Timbuktu (1100- ), more commonly spelled Timbuctoo before 1956, is a West African city in Mali. It stands at the edge of the Sahara, near the bend of the Niger River. In 1500 it was larger than London at the time, with a university more famous than Oxford. It was the largest city of the Songhay Empire. It was a city of scholars and 333 saints.
It stood where camel met canoe, where the caravan routes across the Sahara met the trade along the Niger River. From the south and south-west came gold, slaves and ivory, from the east came copper and from the north came salt, horses and cloth. It all met at Timbuktu. And, in time, so did books and scholars, giving rise to Sankore University.
In the 1350s when Ibn Battuta visited, he did not think much of it. In the 1980s, Bob Geldof said, “Is that it?” But in the 1510s, when Leo Africanus arrived, Timbuktu was near the height of its glory. It was his writings that made it a fabled city of gold in the minds of Westerners for the next 300 years.
So fabled that when Robert Adams, a Black American, told of his visit there in 1811, he was not believed. Nor was Rene Caillie of France completely believed in 1828 when he reported finding only “a mass of ill-looking houses” and “the most profound silence.” Only after the British sent Heinrich Barth in the 1850s did the truth sink in.
Timbuktu had become a backwaters. By the 1600s Western ships could deliver goods faster and cheaper than camels. Timbuktu’s trade dried up.
You can still tell it was once a great city: even in 2010, it had 700,000 manuscripts, mostly from the 1300s to the 1500s
In about 1100, Tuaregs founded Timbuktu. It was at the end of one of their caravan routes across the Sahara.
By the 1300s it became one of the main cities of the Mali Empire. In 1468, the Songhay Empire took over. It soon became its biggest city, with 200,000 people. The 1500s were the city’s glory days.
In 1591, Morocco took over, using a new weapon supplied by the Queen of England: the arquebus – the gun. Some of Morocco’s soldiers were Spanish, Scottish and Irish. The soldiers settled down and married Songhay women, creating a new ethnic group, the Arma, named for their guns. They live there still.
By 1600, Morocco, having carried off most of Timbuktu’s wealth and top people, lost interest. That left the Arma to pretty much run things.
In the 1800s came the Fulani jihad. Timbuktu was ruled in turn by the Fulani, the Tuaregs and then, in 1893, the French. In 1960, it became part of Mali, a French neocolonial state.
In 2012, Tuaregs took over the city. Some were jihadists who destroyed the tombs of Sufi saints and burned what books they could find (thankfully, only about 3% of them). In 2013, Malian and French soldiers took back the city.
Language: Most speak Koyra Chiini, a Songhay language.
The whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
– Abagond, 2015.
Images: National Geographic (2011).
- libraries of Timbuktu
- Inna Modja: Tombouctou
- Songhay Empire
- Mali Empire
- Ibn Battuta
- Fulani jihad
- other cities built on international trade:
- Scramble for Africa