Sunday, February 10, 2013


Timbuktu  is a town in the West African nation of Mali situated 13 km (8 miles) north of the River Niger on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. The town is the capital of the Timbuktu Region, one of the eight administrative regions of Mali. It had a population of 54,453. It has historically been  important as a trading post on the trans-Saharan caravan route and as a centre of Islamic culture (c. 1400–1600).


Timbuktu is not mentioned by the early Arab geographers such as al-Bakri and al-Idrisi. The first mention is by the Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta who visited both Timbuktu and Kabara in 1353 when returning from a stay in the capital of the Mali Empire. The earliest surviving local documents are the 17th century chronicles, al-Sadi's Tarikh al-Sudan and Ibn al-Mukhtar's Tarikh al-fattash.
These provide information on the town at the time of the Songhay Empire and the invasion by Moroccan forces in 1591. It is clear that the city originated from a local trade between Saharan pastoralists and boat trade within the Niger River Delta.

Timbuktu was peacefully annexed by King Musa I when returning from his pilgrimage in 1324 to Mecca. The city became part of the Mali Empire and Musa I ordered the construction of a royal palace. In 1375, Timbuktu appeared in the Catalan Atlas, showing that it was, by then, a commercial centre linked to the North-African cities and had caught Europe's attention.

With Gao the capital of the empire, Timbuktu enjoyed a relatively autonomous position. Merchants from Ghadames, Awjilah, and numerous other cities of North Africa gathered there to buy gold and slaves in exchange for the Saharan salt of Taghaza and for North African cloth and horses. Leadership of the Empire stayed in the Askia dynasty until 1591, when internal fights weakened the dynasty's grip and led to a decline of prosperity in the city.

On 15 December 1893, the city, by then long past its prime, was annexed by a small group of French soldiers. Timbuktu became part of French Sudan (Soudan Français), a colony of France. In 1899 the French Sudan was subdivided and Timbuktu became part of Upper Senegal and Middle Niger (Haut-Sénégal et Moyen Niger). This name was used until 1920 when it became French Sudan again.

After World War II, the French government under Charles de Gaulle granted the colony more and more freedom. After 19 November 1968, a new constitution was created in 1974, making Mali a single-party state. Despite its illustrious history, modern-day Timbuktu is an impoverished town, poor even by Third World standards.


Over the centuries, the spelling of Timbuktu has varied a great deal: from Tenbuch on the Catalan Atlas (1375), to traveller Antonio Malfante's Thambet,  to Heinrich Barth's Timbúktu and Timbu'ktu. French spelling often appears in international reference as "Tombouctou."


The wealth and very existence of Timbuktu depended on its position as the southern terminus of an important trans-Saharan trade route; nowadays, the only goods that are routinely transported across the desert are slabs of rock salt brought from the Taoudenni mining centre.

There is insufficient rainfall in the Timbuktu region for purely rain-fed agriculture and crops are therefore irrigated using water from the River Niger. The main agricultural crop is rice. African floating rice (Oryza glaberrima) has traditionally been grown in regions near the river that are inundated during the annual flood.

Most tourists visit Timbuktu between November and February when the air temperature is lower. In the 1980s, accommodation for the small number of tourists was provided by two small hotels: Hotel Bouctou and Hotel Azalaï.

Legendary Tales about Timabktu.

Perhaps most famous among the accounts written about Timbuktu is that by Leo Africanus.  As a young man he was captured by pirates and presented as an exceptionally learned slave to Pope Leo X, who freed him, baptized him under the name "Johannis Leo de Medici", and commissioned him to write, in Italian, a detailed survey of Africa. His accounts provided most of what Europeans knew about the continent for the next several centuries. According to Leo Africanus, there were abundant supplies of locally produced corn, cattle, milk and butter, though there were neither gardens nor orchards surrounding the city.

The other one is by Shabeni, Shabeni, or Asseed El Hage Abd Salam Shabeeny who stayed in Timbuktu for three years before moving to Housa. Two years later, he returned to Timbuktu to live there for another seven years – one of a population that was even centuries after its peak and excluding slaves, double the size of the 21st century town. By the time Shabeni was 27, he was an established merchant in his hometown. Returning from a trademission to Hamburgh, his English ship was captured and brought to Ostende by a ship under Russian colours in December 1789. He was subsequently set free by the British consulate, but his ship set him ashore in Dover for fear of being captured again. Here, his story was recorded. Shabeeni gave an indication of the size of the city in the second half of the 18th century. In an earlier passage, he described an environment that was characterized by forest, as opposed to nowadays' arid surroundings.

Three Mosques of Timbuktu.

The three great mosques of Timbuktu, restored by the Qadi Al Aqib in the 16th century, bear witness to the golden age of the intellectual and spiritual capital at the end of the Askia dynasty. They played an essential part in the spread of Islam in Africa at an early period.

Although the mosques of El-Hena, Kalidi and Algoudour Djingareye have been destroyed, three essential monuments - the mosques of Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia - fortunately still stand as testimony to the grandeur of Timbuktu.

The Mosque of Djingareyber was built by the sultan Kankan Moussa after his return in 1325 from a pilgrimage to Mecca. Between 1570 and 1583 the Qadi of Timbuktu, Imam Al Aqib, had it reconstructed and enlarged, adding the whole southern part and the wall enclosing the graveyard situated to the west. The central minaret dominates the town and is the most visible landmark of the urban landscape. A smaller minaret on the eastern facade completes the profile of the Great Mosque which has three inner courtyards.

Like Djingareyber, the Mosque of Sankore, built during the Mandingue period, was restored by the Imam Al Aqib between 1578 and 1582. He had the sanctuary demolished and rebuilt according to the measurements of the Kaaba at Mecca, which he had taken with a rope during his pilgrimage.

The Mosque of Sidi Yahia, south of Sankore, was probably built around 1400 by the marabout Sheikh El Moktar Hamalla in anticipation of a holy man who appeared 40 years later in the person of Cherif Sidi Yahia, who was then chosen as Imam. It was restored in 1577-78 by the Imam Al Aqib.

Manuscripts and Culture.

Timbuktu was a world centre of Islamic learning from the 13th to the 17th century, especially under the Mali Empire and Askia Mohammad I's rule. Timbuktu Manuscripts is an umbrella term for what were a large number of manuscripts (estimates range in the hundreds of thousands) which had been preserved by private households in Timbuktu, Mali. A large portion of the manuscripts had to do with art, medicine, science, and calligraphy of the late Abbasid Caliphate, and even multiple priceless old copies of the Quran.


Although French is Mali's official language, today the large majority of Timbuktu's inhabitants speaks Koyra Chiini, a Songhay language that also functions as the lingua franca. Before the 1990–1994 Tuareg rebellion, both Hassaniya Arabic and Tamashek were represented by 10% each to an 80% dominance of the Koyra Chiini language. Arabic, introduced together with Islam during the 11th century, has mainly been the language of scholars and religion, comparable to Latin in Christianity.

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