The Road To Timbuktu
No, this is not a remake of a Bing Crosby Bob Hope movie. You know those road trip movies of the 1940's. Although they were quite funny; but, when we think of Timbuktu it conjures up images of such a far away remote place, so isolated very few really know where it is. To even reach Timbuktu is a remarkable trek to one of the world's most fascinating places. A rich history of scholars and scribes. Timbuktu was once the meca that supported a flourishing industry of scribes who copied texts brought by traders, merchants, and other scholars. To trace the history of Timbuktu is a true step back through the ages. As far back as 600 AD when desert caravans linked the Mediterranean with the African interior were first to set encampments in what was to become the city of Timbuktu. By 1100 when Timbuktu was actually founded, it was by Tuareg herders who made it as a seasonal camp ground. This camp grew into one of the most important trading hubs in Africa. The location of Timbuktu where two main trade routes intersected. The Saharan caravan route and the Niger river brought merchants from all over the world that would bring cloth, spices, and salt to trade for gold , ivory, and slaves from the African interior.
It is the location of Timbuktu that marks the settlement where the Tuareg Imashagan settled a few miles away from the Niger River. It is believed that the decision to move further away from the river itself is because of the mosquitoes that swarmed around the banks of the Niger. In the relocating the Tuareg dug wells that supplied water for all. The historic town of Timbuktu is located at the precise point where the Niger flows northward into the southern edge of the desert. As a result of its unique geographical position, Timbuktu has been a natural meeting point of Songhai, Wangara,Fulani, Tuareg and Arabs. According to the inhabitants of Timbuku, gold came from the south, the salt from the north and the Divine knowledge, from Timbuktu. Timbuktu is also the cross-road where the desert greets the river. It is to this privilege position that the city owes much of its historical dynamism. From the 11th century and onward, Timbuktu became an important port where goods from West Africa and North Africa were traded.
Goods coming from the Mediterranean shores and salt were traded in Timbuktu for gold. The prosperity of the city attracted both black scholars, blacks merchants and Arabs traders from North Africa. Salt, books and gold were very much in demand at that time. Salt was came from Tegaza in the north, gold, from the immense gold mines of the Boure and Banbuk and books, were the refined work of the black scholars and scholars of the Sanhaja descent. The Tuareg Messufa captured the salt mine of Tegaza and thus took control of the salt trade. The Messufa exported the salt to Timbuktu via camel caravans. This second factor that helps us better explain how the so-called manuscripts of Timbuktu evolved, developed and expanded throughout the whole empire. Thus, the intellectual importance of Timbuktu and the reasons it flourished are not exclusively based upon “strategic position.” It is important to convey that someone in a position of power was responsible for encouraging the attitude toward learning that prevailed in Timbuktu. As more and new books arrived more scribes also ascended into Timbuktu. In essence a vast library captivated local teachers, scholars, and wealthy merchants. It is this new found wealth not only from the commerce that was taking place but form the wealth that came form the increasing literature that was also becoming more abundant. The city of Timbuktu was now experiencing a Renaissance of all kinds of economic and cultural activity.
From the begining when the Tuareg founded the city as a seasonal camp the city has seen many rulers. The Malians, the Songhi and the Fulani of Masina all ruled during the years from 1100 to about the late 1500's. During those times the Timbuku's merchants generally brought off each subsequent ruler who were more interested in the wealth that kept pouring in from all the taxes collected from all that trade and commerce. But, when the Morroccon army gained control of the city, looted or destroyed the libraries, and captured most of the scholars and scribes only to send them back to Morrocco to await their fate by the Sultan Timbuktu ceased to be the trading and literacy mecca it once was. Remaining volumes of literature were scattered, some were sealed inside mud brick walls, some were buried in the desert, and many were just plain lost of destroyed.
For the next 400 years Timbuktu never regained the prominence it once had. The literacy rate plummeted. So that today Timbuktu has an over 75% illiteracy rate. What was once a thriving hub of commerce and scholars is now nothing more than a way station for the inhabitants of a very unique place. As West Africa's seaports grew the caravans that brought all the commerce grew less frequent. The only connection now to the rest of Africa and the outside world are the few trucks that bring food and fuel. Tourists that used to come have all but disappeared. In 2003 the U.S. State department along with other governments issued travel warnings that terrorists groups, marauding gangs, and even al-Qaeda factions continue their strangle hold over the region. It is as though the ruthless violence around Timbuktu continues to undermine what was once a very rich and thriving hub of intellectuals and merchants of so long ago.
The road to Timbuktu is a perilous journey back in time. All that remains are mud brick dwellings that house a population that has neither grown or diminished with the passing of time. Isolated now in the remote region of Mali some 300 miles southwest of the Algerian boarder and almost 1000 miles away from the west coast with only a few trucks coming to offer supplies Timbuktu remains an enigma of fascination where knowledge through the written word was worth more than gold.