The Tale of Timbuktu:
The prolific power of Timbuktu’s libraries and scholarship

In Power by Rika Mpogazi

cc: Romeo Luh

The city of Timbuktu was named after a slave woman by the name of Buktu. As herders set off to work, they’d entrust their personal belongings to her for the duration of their voyage. Buktu, would then stash the pile in her well, thus earning the town the name of its most important pitstop, Buktu’s well, Timbuktu. 

Situated on the North coast of the Niger River, Timbuktu started out as a commercial stage for the burgeoning gold and slave trade. In this large scale market meet-up, merchants from all across North, East, and West Africa found that the muddle of local languages, although it enriched the linguistic landscape, did little to facilitate trade, so they adopted Arabic as the language of commerce, easing the flow of transactions between transnational buyers and sellers. The increasing need to document these transactions and produce contracts that could prove their validity required scribes. But for many scribes, what began as a career in contract writing quickly turned into a lifelong dedication to the reformation of Islamic education and the documentation of African history.

During the reign of the Mali Empire between the 13th and 17th century, books became more valued than gold and slaves, which were becoming common goods, their price depreciating over time. These hot commodities were rare to come by as they required expert knowledge and skilled calligraphers for their production. A scribe’s skill set and talents, therefore, became highly sought after during this period. Thus, ushering in the golden age of scholarship, both literally and figuratively. A time when it paid to be an African intellectual.

Since paper was expensive at the time, scribes tried to cram as many words as they could on the margins of each page. But the price of these pages did not deter royals and scholars alike to invest into the widespread use of these texts. When Malian Emperor Mansa Musa came into power in 1280, his Empire’s scholarship directly benefited from his hefty investments in literature. Mansa Musa is said to have been the wealthiest rulers of the Middle Ages, and his devotion to the development of arts and sciences, helped the region rise to the ranks of continental renown. 

The city of Timbuktu became the centre of knowledge in the region, its prolific libraries contained literary works that focused on the study of medicine, mathematics, astrology, grammar and geography, not to mention the most expansive accounts of African history, in a mixture of Arabic and African languages. 

French colonial rule in Mali, although a brief interruption in the region’s vast and rich history had profoundly detrimental effects on the education of classical Arabic, as French came to replace it and became the official language in all educational institutions. Luckily, these libraries were kept hidden from the colonial administration, local scholars knew the value of their works and sought to preserve them from prying eyes.

The revitalization of the region’s three most prominent masjids in Timbuktu, the Sankoré, Djinguereber and Sidi Yahya would be combined to form the University of Timbuktu. The University of Timbuktu had a decentralized approach to teaching. The collection of independent schools each had their specializations, which ranged from medicine, to linguistics, to mathematics, to history but the most prominent field of study, that which the University was most known for, was theology. 

The Islamic schools of Timbuktu are most known for prioritizing tolerance and justice at the centre of all studies of theology and pious knowledge. Subjects ranged from Islamic law and sciences, and exams were conducted in a combination of oral and written works. Most of the lectures were offered in classical Arabic and the University’s professors are said to have been knowledgeable to the point of rivalling, and at times surpassing the depth of theological thought from visiting scholars from Mecca.

One of the University’s most notable graduates is Ahmad Baba al-Timbukti. Ahmad Baba was a prolific author who sought to end racial prejudice through the recognition of West African Muslims’ Islamic status, which was under doubt from the wider Muslim community and often led to their racial enslavement as a result. His efforts and erudition are held in high regard and today, one of Timbuktu’s most renowned research centres, the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research, bears his name.

In 2012, jihadist forces overthrew the moderate Sufi Islam tradition practiced by Timbuktu’s inhabitants and enforced a stern Salafist, sharia law driven form of governance on the city, which condemned the content of many volumes of manuscripts that taught sexual education and healing practices through music. But just like they had done during the French colonial rule, the librarians of this fortress of knowledge stashed this precious cargo into safe houses, mud floors and storage rooms across Mali for safekeeping.

Today, these texts are being digitized to ensure their preservation and proliferation beyond the famous city. An estimated 700, 000 manuscripts have been written and distributed amongst over 30 libraries. And while some are waiting to be translated, most have yet to be discovered. 

The resilience of the scholars, scribes and librarians of Timbuktu exemplifies the power of knowledge throughout the African continent. And the legacy of African literature lives on in the intellectual heritage they leave behind.