How Timbuktu Prospered During Islam’s Golden Age

For centuries, the city of Timbuktu, located in the center of present-day Mali in West Africa, flourished as one of the bustling centers of culture and learning during the golden age of the ‘Islam.

The region’s legacy as an intellectual destination begins with the epic of Sundiata. According to the 13th century epic poem, the Mandinka prince of Kangaba state staged a successful resistance against the harsh Sosso king Sumaoro Kanté – and a new empire was born.

Mali’s empire on the upper Niger River then gained in power and prestige. When the powerful Malian king, Mansa Musa I, peacefully annexed the city of Timbuktu in 1324 after returning from his pilgrimage to Mecca, the empire became a hub of exceptional learning, culture and architecture.

Timbuktu’s origins as a former trading post

Mansa Musa I was the ruler of the Mali Empire in West Africa from 1312 to 1337.

Timbuktu had been a seasonal trading post established in 1100 AD, where the Sahara Desert and the Niger Delta meet, creating a lush and lucrative agricultural area. Powerful West African kingdoms and Tuareg pastoralists from the southern Sahara traded here. And when Islam arrived in Tuareg societies as early as the 8th century, the Tuareg transmitted the religion through trading posts like Timbuktu, facilitating connections between Arab-Islamic and West African peoples.

Under Mansa Musa I and his successors, Timbuktu transformed from a small, thriving trading post into a center of commerce and scholarship, making the Mali Empire one of the most influential of the Age of gold of islam. Powerful West African kings and Islamic rulers traveled from far and wide to Timbuktu to trade, learn, and foster strong political allies.

In the 16th century, Timbuktu was home to 150 to 180 Koranic schools, i.e. Maktabs. Malian rulers also built large mosques, not only for spiritual practice, but also as centers for learning mathematics, rightgrammar, history, geography, astronomy and astrology.

Madrasas built for worship and scholarship

Sane Chirfi, who represents the family that takes care of the mausoleum of Alpha Moya in Timbuktu, in front of the mausoleum.  The mausoleum was among several restored following damage from al-Qaeda-linked insurgents in 2012.

Sane Chirfi, who represents the family that takes care of the mausoleum of Alpha Moya in Timbuktu, in front of the mausoleum. The mausoleum was among several restored following damage from al-Qaeda-linked insurgents in 2012.

While the Tuaregs built the first mosque, the Sankoré Mosque, in Timbuktu in the 1100s AD, Mansa Musa I made significant improvements to it, inviting important Islamic scholars, or Ulama, to enhance its prestige. Mansa Musa I then built the Djinguereber Mosque, paying the famous Islamic scholar Abu Ishaq Al Saheli 200 kilograms of gold to oversee its construction. Later in the 15th century, when the Tuareg ruler Akil Akamalwa came to power in the Mali Empire, he built the great Sidi Yahya Mosque. Together, these three centers of learning, or Madrasasstill function today as Koranic University of Sankorémaking it the oldest higher education institution in sub-Saharan Africa.

Mosques and schools proliferated in Timbuktu, mirroring what was found in the other flourishing Islamic cities of Cairo and Mecca. In his article African Bibliophiles: Books and Libraries in Medieval TimbuktuCalifornia State University San Bernardino Librarian Brent D. Singleton writes that “In Timbuktu, literacy and books transcended scholarly value and symbolized wealth, power, and baraka (blessings)”, and that the acquisition of books in particular” is mentioned more often than any other display of wealth.

The knowledge contained in the books reflected the fabric of Malian society. dr. Abdel Kader Haidara, a Malian scholar who oversees the preservation of more than 350,000 manuscripts from this era, states that “in addition to academic and scholarly literature, there are many parts which contain poetry and dedications to women”. Haidara adds that women play a leading role in maintaining Mali’s heritage and contribute to the meticulous work of preserving ancient manuscripts.

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Timbuktu was also unique among other major Islamic cities of the Golden Age of Islam. For example, while Cairo and Mecca maintained an open access policy for their mosque libraries, Timbuktu’s libraries all appear to have been private collections of individual scholars or families, according to Singleton.

Knowledge transmitted through books and oral histories

A view of an ancient manuscript from Timbuktu.

A view of an ancient manuscript from Timbuktu.

It is no surprise that books in Timbuktu have been prized possessions that have been passed down from generation to generation. The practice reflects the West African tradition of oral histories handed down by the esteemed West African griots, musicians and storytellers who were the keepers of the history of empires and royal families.

The griots hail from the same Mandinka ethnic group Sundiata hails from and are responsible for composing his epic. Much like Islamic scholarship and bookmaking in Timbuktu, the role of a griot was only passed down through lineage and acquired through extensive learning. Griots continue to practice today and include Malian musicians such as kora player Toumani Diabaté, who can trace his lineage of griots back to the golden age of Islam.

The Mali Empire declined in the 15th century and was replaced by the Songhai Empire. Askia Muhammad, a military leader from the Malian city of Gao, reigned from 1492 to 1528 and fortified the tradition of Islamic learning in Timbuktu that his predecessors had established. But soon, Timbuktu found itself under threat when the Moroccan Saadian dynasty invaded the Songhai Empire in the late 16th century. Much of Timbuktu’s centers of learning were destroyed and the possessions of many people, including important manuscripts, were lost.

The cities of Timbuktu and Gao were nevertheless able to maintain a great deal of autonomy from the Saadians, and in 1632 they declared their independence from the Saadian dynasty. However, the golden age of Islamic scholarship, architecture and culture in the Songhai Empire and throughout West Africa had seriously waned.

Attacks on the manuscripts of Timbuktu

Destruction of manuscripts by jihadists at the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu in 2012.

Destruction of manuscripts by jihadists at the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu in 2012.

The city’s manuscripts were still widely used for instruction in Quranic schools and great mosques during the Saadian occupation of the Songhai Empire. But when the French arrived in West Africa in the 17th century, many cultural products from Timbuktu were looted and taken to Europe, ending the widespread practice of learning through manuscripts.

These are not the only attacks on Timbuktu’s heritage. In 2012, militants linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) took control of northern Mali and began destroying anything perceived as haraam or forbidden to their religious practice, including several generations-old manuscripts that characterized the ancient city of Timbuktu.

With a small team, Haidara has rescued over 350,000 manuscripts from 45 different libraries in and around Timbuktu and hid them in Bamako, the capital of Mali. On numerous occasions, Haidara and his allies have been threatened by al-Qaeda militants and accused of theft, a crime punishable by death or maiming. But Haidara eventually built the Mamma Haidara Library in Bamako, giving him the name of his father, also a scholar and curator of manuscripts. In 2022 Google Arts & Culture launched a online archive of manuscripts kept by Haidara and his team.

“While the griots recall the history of memory and ingenuity, the manuscripts are the perceptible history of Mali,” says Haidara. The manuscripts serve as tangible evidence that the Mali Empire and its great city of Timbuktu were the foundation of the legacy of West African and Islamic scholarship. Through the work of Haidara, like the oral tradition of groups such as the griots, the preservation of Malian history remains a permanent mission.

“Even I don’t know everything in the manuscripts,” says Haidara. “Every day I learn something new from and about them.”

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