Timbuktu: doorway to the past

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I haven’t snaffled any of Graham’s photos for a while, but as doors go, both of itself and where it is located, and the fact that a Tuareg pastoralist happened to step into the frame, I thought this was one well worth posting.  It was taken on G’s Africa overland trip during a stopover in Timbuktu.

The plaque above the door marks the fact that French explorer René Caillié once stayed in this house.  The stay was brief, two weeks in April/May 1827, but he had apparently spent many months in preparation, staying with the Moors in Mauretania, learning Arabic, and converting to Islam so he could pass himself off as an Arab. His objective was to win a 10,000-franc reward offered by the Société de Géographie in Paris, and to do this he had to be the first European to see and return alive from Timbuktu. That he lived to tell the tale is recounted in his work Description de la ville de Temboctou. The rest of his life,  however, was sadly foreshortened by tuberculosis. He died in his homeland of Western France at the age of thirty eight.

Timbuktu of course has a long and illustrious history. From 1325 AD it became part of the immensely rich  and highly cultivated Malian Empire under the rule, Musa Keita I, also known as Mansa Musa (c. 1280 – c. 1337). He was probably the richest man who has ever lived, and it was he who developed the town, bringing in architects from Andalusia in Spain, and from  Cairo to build his grand palace and the great Djinguereber Mosque. He also had built in the town the University of Sankore, which attracted scholars from across Africa and Middle East. He brought in lawyers, mathematicians and astronomers to staff it, and so began the growth of the magnificent libraries of Timbuktu, and the town as a centre of learning and commerce.

Since that time, thousands of manuscripts had been gathered and cared for by individual Timbuktu families, and treasured as priceless family heirlooms. It is reckoned there are some 300,000 works held in such private family collections. They include not only theological texts, but works on geography and astronomy. Most are in Arabic script, but some are written in African languages of the region.

There was also in Timbuktu until recently, a state-of-the-art conservation library funded by the South African Thabo Mbeki Foundation. This held many thousands of manuscripts, and when Islamist terrorists invaded the town and torched the centre in 2013, it was feared that these works of international importance had been destroyed. However, the people of Timbuktu had seen the destroyers coming and, desperate to save their heritage, had been smuggling the works to safety in cars, carts and canoes, often hidden under crates of vegetables. It was a daring mission, and you can read  more of their brave endeavour in the BBC story HERE.

And so this brings me back to the title of this piece: doorway to the past, and to the question I feel bound to ask myself: Just how much of the history of the African continent has either been destroyed – wilfully by invaders, including slavers and European colonists, or lost through the relentless shifting of the Sahara’s sands, and other forms of climate change. The stories we mostly hear out of Africa are of conflict, corruption and poverty. Stories that celebrate the creativity, durability, ingenuity, culture and wisdom  of African peoples are not news. Perhaps we should remind ourselves that most of us in Europe were living in mud huts through the centuries when the great African kingdoms were thriving. Perhaps we should remember, too, that civilizations come and go, and our own Western Civilization is not immune from departure.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell


54 thoughts on “Timbuktu: doorway to the past

  1. I have always asked myself what happened to the Africans. Egypt was a centre of civilization for a long time. How and where did the African lose it? Have we always been bush people as the Khoi of south Africa?

    1. Absolutely not, Noel. There was also the Nubian Empire of Sudan. There’s a great BBC series on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NMh8Zzuvl18
      Then there was Ethiopia, Great Zimbabwe, the Berber kingdom, the Kongo Kingdom of Angola and the southern African Kingdoms, Asante, Benin, the very ancient kingdom of Ghana which preceded the Malian Empire by a few hundred years. In Kenya there are remains of ancient stone-building culture that looks a little like the southern African kingdoms with its stone built enclosures. Many of these kingdoms crumbled under the predations of colonial gold hunters and slavers. After all, there have been at least five hundred years of western rapine, including acts of genocide. African cultures are basically socialist in nature, and they do not fare well when the capitalists move in on them. On the other hand I would also say that hunters like the San who had hardly any material possessions whatsover, are/were probably more civilized as human beings than many people who think themselves civilized.

  2. Thank you, Tish, a very interesting piece, and, as you say, a good reminder of the rise and fall of civilizations.

  3. This is a superb post….Timbuktu is a place I have always wanted to know about….to have visited when………………and this post and this door remind me of why there is such an intense attraction for me.
    Thank you so much. Janet

    1. I am very envious of Graham’s trip here. It was in 1985 – so a long time ago, but I doubt that too much has changed apart from the personal technology that everyone now has about them.

  4. Yes, civilizations come and go – and how easy it seems we forget that when we’re living high on the hog.

  5. Great photo and the Tuareg pastoralist being in it adds to the atmosphere. I forget how great a country Africa was. The Egyptians ruled the known world once. Your post makes me think who will be dominant in a few more hundred years…

  6. (I’ve been trying all day to comment on this: had to shut down iPad and start again.)

    Timbuktu has always seemed like just a fairy-tale place. Thank you for giving it its proper grandeur and dignity. The photo is a beauty too.

    1. I was just saying to Jo that Mali is an amazing country, culturally speaking, and its history breath-taking. This is back in the day when the Sahara was a very busy place camel train-wise.

  7. Your heart is really in Africa, Tish? 🙂 I understand and appreciate that you have enormous respect for its culture. Thank you for sharing so much of your knowledge. I feel terribly ignorant sometimes. Not unlike Meg (except that she is far from ignorant) Timbuktu is but an exotic place name to me. I should go delving in Google for some images. 🙂

    1. You’re right, Jo. I did leave some part of myself in Africa. It’s also in my head because of the story I’m currently working on. Mali is an amazing place, and I didn’t even mention the Dogon People. Now they are worth googling 🙂

    1. That’s a good thing to wonder. My feeling is that African culture, historical or otherwise, is not presented in as positive a light as it could be. In Kenya I encountered the received judgment that African culture does not measure up to notions of civilization. Also so many of the recent discoveries of past kingdoms etc is being done through foreign universities, and there is perhaps not the connection there should be with the people of the locality.

  8. Interesting article and beautiful photo, Tish.. Indeed, Africa is like hidden paradise / kingdom with so many histories inside. Timbuktu is on of place that I would like to visit. But, due to recent situation, I think I won’t go there for traveling but get the post in Mali for works..

  9. Tish this is wonderful and evocative of time and place. Thanks for sharing, now you’ve made me want to explore more of Africa I have only been to the northern parts and Atlas mountains – that was lovely. There are so many treasures to be found there, have a great weekend

  10. Timbuktu has always seemed a mythical placet for me, doors I just love and that one is a beauty. Thank you for telling us a piece of history, a lovely post 🙂

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