Why Timbuktu Will Overcome Its Latest Fundamentalist Conquerors

Caravan routes

Many of today’s headlines about Islamic north-central Africa would look familiar to the explorer and scientist Heinrich Barth, who traveled 10,000 miles there for the British from 1850 to 1855. The caravan routes ridden by Barth are now roads, but the arid territories they cross are still a nexus of distinctive cultures that have mixed and chafed for centuries. Old frictions still flare up between Muslims and non-Muslims, black and brown, fundamentalists and moderates, central governments and local chiefs.

As in Barth’s day, bandits and fanatics keep the region in turmoil. The group Boko Haram (“Western education is forbidden”) has killed hundreds of people in places Barth visited in northeastern Nigeria, bombing government offices, schools, and Christian churches. The group’s violent quest to “purify” Islam is just the most recent of similar jihads reported by Barth. Other groups, now as then, use religion as a veneer to justify thuggery. The terrorists of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), for instance, seem motivated more by money than by Mohammed, kidnapping Western travelers whom they murder or ransom — behavior that Barth witnessed and survived.

For Barth, Boko Haram and AQIM would be familiar manifestations with historical precedents. So would the distress of today’s moderate Muslims who want to reclaim their religion’s traditions of tolerance and learning from gangsters and extremists.

Some current events are almost historical reenactments. In March of this year, after the Malian military staged a coup, several rebel groups took advantage of the political chaos to occupy Mali’s northern half, including the ancient desert towns of Timbuktu and Gao. The group that now controls Timbuktu is associated with AQIM and calls itself Ansar Dine (“Defenders of the Faith”). Like Boko Haram, the Ansar Dine are fundamentalists intent on imposing their version of a purer Islam. If history is a guide, they would have better luck pushing a camel through the eye of a needle.

Ibn Battuta

Since the time of Ibn Battuta (1352), visitors to Timbuktu have been impressed by the town’s scholars and amiable inhabitants, known for their love of singing, dancing, and smoking. The Ansar Dine have stopped the singing and the music, and are requiring women to veil their faces, atypical in Timbuktu. Tobacco and alcohol have been banned, places that sold them have been shuttered or destroyed, and possession of a cigarette brings a beating. Women have been whipped for immodest behavior such as walking alone or riding in a car with men. In a town near Timbuktu, an unmarried couple was stoned to death.

Ignorance, that frequent collaborator with fanaticism, has led the Ansar Dine to destroy at least half a dozen of Timbuktu’s historic tombs and monuments, including part of the fourteenth-century Djingereber mosque, on grounds of idolatry. Scholars fear that Timbuktu’s invaluable manuscript libraries might be looted, perhaps for the purpose of selling these volumes of old Islamic erudition to fund new Islamic intolerance.

Timbuktu has weathered it all before. Similar restrictions were in place when Barth spent seven months there under house arrest in 1853-54. Muslim jihadists from the newly-declared kingdom of Hamdallahi (“Praise to God”) had conquered Timbuktu in 1826. They attempted to impose harsh reforms: no tobacco, mandatory attendance at mosque, segregation of men and women. The sociable smoking dancers of Timbuktu considered these dictates preposterous. By the time of Barth’s visit, the fundamentalists had despaired of separating Timbuktu’s men and women, but Barth recounts how they raided homes to seize tobacco and levied fines for insufficient piety.

Today’s residents of Timbuktu, Gao, and nearby desert towns have begun staging protests and forming militias to resist Ansar Dine’s severe version of Islam. It seems likely that long after Ansar Dine has vanished into history like Hamdallahi, Timbuktu and its people will still be singing and smoking.

Barth blamed much of the region’s misery on its greedy, corrupt leaders, who devastated the region with constant warfare and slave raids. “Even the best of these mighty men,” he wrote, “cares more for the silver ornaments of his numerous wives than for the welfare of his people.” Today’s Nigerians ask why their government can’t protect them from Boko Haram, and why a country with some of the world’s richest oil deposits must import most of its gas and can’t light its largest cities. Greed and corruption, wrote Barth, inspired violent purifying jihads that imposed their own repressions. These criticisms still sound fresh.

As in Barth’s day, most Westerners know little about Islam or Africa, and distort them into simple monoliths. Barth carried some of his era’s assumptions, but he was willing to go where the evidence took him. He found ignorance and savagery in Africa — the prevailing European view of the continent — but also scholars and sophisticated systems of commerce and government.

He likewise challenged the dominant European view of Islam as an evil dangerous opponent of Christian civilization, which still sounds familiar. Consider the recent Republican presidential primary, in which nearly every candidate expressed alarm about the nonexistent threat of Sharia law in the United States. Members of Congress are on record about “terrorist babies” and “stealth jihadis.” American towns have voted to ban mosques, and corporations tremble when fringe groups accuse them of being pro-Muslim.

Barth called Islam a great religion — not a popular view, then as now — but added that in some places it had been hijacked by brigands or fanatics who used it as an excuse to pillage or to subjugate. He pointed out that Islam wasn’t much different in these ways from Christianity, another great religion sometimes hijacked by the greedy or the self-righteous. All of this remains in the headlines.

Unlike most pundits about the continent, then as now, Barth formed his views from close observation of African reality. His news and perspective remain pertinent. As a scientist he believed that knowledge can dissolve ignorance and misunderstanding. Perhaps it still can, given the chance.

*This originally appeared on the History News Network on August 22, 2012.

