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Timbuktu: A Lost Center of Education and Trade
May 1, 2017

Located in the modern-day West African nation of Mali, the city of Timbuktu was once a bustling Islamic metropolitan center well known to traders and academics throughout Africa and the Middle East. While the city still exists as the capital of the Tombouctou region, it has fallen mightily in terms of size and fame. In this essay, we will explore the emergence and eventual decline of one of the last millennia’s most vibrant educational and economic centers. Its location and importance have been forgotten by mainstream society, as the city has been reduced to a symbol for a far-away land, as stated by Timothy A. Insoll, who said, “Timbuktu is perhaps best known as a metaphor for the most remote and far-flung corner of the globe.”  Historian Elias N. Saad wrote that Timbuktu has achieved high levels of “lore of mystery and enigma” and that its name “now often invokes the image of a remote, inaccessible place which never at all existed.” 

Of course, the city did exist – and it flourished, despite its desert climate and a cultural identity distinct from those of other African metropolises. Yushau Sodiq described Timbuktu as “one of the most radiant seats of culture and civilization in West Africa,” which has now “become a city of sand and dust.”  During its height, “West Africans perceived Timbuktu as the economic and cultural capital equal to Rome, Fez, and Mecca.” 

Located in the lower Sahara desert near the Niger River and founded in the 12th century by the nomadic Tuareg people, the site initially existed as a camp for traders before blossoming as a scholastic hub. By the 14th century it had become an Islamic center of learning, bringing students from across the region to its universities and libraries.  A century later, it would replace Djenné of Niger’s Mopti and Inner Delta region as the epicenter of scholarship in the Muslim world. One critique of the city’s education system was that instruction was limited to those who came from wealthy families, while many other learning centers throughout the Islamic world were not controlled by the hereditary elite. 

At its peak, Timbuktu’s Islamic Sankore University hosted 25,000 students who studied literature, philosophy, religion, and science. Natural science, geography, and medicine were also important areas of study for scholars, many of whom traveled from across the region to learn at the prestigious institution.   The grand mosques of Djingareyber, Sankore, and Sidi Yehia shone over the city and still exist centuries later, showcasing the dominant and lasting effect Islam had on the region. 

Timbuktu existed for much of its history not as a sub-Saharan or black African community, but instead as an Islamic center, more in line with other Middle Eastern cities.   No one is quite sure how, or when, this happened: the precise date Islam was introduced to the city has not been recorded. Trade with Muslims from Morocco likely first introduced Islam to the region. As trade expanded, it drew people from across the Muslim world to Timbuktu.   Other scholars point to Mansa Musa, who ruled over the city in the 14th century and built mosques and encouraged the expansion of Islam. He also stressed Islam’s teachings to his companions and successors, who followed his urgings. 

In 1964, researchers from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization studied works written by 14th century travelers to Timbuktu. They provided insights into the then-new idea that there existed sophisticated, free-thinking peoples in southern Africa at a time when Europe was still stuck in the Middle Ages. 

In the 15th century, Timbuktu surpassed Walata, in southeast Mauritania, as the chief southern endpoint of the trans-Sahara trading network, which supplied gold, Sudanese slaves, cotton, and grains to North Africa, the Middle East, and even Europe.  Among the famous scholars and explorers of the era, Ibn Battuta, Cadamosto, and Leo Africanus wrote highly of the wealth of the city from the 13th to mid-16th centuries. Africanus stated in 1526, “Here are great stores of doctors, judges, priests, and other learned men,” while also praising the standing army of 3,000 horsemen, waiting to defend the city.  Of the town’s residents, Battuta said that the people, “Were Muslims of old, and are distinguished by their piety and their quest for knowledge.”

