A Brief History of Timbuktu

Linguistic and archaeological evidence suggest that Berbers, the ancestors of the Touaregs, were living in North Africa by about 50,000 years ago. They established the trans-Saharan caravan trade routes which connected the Neolithic settlements on the southern edge of the Sahara with Africa’s north coast quite possibly as far back as 1500 BC.  The first route may have been between Libya and Lake Chad – the shortest one.  Domestic cattle were herded in Algeria about 4,500 BC, and at first oxen were used as the beasts of burden in caravans.  The people of ancient Somalia first domesticated camels well before 2000 BC.  The Berbers adopted camel-herding from Arabs about two thousand years ago.  The oldest crossing of the West Sahara (Morocco – Niger River) is documented around A.D. 300.  Some of the north African Berbers converted to Christianity; others clang to the Animism – the belief that non-human entities are spiritual beings, or at least embody some kind of life-principle

Between 674 and 700 the Muslim Arabs conquer North Africa all the way to Morocco and conversion to Islam begins.  Christians were driven out and some of the Berbers converted to Islam.  Those that didn’t were pushed into the interior and the Muslims started to call them tawariq – “abandoned (by God)”, reflecting the religious disapproval of the animism among them by Muslims.  Gradually the Touaregs converted to a form of Islam modified to include some of the animist practices that were too strongly ingrained in their culture, but the name stuck.  In their language they call themselves Kel Tamasheq – “Speakers of Tamasheq language”, or Imashaghen – “freemen”, strictly only referring to the Touaregs “nobility”, to the exclusion of the artisan client castes and slaves.  In the Tamasheq language their ancestral territory is called “Azawad”, which means “Land of seasonal livestock movement”

The Touaregs’ nomadic lifestyle was based on trade and the seasons.  The location of today’s Timbuktu is almost exactly halfway between the shores of Mediterranean and the Gulf of Guinea.  The place was used between the 5th and 11th Centuries by the locals as a seasonal camping ground, especially during dry summers.  Myth has it that a woman called Buktu (one with a big navel) dug up a water-well and was camping there permanently.  The nomads started to call the place Buktu’s well.  In the local language water-well is called tim – thence Timbuktu. Late in 1100’s and early 1200’s there was a shift in the trading routes, making Timbuktu the cross-road where “the camel met the canoe” - a meeting point between north, south and west Africa and a melting pot of black Africans, Berber, Arab and Touareg desert nomads.  The place was close to the big bend of the Niger, where the northward flow shifts towards the east. Timbuktu was 15 km north of the river banks in dry season, but during wet season the water came as close as 7.5 km to the town.  It was far enough to make Timbuktu free of mosquitoes, malaria and a few other serious diseases associated with stagnant waters.  During day the nomads grazed their animals on burgu grass, growing on the flood plains along the riverbanks and for the night drove them back to Timbuktu. 

In 1213 or 1214 Muslim merchants from Djenne, under the protection of mansa Suleyman, started to set up markets and built permanent dwellings in Timbuktu. They introduced Islam to the region and with it the reading of the Qur’an.  Around 1240 the King of Sosso invaded the empire of Ghana, causing the exodus of the scholars of Walata to Timbuktu.  Rapidly it became a centre of learning and a major trading hub for the caravans of the Sahara Desert. The goods that flowed through the trade center included European manufactured goods and salt from Teghaza in the north, and gold, ivory, and slaves from the south.

(Until well into the nineteenth century perhaps half the value of all Saharan traffic was in slaves.  The attrition rate of the captives on the trans-Sahara crossing was anything between a third and a half. Slavery still exists in West Africa – a cynic in Timbuktu said in 1998, “Yes, they freed the slaves in 1968, but not all of them have been told yet.”  The Touaregs work with camels, but domestic or agricultural work is totally unacceptable.  It is done by the Bella cast.  Though Mali has signed international conventions against slavery and constitution states that all men are born equal, there is no domestic law banning the practice.  In the Touaregs desert towns, including Timbuktu; you can see the round huts of the slaves. They are usually made of reed mats hung on bent poles and can be found in any vacant space,) 

Mansa Musa - Kind of Timbuktu  1312 - 1337 AD

Mansa Musa – King of Timbuktu 1312 – 1337

In the next 100 years the town prospered so much that Mansa Musa (the king of Timbuktu 1312-1337) was able to make a pilgrimage to Mecca in a caravan that included 100 camels, each carrying 300 lbs of gold dust (total 30,000 lbs and at today’s gold prices that would be worth US$750 million).  When passing through Egypt in 1324, he released so much gold into the local economy that gold price nose-dived and it took a generation to recover.  Along the route he bought thousands of manuscripts and hired religious scholars, scientists, doctors, mathematicians, astronomers, etc. to make Timbuktu a world centre of learning.  He certainly succeeded in his plan – in the next 250 years Timbuktu grew into a city of some 100,000 souls, with three universities, 180 schools and 25,000 students. 

