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