Timbuktu has been in the news lately as a result of growing control by Islamic extremists, whose narrow interpretation of sharia law has led to the destruction of Muslim tombs, innocent people lashed in the streets, and thousands of refugees fleeing their homes.
It’s a good time to remind people of a time when Timbuktu was celebrated as a center of learning and wealth.
Founded in the eleventh century at the point where the Niger River flows northward into the Sahara, Timbuktu was perfectly located to become a trading center between the Islamic states of north and west Africa. Caravans traveled south across the Sahara carrying silks from Persia, steel from Damascus, and, most precious of all, books; the caravans traveled north again laden with gold, ivory, and salt.
Over time, the city attracted not only merchants, but scholars. By the fourteenth century, Timbuktu wasn’t just importing books but creating them. The city was home to a vibrant book copying industry. Commentaries written by the scholars of Timbuktu were read in Cairo and Mecca. Timbuktu was a college town, with three universities and 180 Quranic schools. Students traveled from all over the Islamic world to study there, often making up a quarter of the city’s population.
Timbuktu entered the European imagination in 1324, when the city’s ruler Mansa Musa went on pilgrimage to Mecca. The West African king was a big spender, with an apparently inexhaustible supply of gold. So much that the precious metal’s value dropped in every city he passed through. (Contemporary estimates for how much gold he carried with him ranged from one hundred camels carrying gold to a thousand camels carrying one hundred pounds of gold apiece.) He built a mosque everywhere that he stopped for the Friday prayers. He paid for every service in gold and gave lavish gifts to his hosts. Beggars lined the streets when he passed in the hope of catching gold nuggets that meant they would never have to beg again.
Not surprisingly, Mansa Musa’s princely display of wealth caught the attention of the Venetian and Genoese merchants resident in Alexandria. They quickly sent word home about the king of Mali and his golden capital of Timbuktu. Soon trading firms from Granada, Genoa, Venice and the Flemish markets of the north established posts in North African towns like Marrakech and Fez, hoping to trade European manufactured goods for Saharan gold.
European merchants trading with Timbuktu through North African middleman, but never saw the city itself. In fact, the first European traveler did not arrive in Timbuktu until 1828, several hundred years after its glory days. Timbuktu became short hand in the west for “really, really far away”–a distant place at the edge of civilization.
This post originally appeared in Wonders & Marvels.