Timbuktu is believed to have been founded early in the 12th Century AD. Its name gives us insight into its origins. Tim, in the language of the Tuareg people, means well. Buktu is a female name. Hence, Timbuktu means the place of Buktu’s well. The city is named after the woman who discovered water there. Located far enough from the Niger River to significantly reduce the danger of malaria and other mosquito-borne pestilences, the city gradually became a center of trade and learning as it stood at the crossroads of the trans-Saharan and West African trade routes, particularly those centered around salt and gold; and at the center of the domains of the many African peoples who had accepted Islam. Those people, Tuareg, Mandinka, Bambara, Songhai, Fulani, Hausa,and others peacefully coexisted —along with Arabs and Berbers, who migrated to the city from the Hijaz, Egypt, and Morocco— within the city and all added to the rich legacy of the mystical and mythical place.
Consistent with the ascent of many other Islamic centers of learning, as the city’s wealth increased so to did its renown as a center of learning and scholarship. At the height of its fame, the city’s Sankore University would host to over 25,000 students. These students would not only be the beneficiaries of book learning, but also of an elaborate mentorship program, that placed each student under the personal care and tutelage of and established scholar. This system led to the production of scholars that attained a level unknown in other places. When Abd al-Rahman al-Tamimi, an accomplished scholar from the Hijaz visited the city in the 15th Century, he realized that he was unqualified to join the city’s scholarly community. He thus devoted himself to several years of study before migrating permanently to the city. Unfortunately, as the economic significance of the city declined, so to did its intellectual stature. However, the wealth of manuscripts found in the city to this very day gives a silent testimony to the vibrant intellectual life that was once found in there.
We arrived in the city of between Magrib and Isha (the time of the Evening and Night Prayers). After settling into our rooms at the Hendrina Khan Hotel, a simple but clean establishment named in honor of the wife of the Pakistani scientist Abdul Quadeer Khan, who had visited Timbuktu on several occasions. We converged in the cafeteria for another delicious Malian meal. We made plans to pray Fajr at the Grand Mosque of Timbuktu, the next morning. As we had generally been running late when we tried to meet to go visit a particular site, we agreed that the cars would leave at 5:00am and that anyone not present in the lobby at that time would be left behind.
As agreed upon, we departed promptly at 5:00am. The brief ride to the mosque gave little insight into the architecture of the city, as the darkness of the retreating night was still strong enough to hide any buildings that were not in the immediate vicinity of the dim street lights. We suddenly found ourselves before the Grand Mosque. Not as imposing as the mosque at Djenne, it still inspired awe as we entered and walked between the adobe pillars that had stood as we were witnessing them for centuries. Most of the mosque was engulfed in an elaborate network of wooden scaffolds, as it was being renovated and restored to it former glory by a massive project being financed by the Agha Khan Foundation —a fact we would learn later that morning in a meeting with the Imam of the mosque, who is also head of the Council of Islamic Scholars in Timbuktu.
I asked myself why none of the Muslim governments of the oil-rich Middle East had not come forward to undertake such a worthy project? I remember how as a student in Washington DC in the mid-1980s the Government of Kuwait had donated ten million dollars to help rebuild the Wolf Trap Farm amphitheater after that center had been destroyed by fire. Apparently, facilitating the ability of Americans to enjoy a good concert during a sweltering summer’s night in the Washington DC area is more important than working to preserve the cultural and religious heritage of this Ummah. This neglect of Africa on the part of the wealthy Muslim governments is similarly visible in the efforts to preserve and digitize the city’s massive collection of decaying manuscripts. The most significant efforts in that regard have been undertaken by Northwest University, under the leadership of the late Professor John Huntwick, and the government of South Africa after the former president of that country, Thabo Mbeki visited the city and realized that those manuscripts constitute an invaluable part of the history and heritage of Africa, nay, of humanity, and he vowed to build a center dedicated to their preservation. That center is nearly finished. However, much more has to be done if the full richness of that heritage is to be preserved. As we visited some of the manuscript libraries later that day, we saw first hand the damage that the elements, and voracious worms and other insects had done to many of the volumes. It is ironic that none of the Arab governments has done anything significant for the city, except cart a portion of the manuscripts off to their own libraries, when most of that literary heritage has been recorded in the Arabic language. Allah’s help is sought.
After Fajr, we met the Imam of the Mosque and talked informally with him. A kind man, whose countenance radiates both dignity and serenity, he shared a few words with us about the history of the city and the mosque. However, we would learn much more in a scheduled visit with him later that morning. As we made our way back to the hotel, the dawning morning light revealed more of the city. Humble adobe dwellings were interspersed with the tents of desert people who had settled in the city after the expanding desert had swallowed the pastures that had once supported their life as nomadic cattlemen. Sand was everywhere. Even many of the streets were paved with a thick layer of sand that challenged lighter weight cars that lacked four-wheel drive. Although it was clear that this was no longer a city whose exterior form would qualify it for world-renown, it still contains a secret in its spirit, and a handful of buildings that spoke of its past glory.