.

Timbuktu is proof of a strong and enriched cultural past. It also gives an account of Islam’s great legacy of development in African countries. Still, now, this rich history can help African Islam to fight back again. It is necessary for African development of life and humanity.


(Written by freelance journalist Shreya T)

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