Although the city of Timbuktu was established in the 12th century and became an important commercial centre, it only gained widespread prominence as an intellectual capital in the 15th century. Chroniclers mention that the city has its roots in a nomadic summer camp set up a few miles from the river Niger, as a base from which they could pasture and water their camels during the period of intense heat. This position proved strategic for commerce and soon attracted many settlers. The settlement was important not only because of its location at the junction of the dry Sahara and the lush central valley of the river Niger, but because the river itself constituted an easy pathway for transporting goods to and from the more tropical regions of West Africa. Thus merchants settled there early on and were subsequently followed by Muslim scholars much later, after the establishment of a permanent community.
The population of Timbuktu was always mixed. Although founded by the Imagharen Tuareg, it was settled by Arabs from various Saharan oases, by Soninke merchants and scholars, Songhai, initially as conquerors, and by Fulani pastoralists. Today Songhai is still the dominant language, but Arabic and Tamasheq are also widely used.
The city is not mentioned in Arabic sources until Ibn Battuta’s visit in the early 14th century. In about 1325 the Malian ruler, Mansa Musa, visited the city on his way back from pilgrimage and erected a residence there as well as the Great Mosque (Jingere-Ber). With the decline of the Malian empire by the end of the 14th century the city came under the control of a group of Tuareg, but they were finally driven out in 1468 when the city was incorporated into the rising Songhai Empire under Sonni ‘Ali.
The 16th century, in particular the reign of Askia al-Hajj Muhammad (1493 – 1528), saw Timbuktu reach its political and intellectual “golden era”. Askia Muhammad was a great patron of scholars and the historical chronicles of the region, the Ta’rikh al-Sudan and the Ta’rikh al-Fattash, praise him as a pious and learned leader, who listened to the advice of the scholars.
Books were always an important part of the local culture and manuscripts were sold and copied from early on. Under the patronage of the Songhai Empire (1468 – 1591) local intellectual activity flourished and Timbuktu’s scholars began writing their own books on religious and secular subjects, in addition to commentaries on classical works. Timbuktu was also a centre for trade in books in the 16th century. Leo Africanus (al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Zayyati) gives a glowing account of the book trade during his visit to the city in the early years of that century. Manuscripts were imported to Timbuktu from North Africa and Egypt and scholars going on pilgrimage to Mecca often copied texts there and in Cairo on their way back, to add to their own libraries. There was also an active copying industry in Timbuktu itself.
It is reported that Askia Daoud, who reigned from 1548 to 1583, established public libraries in the kingdom. Furthermore, a characteristic feature of the scholarly elite was the establishment of personal libraries, a passion that has persisted up until today. Ahmed Baba (1556 – 1627), one of Timbuktu’s most celebrated scholars, is reported to have said that his personal library of more than 1600 volumes was one of the smaller collections amongst the city’s scholars.
Timbuktu’s golden era was abruptly halted by the Moroccan invasion in 1591, initiated by the Sa’dian ruler of Morocco, Mawlay Ahmed al-Mansur. The intellectual and commercial importance of Timbuktu gradually began to decline after the invasion. Just one of the victims of this invasion was Ahmed Baba, who was exiled with his entire family to Morocco (1593 – 1608). In addition, much of his extensive library was destroyed.
In time the city’s military rulers shook off ties with the Sa’dians, who were themselves beset with problems due to the death of Ahmed al-Mansur. A weak state was maintained thereafter around the Niger River from Jenne to Bamba, with the headquarters at Timbuktu. As a result, the city was beset with severe hardships in the centuries that followed and intellectual activity waned considerably. The city very briefly came under Fulani control in the first half of the 19th century but was finally occupied by the French in 1894. French rule lasted until Malian independence in 1960.
Veneration of the written word had however found a secure place in the hearts of Timbuktu’s inhabitants from very early on and scholarly elites and lay people alike held fast to whatever manuscripts they came to possess. Today, it is estimated that there are about 300 000 extant manuscripts in circulation in Timbuktu and the surrounding areas. Locked within these pages is one of Africa’s greatest intellectual legacies. Fortunately, the keepers of this treasure are extremely committed to their culture of learning and sharing. Through the efforts of these “desert librarians”, this legacy is once again being rediscovered.