Notes on Timbuktu

Medieval trade routes through the Sahara and Timbuktu
Medieval trade routes through the Sahara and Timbuktu

“Much has been written on the Fondo Ka’ti, the huge collection of old manuscripts in Arabic now preserved in a library in Timbuktu with considerable aid from the government of Andalucia. The collection’s founder seems to have been a ‘Goth’ (al-Quti) from Grenada, who left Spain circa 1468 AD.”

Timbuktu is an ancient, famous town in modern-day Mali. Today it is a tiny, super-dry, and far from the beaten track, but in previous centuries it was an important crossroads for cross-Sahara trade, famed for its gold, scholars, and university.

(I am, finally, trying to read through some of the many ancient PDFs cluttering up my desktop. Today’s is The Meanings of Timbuktu, though I must admit that at nearly 400 pages, I’m mostly skimming and reading the conclusions of chapters. Note: many of the contributors to this book cannot write and I can’t recommend it unless you are A. dying to know more about Timbuktu and B. willing to wade through Marxist academic bullshit.)

Centuries ago, the area was much wetter–about 8.5 thousand years ago, there were some major lakes nearby, perhaps because the climate was different or the river had taken a course through some low-lying areas. Even just a few centuries ago the area was wetter than it is today (the river has shifted, making Timbuktu much less important than it used to be. Archaeological surveys show a bunch of old, abandoned settlements (including possibly cities) in nearby areas that are now uninhabited desert, but Mali doesn’t exactly have money for archaeology. (And the security situation isn’t great, either.)

In other words, there appears to have been a massive reduction in the number of people in the area and the scale of organization in the past 500-1,000 years, with possibly greatly shifting population levels over the millenia.

Today, people in Timbuktu write with erasable ink (eg, charcoal,) on wooden slates, much like people using chalk on slate or carving into beeswax and then smoothing the beeswax. The art of paper-making typically spread alongside the spread of Islam (for the production of Qurans and the like,) but paper-making never took off in Timbuktu, even during eras when suitable materials were more abundant.

The lack of paper-making makes me think the book is over-rating Timbuktu’s role as an historical mecca for sub-Saharan scholars. It may have been relatively important, compared to the rest of the area, but probably small on the global scale.

Nonetheless, there are about 20,000 old books/scrolls in Timbuktu’s archives, most probably in need of preservation. Another survey mentioned in the book estimates 100,000+ books/scrolls in the area. (Mali doesn’t have a lot of money to devote to preserving fragile old manuscripts.) Most of these are probably religious documents (eg, Qurans, hadiths, legal opinions on the application of Islamic law, etc.) but some are philosophy, poetry, history, etc.

Due to age and degradation, the book I am reading deals primarily with more recent, less fragile texts.

Around 1750, a genre of historical writing emerged and then disappeared.

Muslim preference for hand-written Qu’rans appears to have retarded the development of printing in Islamic areas (at least around Timbuktu.) Source cited on page 151 claims first printed book arrived in Mauritania in 1861, though printed books were probably imported before then.

Note the importance of printed Bibles in the development of European literacy. Even today, so many Bibles are printed that cheap copies are practically disposable.

Estimate of a quarter to half a million books owned in northern Nigeria in 1900, most of them religious texts, many (religious) school texts.

There clearly were boom periods [in books]–first the sixteenth and then the nineteenth centuries–with different books coming to hand … but I think overall the book trade did not ‘work’ in West Africa. For example, in 1900 there were few if any ‘modern’ books either available to buy or in circulation in Kano… There was no waaf-financed library buying books systematically, no bookseller importing contentious texts for an avid reading public. … Did the shortage of local books lead to a pre-colonial ‘brain drain’?

The author concludes that the local scholars were highly dependent on private collections (as are modern scholars in the area.) These private collections were hidden during the colonial period (their owners were concerned about colonialist authorities stealing their books,) leading to a mis-perception that they did not exist. Since the end of colonialism, folks have been trying to gather up and properly preserve the manuscripts, but being buried and otherwise hidden for years has not been kind to them.

Timbuktu conjures a string of fond memories of my own youth. For the sake of the people of Mali, I hope Timbuktu (or any other city, perhaps one situated closer to the Niger’s modern course,) rises once again to its former glory.

Kalamazoo, Timbuktu, Katmandu, Machu Picchu…

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4 thoughts on “Notes on Timbuktu

  1. Check The Treaures of Timbuktu by John O Hunwick and Alida Jay Boyes. The tradition of scholars is rooted in Timbuktu. Even if they didn’t manufacture it, paper was probably exchanged for other goods. I was still discussing with a friend yesterday that in our country Egypt although we have a rich legacy in art we don’t produce any materials, even paper.

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