For centuries, the city of Timbuktu, located in the center of present-day Mali in Western Africa, thrived as one of the bustling centers of culture and learning during the Golden Age of 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 the Kangaba state, organized a successful resistance against the harsh Sosso king Sumaoro Kanté—and a new empire was born.
The Mali Empire on the upper Niger River then grew 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 Ancient Trading Post
Timbuktu had been a seasonal trading post established in 1100 A.C., where the Saharan Desert and the Niger Delta meet, creating a lush and lucrative agricultural zone. Powerful West African kingdoms and the pastoralist Tuaregs of the Southern Sahara traded here. And when Islam came to Tuareg societies as early as the 8th century, the Tuaregs passed along 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 but successful trading post into a center of commerce and scholarship, making the Mali empire one of the most influential of the Golden Age of Islam. Powerful West African kings and Islamic leaders traveled from far and wide to Timbuktu to trade, learn and foster strong political allies.
By the 16th century, Timbuktu hosted 150 to 180 Qur’anic schools, or Maktabs. Malian rulers also built great mosques, not only for spiritual practice, but also as centers of learning of mathematics, law, grammar, history, geography, astronomy and astrology.
Madrasas Built for Worship and Scholarship
While the Tuaregs built the first mosque, the Sankoré Mosque, in Timbuktu in the 1100s A.C., 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 renowned 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 Madrasas, still function today as Koranic Sankore University, making it the oldest higher-education facility 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 Timbuktu, California 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 specifically “is mentioned more often than any other display of wealth.”
The knowledge contained within the books reflected the fabric of Malian society. Dr. Abdel Kader Haidara, a Malian scholar who oversees the preservation of over 350,000 manuscripts from this era, says that “in addition to the academic and scholarly literature, there are many parts that contain poetry and dedications to women.” Haidara adds that women have prominent roles in maintaining Malian heritage and contribute to the meticulous work of preserving ancient manuscripts.
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Timbuktu was also unique from other major Islamic cities during the Golden Age of Islam. For example, while Cairo and Mecca maintained an open access policy to its mosque libraries, the libraries of Timbuktu all seem to have been private collections of individual scholars or families, according to Singleton.
Knowledge Passed Down Through Books—And Oral Histories
It is not surprising that books in Timbuktu were prized possessions that were passed down from generation to generation. The practice mirrors the West African tradition of oral histories passed down by griots, esteemed West African musicians and storytellers who were the keepers of the history of the empires and royal families.
Griots originated from the same Mandinka ethnic group that Sundiata hailed from and were 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 was acquired through extensive apprenticeship. Griots continue to practice today and include Malian musicians such as kora player Toumani Diabaté, who can trace his griot lineage 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 and 1528 and fortified the Islamic learning tradition in Timbuktu that his predecessors had set forth. 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 many people’s possessions, including important manuscripts, were lost.
The cities of Timbuktu and Gao were nonetheless able to maintain a high degree of autonomy from the Saadians, and in 1632, they declared independence from the Saadian dynasty. However, the Golden Age of Islamic scholarship, architecture and culture in the Songhai empire and across West Africa had seriously diminished.
Attacks on Timbuktu’s Manuscripts
The city’s manuscripts were still widely used to educate in the Qur’anic 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 of the cultural products of Timbuktu were looted and taken to Europe, ending the widespread practice of learning through the manuscripts.
These were not the only attacks on the legacy of Timbuktu. In 2012, militants tied to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) took over Northern Mali and began destroying anything perceived as haram or forbidden to their religious practice, including generations-old manuscripts that characterized the ancient city of Timbuktu.
With a small team, Haidara rescued over 350,000 manuscripts from 45 different libraries in and around Timbuktu and hid them in Bamako—the capital of Mali. On many occasions Haidara and his allies were threatened by al Qaeda militants and accused of stealing—a crime punishable by death or mutilation. But Haidara eventually built the Mamma Haidara Library in Bamako, naming it after his father, who was also a scholar and keeper of manuscripts. In 2022 Google Arts & Culture launched an online archive of manuscripts guarded by Haidara and his team.
“While griots recall history from memory and ingenuity, the manuscripts are the discernible history of Mali,” says Haidara. The manuscripts serve as tangible evidence that the Mali Empire and its great city of Timbuktu were foundational to the legacy of West African and Islamic scholarship. Through the work of Haidara, mirroring the oral tradition of groups like the griots, the preservation of Malian history remains a continuous mission.
“Even I don’t know everything that is in the manuscripts,” says Haidara. “Everyday I learn something new from and about them.”