Where the Camel Meets the Canoe

Timbuktu started as a seasonal encampment of Tuareg nomads and grew into a commercial hub that connected the Arab and Berber traders of the desert with the black tribes of the Sahel, Mali, and Ghana. Like any crossroads town it contained a babel of languages—Tamasheq, Songhai, Hausa, Arabic, Fulfulde, Wolof, Bambara. These eventually mixed and merged into a hybrid argot spoken only in Timbuktu. Residents called it Koyrachini (variant spelling Koyra Chiini), which loosely translates as “town talk.”

Koyrachini and the crazy-quilt of languages in Timbuktu were catnip for a linguist such as Barth, even when the words spoken were “The Christian must die.” Koyrachini has since been modified by an infusion of French from the colonial years. It remains the language of Timbuktu’s markets. “If you can’t speak it,” said one of my hosts in the city, “you can’t buy, sell, or fully communicate.”

Unlike Kano or Kukawa, Timbuktu created few goods of its own. Its prosperity stemmed from its location. Though surrounded by the Sahara, it sat only eight miles north of the Niger, on the big bend where the river juts into the desert. Barth was in Timbuktu during the river’s annual flood stage, and was amazed to see streams rushing through the desert near the town.

Timbuktu was the place “where the camel meets the canoe,” a place of traders and middle-men. Gold arrived from mines in the tropical south and was traded for salt from mines in the desert north. Two or three times a year Tuaregs and Berabish from Timbuktu made the brutal caravan journey 500 miles straight north into the Sahara to the salt mines of Taoudeni, a desolate hellhole where slaves labored and died. “It is hardly possible that even under the most merciless regimes,” wrote E. F. Gautier in his classic Sahara: the Great Desert, “there has ever been an industrial hell comparable to this one anywhere on the face of the earth.” The round trip took four to six weeks. The caravans returned with large grayish slabs of salt, rare and hence pricey. Salt traders still make the journey to Taoudeni, though now they often ride trucks instead of camels.

Timbuktu market

By the time Barth reached Timbuktu he was no longer amazed by the variety found in African markets far from the coasts. Europeans considered Timbuktu inconceivably remote, but shoppers there could find goods from all over Europe as well as Africa. First-time visitors who arrived from the desert must have been shocked to find fresh vegetables and fruits for sale so close to the Sahara—another benefit of the town’s proximity to the Niger.

Now as then, customers in Timbuktu’s markets haggle over tomatoes, carrots, cabbages, yams, eggplants, rice, peppers, beans, okra, and peanuts—all grown along the Niger—as  well as salt, camel cheese, live chickens, slabs of beef or goat, and new items such as CDs, jeans, and flip-flops.

Gate into Sahara Passion

In Timbuktu I stayed on the town’s northern edge at a small guest house called Sahara Passion. It offered several simple, pleasant rooms. From the rooftop terrace I could watch small caravans approaching from the desert or heading into the sands. The Sahara Passion’s rooms are within the walled home of its owners, Shindouk Mohamed Lamine and his wife Miranda Dodd, who came to Africa from Whycocomagh, Nova Scotia as a Peace Corps volunteer and stayed to make a life with Shindouk.

View from rooftop of Sahara Passion

Like his father and grandfather before him, Shindouk is the chief of a Berabish tribe, the Oulad Najim, one of several factions of a larger tribe, the Oulad Driss. His father was renowned for his knowledge of the desert and saved many stranded people. Once, the story goes, a man who had collected sand from all over the desert showed his samples to Shindouk’s father and challenged him to identify them. Shindouk’s father peered, rubbed, tasted, and pinpointed every sample’s original location.


Shindouk’s father and grandfather were salt traders. Shindouk first made the trip to Taoudeni when he was 13. His duties were to get up early, start a fire, make tea, and find the camels. These elements—tea, fire, camels, desert, salt—seem genetically programmed into men such as Shindouk. On his first trip outside the desert, to a conference sponsored by the United Nations, he had a layover in Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport. He unpacked his small charcoal burner and built a fire to make the sweet tea that no desert man can live without for long. He was surprised to find himself quickly surrounded by men with guns.

Courtyard of Sahara Passion

Every night of my stay in Timbuktu, as soon as the sun went down, Shindouk put dry grass and sticks into a round shallow-sided metal disk, about the size of a large pizza pan, and started a small fire in his courtyard of sand as the huge Saharan sky glittered above. He and a friend or two sat or reclined around the fire on carpets, talking in low voices—or occasionally making calls on their cell phones. Long before the fire had turned to coals, an abandoned boy named Abdullah, whom Shindouk and Miranda had given refuge, had rolled himself into his ragged blanket to sleep on the sand in the dark beyond the fire.

The Sahel endured a horrible drought in the late 1970s and early 1980s (for an excellent account of those times see Thurston Clarke’s The Last Caravan). The drought wiped out the herds of most desert peoples in Mali, Niger, and elsewhere in the Sahel, dealing a crippling blow to an ancient way of life. War followed in the 1990s. Shindouk spent five years in a refugee camp in Mauritania.

This life has made him thoughtful, serious, and eager to preserve and share the knowledge that he worries is dying with the desert elders. Miranda clearly seconds his respect for this knowledge. I was pleased to benefit from it and to be their guest.

Lost and Found: the Treasures of Timbuktu

Niger River running through Sahara, with TImbuktu in upper center as a small gray oval.

“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.

Djingere Ber mosque

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.

Sankore mosque

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.”

Ahmed Baba Institute

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.

Bouya Haidara among manuscripts

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.

Mamma Haidara Library

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.