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For Thames & Hudson's 70 Great Cities of the World, edited by John Julius Norwich

"the wilderness of spires, and crystal pile
of rampart upon rampart, dome on dome"
Alfred Tennyson

Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom come from Timbuktu
Traditional Sahelian saying

"I found it neither as big nor as populated as I had expected. Commerce was much less active than it was famed to be…everything was enveloped in a great sadness. I was amazed by the lack of energy, by the inertia that hung over the town…a jumble of badly built houses…ruled over by a heavy silence."
Rene Caillie, 1828

Timbuktu is a Sahelian city constructed of one part history and two parts myth. It stands just15km north of the Niger river, surrounded by the Sahara desert. It first sprung into the consciousness of the world in the fourteenth century, when the ruler of the Muslim Mandigo Empire, Mansa Musa, went on pilgrimage to Mecca and proved himself to be so prodigiously generous and well-supplied with West African gold that a legend was born. Ever afterwards, travellers, writers and diplomats were sent south to find the source of this gold and returned disappointed. For the reality of Timbuktu, a typical Sahelian trading town built of mud-bricks that was swept by sand and dry desert winds, could never live up to their masters expectations of a mysterious city of gold hidden amongst the vast wastes of the golden sand dunes of the Sahara.

Amongst the medieval historians and travel writers of the Maghreb, the Tangier-borne Ibn Battuta (1304-1368), the Tunis-borne Ibn Khaldoun (1332-1406) and the Granada-borne Leo Africanus (Hassan al-Fasi) make mention of historical Timbuktu, the latter two having been specifically sent there by instruction of the Sultans of Morocco. Leo reported that the 'rich king has many plates and sceptres of gold, some weighing 1300 pounds, 3,000 horsemen and a great store of doctors, judges, priests and other learned men."

In the late 18th century the rivalry between France and Britain even reached out to the mapping of central Africa, driven in part by a desire to discover this source of gold. Rival societies fostered missions of exploration. Mungo Park (1771-1806 brought back a description of the river Niger but avoided Timbuktu itself, which was first visited by major Gordon Laing (coming south across the Sahara from Tripoli) though he was murdered outside the city walls in 1826. A year later, the Frenchman Rene Caillie journeyed to the city from Senegal and returned with the first European account, though in scholarship this would be superseded by the work of the German explorer, Heinrich Barth's (1821-1865) methodical study of the city in 1854. Barth identified the different ethnic communities within the city (the Songhai, Tuareg, Fulani and Mande), the three historic mosques, the Djinguererber founded in the 13th century, the Sidi Yahya founded in 1440, the 15th century Sankore and the Kasbah fortress that the Moroccans established here in the sixteenth century. A generation later the French general Joffre occupied the town in 1894.

Only after the colonial presence of the French had ended was the true wealth of Timbuctu to be revealed as the great private libraries of the scholar citizens had been patiently copied, preserved and transcribed. They tell of the foundation of the city in the 11th century from an old camping ground of the Tuareg nomads centred around Tim-Buktu, the well in the dunes. Over the 11th century this grew into a trading centre that attracted Muslim merchants from all over North Africa. It was important to them that Timbuktu stood just north of the river Niger in the desert sand dunes, which allowed them to feel that they were part of Dar-Islam, where the normal contractual processes to do with trade, marriage and proper worship could follow Islamic law. The Koran, the hadith, the histories, grammars and commentaries were taught in the shadow of the mosque courtyards. For the much larger trading cities and political capitals further south were heavily influenced by the traditional practices that surrounded kingship, the drinking of beer and the wearing of gold not to mention the blood sacrifices. So Timbuktu stood a little apart, a self consciously Muslim town set on the edge of the teeming millions of West Africa. It was well placed to benefit from the trade in rock salt, carved by slaves from the mid-Saharan quarries at Taoudenni which could then be traded for gold dust, black slaves, ebony, ivory and ostrich feathers. The actual source of the gold may not even have been known by the traders of Timbuktu, who acquired the alluvial gold dust that had been panned from small clearings amongst the equatorial forests near the headwaters of the rivers Niger and Senegal. Timbuktu passed under the influence of the Kingdom of Mali (also known as Mandigo) which was established by Sun Diata Keita by 1235.

It was his grandson, Mansa Musa (literally 'great King) who so impressed the world with his wealth - causing a collapse in the Egyptian gold price and who brought back scholars, architects and manuscripts to enrich his kingdom. Timbuktu's mosque of Sankore and the adjacent palace of Madugu were built by the Andalucian architect and scholar, Abu Ishaq al-Sahili at Mansa Musa's bidding in 1327. Though the actual politcial capital of Mandigo with its domed audience hall was the city of Niana. For even in these high days of wealth and scholarship, Timbuctu was only one amongst 300 Sahelian cities, such as Walata, Tadmeka, Kabara and Dia that could be visited by the royal court and itinerant scholars. For fourteenth century scholarship was highly mobile, as much an affair of tents as houses while whole libraries could be transported by camels in red kid-skin leather book bags. Teachers and their students also moved within the structure of nomadic migrations, whilst markets and annual festivals saw towns mushroom into cities of tents for a few weeks before returning to half empty compounds for the rest of the year.

In the 15th century the expansionist Sultan of Songhai, Sunni Ali used the excuse of leading a jihad to overwhelm Mandingo and he conquered Timbuctu in 1468. The dynastic capital of Songhai was Gao - where the royal tomb and mosque of Sultan Askia Mohammed can be still seen. A century later, a Moroccan army sent south by Sultan Ahmed el Mansour under the command of Judar Pasha defeated the Songhai army and established their principal base at Timbuktu. The descendants of this army dominated the region as the Ruma, governed by their chosen Kahia until the mid 18th century, after which the town passed under the control of various feuding Sultans, whose power was based on either Tuareg or Fulani cavalry. The commercial lifeblood of such a town as Timbuctu had been sucked away centuries before, for the inland trans-Saharan caravan routes were being replaced by seaborne traffic back in the 15th century, the first Portugese traders were very soon followed by their French, Dutch and the English rivals. What has kept Timbuktu in existence for the last four hundred years was neither gold dust nor slaves but pride in a thousand years of Muslim scholarship and a carefully guarded inheritance of thousands of manuscripts.

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