Libraries and collections of books were the focal points of the city’s emphasis on education. Michael Dumper and Bruce E. Stanley referred to the land as the “city of books,” stating that the “the city literally lived off its books.”  During Timbuktu’s peak, many works were published in the city and then sold throughout the Islamic world. These were vital components of the trans-Saharan trade.  One native scholar, Ahmad Baba, owned a collection of 1,600 books and manuscripts, and was quoted as saying that his group of texts was rather small in comparison to other collections in the city. Baba, who wrote studies on Islamic law and biographies of Islamic scholars, was one of the three most prominent scholars from Timbuktu during the 16th and 17th centuries. Joining him were Mahmud Kati, who wrote the Tarikh al-Fattash, translated as the History of the Seeker of Knowledge, and Abd-al Rahman as-Sadi, the author of Tarikh as-Sudan, which has provided much of the known information about historical Western Sudan.  Public libraries were also formed under the management of the Songhai leader, Askia Daoud.

Trade flourished thanks to markets that saw western Sudanese goods, including gold, ivory, and tortoise shell, dealt for incoming commodities from southern African regions.  Timbuktu, a premier port town, owed much of its wealth to trade with areas further inland or south on the African continent.  The city was blessed with a good location: the presence of the Niger river, and the vast floodplain that it produced, allowed for rich farming and fishing industries during different parts of the year.  

Timbuktu survived the fall of the Ghana Empire, the rise and fall of the Mali Empire, and persecution by the Songhai Empire.  In fact, it was following an initial period of conflict between the Songhai and Timbuktu that the city achieved its golden age, thanks to dynastic leaders and accommodating attitudes from certain Songhai monarchs. In today’s Timbuktu, the majority of the population still speaks the Songhai language.  

Timbuktu’s decline began in 1591, when the city was destroyed by Moroccans invaders, who were attempting to control the lucrative reserves of gold and salt in the area.  Many of Timbuktu’s most highly regarded scholars were then kidnapped and forcibly taken to northern Africa.  This included Ahmed Baba, who was deported to Marrakesh along with his vital collections.  Moroccan mercenary armies utilized firearms to overwhelm Timbuktu’s army, and they stormed the city with English-made cannons and muskets. 

While the Moroccan invasion hastened the demise of the city, Riccardo Pelizzo stated that, “Timbuktu lost power and prestige because its market decayed. However, no single factor can account individually for this event.”  Other reasons for the city’s downfall include the decline of Mediterranean trade throughout the Eastern Hemisphere and internal strife following the fall of the Songhai Empire. These helped to set up the collapse of the once-great beacon of trade and education. 

The Moroccan conquest would give way to occupations by the Oulminden, the Peuhls, and the Tuaregs. The city, captured numerous times during this era, was viewed as a place of sin, impurity, and a haven for anti-Islamic ideology, thanks to the growth, in the rural and poor communities, of so-called “militant jihad” movements, beginning in the 1700s.  The eventual cessation of trade by Portuguese colonists and the decline of Arabic and Islam under the French occupation in the late 19th century furthered Timbuktu’s decline, as the city would never again reach its 16th century heights, when it had 100,000 residents and was a trading hub.  Outside of still-existing structures in modern-day Timbuktu, most of the city’s known history comes from Arabic chronicles, tārīkh, which have preserved the city’s records since the late 16th century.  These Arabic records again showcase Islam’s venerable legacy in the city. However, in comparison to other highly populated or well-traveled centers in Africa or the Middle East, there is limited documentation about Timbuktu.

In the 21st century, Timbuktu is a shell of its former self, with a population of 54,000.  Over the last few decades, historians and preservationists have shown a renewed interest in the city, marked by the placement of several of Timbuktu’s mosques on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1988 and the establishment of the Cultural Mission of Timbuktu in 1993, both meant to conserve the city’s historic area and educate those in the region about its history.  Sankore University has received restoration funds, while international donors have contributed to the preservation of the city’s approximately 70 libraries and the valuable collections held within them.

The bustling universities and vibrant shopping centers of half a millennium ago may no longer be Timbuktu’s beating heart. However, the legacy of the city lives on in the historical records left by scholars and explorers who saw the ancient city in its heyday. They serve as an illustration of Islamic learning and culture in a climate unique to its characteristics.