Soon after Mansa Musa reached Cairo, news about Timbuktu spread throughout the Mediterranean as fast as ships could sail.  This started the legend of a city in the interior of Africa, where roads were said to be paved with gold and buildings topped with roofs of gold. The huge exaggerations in the writings of al-Umari (an Arab historian who visited Cairo shortly after Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage) and Leo Africanus created not only the legend of Timbuktu’s immense wealth, but also making it a synonym for the most remote and inaccessible place on the planet.

The oldest surviving mention of Timbuktu is by the famous Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta (50 years younger than Marco Polo) who visited Timbuktu in 1353.  By that time a canal already existed between the Niger River and Kabara, which is still used as Timbuktu’s port.  A smaller canal (a deepened seasonal creek) allowed canoes to get to within a few hundred meters of Timbuktu’s centre.  Thus the goods brought in by caravans could be loaded onto boats and then shipped upstream to Mopti (350 km), Segou (600 km) and Bamako’s port Koulikoro (800 km), or downstream all the way to the Gulf of Guinea – some 2,600 km away 

Those were the days of Timbuktu’s glory, but they were numbered.  The earliest causes of the future decline of Timbuktu can be contributed to the Portuguese explorers of 1400’s, trying to find sea routes to India – either around Africa or westward. In 1490’s Columbus ventured westward and Vasco de Gama sailed around Africa.  Gradually Europeans found the sea routes to be quicker, cheaper and safer to reach the Golf of Guinea, than the caravan routes across Sahara.  As West Africa’s seaports grew, the caravans that brought all the commerce to Timbuktu grew less frequent.  Still, the town continued to prosper until very late 1500’s.  At that time the caravan routes had water-wells about 100 km (a two days journey) apart – a camel could survive without drinking water a lot longer than that.  In 1587 the Moroccans occupied the Songhay Empire’s salt mines in Teghaza (about half-way between Casablanca and Timbuktu).  Fortunately, during the flight of the Malian mining personnel, 160 km south-east of Teghaza, the Taoudeni salt deposits were discovered and the Songhay king was not interested in a war over the Teghaza mines.     

The death-knoll of the Timbuktu’s golden age sounded on 12/Mar/1591, when the Moroccan army equipped with firearms defeated the much larger Songhay army in the battle of Tondibi (40 km NW of Gao).  The Moroccans sacked Gao, Djenne and in Timbuktu they looted or destroyed the libraries, captured most of the scholars and scribes only to send them back to Morocco to await their fate by the Sultan.  Remaining volumes of literature were scattered throughout western Africa, some were sealed inside mud brick walls, some were buried in the desert, and many were just plain lost or destroyed.

The Moroccans couldn’t hold onto the city – the supply lines were long, close to 2000 km each way and they were never able to exert control outside their large forts. They occupied the area until 1612, when the Sultan sent orders to Timbuktu for a new ruling class to be formed out of the serving officers – the arma – and leave them independent.  Today there is an ethnic group of some 20,000 people claiming to be the descendants of the arma.

Ultimately, it was the rise of sea trade along the West Africa coast that doomed the overland routes that connected North Africa to sub-Saharan Africa. The city lost its economic base and became quite isolated, especially when the rulers became deadly hostile to any Jewish and Christian traders or visitors.  In this isolation the city retained an aura of a spectacular treasure as described by Leo Africanus – an eyewitness of the splendor in 1510.  It was also called the Forbidden City for any non-Muslim

Some 300 years later, Frenchman René Caillié arrived in 1828, travelling alone and disguised as a Muslim.  He was able to safely return to Europe and described the city as a hell-hole, an impoverished and a sand-blown town of low mud buildings – far from the African El-dorado image of Timbuktu in the Europe since 1500’s.  Caillié’s description was confirmed by three other Europeans who reached the city before French occupation in December 1893 – German Heinrich Barth in 1853, and Austrian Oskar Lenz with a companion Spaniard Cristobal Benítez in 1880 and then by the French army reports.  Since Caillié’s report of the true condition of the town, Timbuktu’s reputation shifted from being extremely rich to being mysterious, distant, the Ends of the Earth.

Before French colonization, the Tuareg were organized into loose confederations, each consisting of a dozen or so tribes. In the late 19th century, the Tuareg resisted the French colonial invasion of their Central Saharan homelands. Tuareg broadswords were no match for the more advanced weapons of French squadrons. After numerous massacres on both sides, the Tuareg were subdued and required to sign treaties in Mali 1905 Timbuktu was under French occupation until Mali gained independence from France on June 20, 1960.  The Touaregs always resisted the French colonial rulers and after Mali’s independence the Bamako government.  Every few years there were revolts and uprisings