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Exploration 3: Timbuktu

Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, and silver from the country of the white men, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom are only to be found in Timbuktu.

An old West African proverb

Essential Questions

  1. What caused the decline of Timbuktu?
  2. When was Timbuktu discovered by Europeans?
  3. How did Islam shape the development of Mali and of Timbuktu?

Image of Map Showing Mansa Musa

 

In the popular imagination, Timbuktu is the most remote and isolated part of the world. But 500 years ago, Timbuktu was the legendary city of gold. It was a transit point and a financial and trading center for trade across the Sahara. It dominated the gold trade. It was a place of mystery and faraway riches.

Timbuktu was founded in 1080 and within 300 years had become one of the era's most important trading points. Timbuktu was an influential Islamic intellectual centre, a cosmopolitan multicultural city of commerce and learning and the second-largest imperial court in the world.

When much of Europe was struggling out of the Dark Ages, the emperor of Timbuktu was having stunning mosques built, and thousands of scholars from as far as Islamic India and Moorish Spain were studying in the city.

Detail from a 14th century Catalan map showing Mansa Musa, king of Timbuktu, holding a gold nugget which he is offering to a Muslim merchant who is approaching on camel.

Catalan Atlas, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris
 

Then it was a city of 100,000 and so rich that even the slaves were decorated with gold. In 1324, a king of Mali, Mansa Musa, traveled with a caravan of a hundred camels bearing 300 pounds of gold each (equal to perhaps $135 million today).

The legend of his wealth was recorded in maps, particularly the Catalan Atlas of 1375, which showed an African ruler enthroned like a European monarch with a crown on his head and an orb and scepter in his hand.

Read an account of Mansa Musa's visit to Cairo in 1324 written by Al-Umari, an Arab historian.

As recently as 1963, a famous British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper said: "Perhaps in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none. There is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness."

Drawing of Timbuktu  from an 18th century map

Detail from a map, Guinea Proper, Not Including the Whole of Africa, but Only that Part Known to the Geographers as Lower Ethiopia). Nuremberg: Homannianorum Heredum, 1743.

Credit: Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

Trever-Roper was wrong. Timbuktu was once a center of religion, culture, and learning, as well as a commercial crossroads on the trans-Saharan caravan route. Situated at the strategic point where the Sahara touches on the River Niger, it was the gateway for African goods bound for the merchants of the Mediterranean, the courts of Europe and the larger Islamic world. It was involved in a thriving commerce in gold, salt, and slaves. When the Renaissance was barely stirring in Europe, wandering scholars were drawn to Timbuktu's manuscripts all the way from North Africa, Arabia and even Persia.

In 1591, Moroccan soldiers invaded and looted Timbuktu, ending the city’s grandeur and taking thousands of inhabitants as slaves. By the time Timbuktu was discovered by Europeans, the palaces of its kings and other fine buildings had crumbled to dust.

Resources
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The History

Mansa Musa, the Malian King

Maps

Guinea Proper, Not Including the Whole of Africa, but Only that Part Known to the Geographers as Lower Ethiopia). Nuremberg: Homannianorum Heredum, 1743.

Credit: Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

This map from the eighteenth century shows clearly the change in trade and travel that had occurred by 1743.

Rather than being viewed as part of the larger continent, West Africa is presented with a focus on the sea routes that had replaced the land caravan routes to the area.

Click map to enlarge.

Images

 

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