“Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, and silver from the country of the white men,” runs a proverb from West Africa, “but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom are only to be found in Timbuktu.”
The town was already known for its scholars when Ibn Battuta passed through around 1352, shortly after the construction of Timbuktu’s most famous mosques, the Djingere Ber and Sankore. Sidi Yahia, the third important mosque, is the youngster, dating from the mid-1400s.
Leo Africanus visited around 1510 and claimed that manuscripts and books “sold for more money than any other merchandise” in the market—probably an exaggeration, given the town’s lucrative trade in gold, salt, and slaves. But throughout the 16th century Timbuktu’s mosques and their associated schools did draw hundreds and perhaps thousands of scholars, students, and mystics from all over north central Africa and the Middle East.
The scholarship focused on Islam but also encompassed mathematics, astronomy, law, geography, botany, medicine, and music. Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Hippocrates were studied in Arabic translations. Because of all the visitors, Timbuktu was a polyglot town. Scholars wrote books in Hausa, Fulfulde, Tamasheq, and Songhai as well as Arabic. Ahmed Baba, one of Timbuktu’s most learned men, wrote dozens of works in Arabic and had a library of 1,600 volumes, which he described as one of the city’s smaller collections.
This golden age ended brutally in 1591 with the invasion of a mercenary army sent by the Sultan of Morocco. Their muskets shredded Timbuktu’s defenders. The town’s libraries were plundered, its scholars marched to Marrakesh and imprisoned. Timbuktu’s tradition of learning seemed demolished, its libraries obliterated.
In fact the conquered inhabitants saved many manuscripts, which spent several centuries, including the years of imperial conquest and French occupation, hidden in villages, desert camps, and houses on dusty side-streets in Timbuktu. As the years passed, some owners could no longer read what they possessed, but they treasured the manuscripts as family patrimony.
In the 1970s scholars began trying to find and preserve these precious relics before they were destroyed by other marauders—bugs, mold, neglect, time. These efforts gained steam over the next 30 years with help from the Ford Foundation, the government of South Africa, and other groups. Agents went into the countryside to find ancient manuscripts and to persuade their owners to sell them for the sake of preservation. Some owners were paid in cows or camels, some in cash. The result was a flood of recovered manuscripts—according to the Ford Foundation, more than 700,000 of them.
As a result, Timbuktu is once again dotted with private libraries holding ancient manuscripts—about 60 such libraries, according to The Hidden Treasures Of Timbuktu, by scholars John O. Hunwick and Alida Jay Boye. “The historic manuscripts of Timbuktu,” they write, “are revolutionizing our understanding of Africa, increasing our knowledge of African history and unveiling the mysteries of this paradoxically famous yet almost unknown city.”
I visited two of these libraries. The Ahmed Baba Institute, which was about to move into big new quarters on the site of Ahmed Baba’s old residence, holds about 30,000 manuscripts. Among the texts on display at the time of my visit were treatises from the 16th century on astronomy and mathematics, and from the 11th century on law, cataracts, and a commentary on the Qur’an.
Somewhere amidst the 30,000 manuscripts, said Bouya Haidara, a commentateur at the library, was a letter in Arabic sent by Sheikh al-Bakkay to the Tuareg tribes to the east, asking them not to kill a white Christian named Heinrich Barth who was traveling through their lands. The letter was found with a family in Timbuktu. Haidara told me about another letter somewhere in the stacks from Queen Victoria, thanking al-Bakkay for helping Barth. The libraries are so overwhelmed with manuscripts that their first priorities have been preservation and cataloguing. A filing system will come later.
The Mamma Haidara Library holds about 22,000 manuscripts, most of which had been cared for by a single family since the 16th century. Its oldest manuscript is a commentary on the Qur’an written on gazelle skin. The display there included poems and documents written in Arabic, Tamasheq, Songhai, Fulfulde, and Bambara between the 14th and 19th centuries, on subjects ranging from morality to chemistry, medicine, prosody, geography, physiology, logic, and inheritance laws, as well as business documents covering every sort of commodity traded between Timbuktu and Barbary, Kano, Bornu, and Egypt.
The rich wonders in these places demolish the canard, popular during the age of imperialism and still reeking today, that Africa was a continent of savages with no written tradition. Yet the libraries and their relevance to our understanding of African history are still barely known, not only in the West but in Africa. I met a Cameroonian engineer in Timbuktu who had just spent a day scoping out the market for solar panels. He had stumbled across a few of the libraries and been astonished. “This was all news to me,” he said. “Ancient works on geometry, astronomy, and history written by Africans—I couldn’t believe it. It’s not taught in university.”
Recently a new threat to Timbuktu’s patrimony has emerged. There have been reports that the fundamentalist Tuaregs who captured Timbuktu in the recent coup in Mali have looted some of the libraries, including the Ahmed Baba Institute, possibly for the purpose of selling these ancient examples of Islamic scholarship to fund their violent distortion of Islam.