From Here to Timbuktu

A Spanish image of Mansa Musa

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.


India’s First Emperor

Okay, I'm a little slow.  India's Independence Day was yesterday.  Still, I think a bit of South Asian history is in order as a belated celebration:

Cyrus the Great built the Persian empire on those of the Medes and the Babylonians.  Alexander the Great began his empire by taking over Persia.  Chandragupta Maurya created the first pan-Indian empire from a patchwork of small states in northern India and Afghanistan.  At its height, the Mauryan empire included most of modern Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan--an area larger than any other Indian ruler would command.

Chandragupta's rise to power began with Alexander the Great's abortive invasion of India in 326 BCE.*  Sometime between 324 and 313 BCE, when he was no more than twenty-five years old,  Chandragupta took advantage of the political confusion caused by Alexander's withdrawal to seize Magadha, the largest and most influential kingdom in northern India.  With Magadha under his control, Chandragupta drove Alexander's remaining garrisons out of India and into Afghanistan.  One of Alexander's generals, Seleucus Nicator, invaded India again in 305 BCE.  Within two years, Chandragupta had forced him to retreat. In the resulting peace treaty, Seleucus ceded parts of what is now Afghanistan to Chandragupta in exchange for five hundred war elephants and a marriage alliance with the Mauryas.

According to legend, Chandragupta abdicated in favor of his son Bindasura in 301 BCE and retired to a Jain monastery, where he fasted to death.  Bindasura ruled for thirty-two years and expanded the empire by conquering large portions of the Deccan, but he is best known for a letter he wrote to Antiochus, the Seleucid king of Syria.  He asked the Syrian ruler to sent him figs, wine, and a sophist.  Antiochus sent the figs and wine, but told him that philosophers were not available for export.

The Mauryan empire reached its height under Chandragupta's grandson, Ashoka.  But that's a story for another day.

* The short version:  Once in India, Alexander's troops mutinied and demanded to back to familiar territory.  Alexander reluctantly led his army back to his new capital at Babylon, leaving behind garrisons to rule the conquered Indian provinces.  He later claimed that the only military defeat he ever suffered was at the hands of his own men.

The Rise of the Skyscraper

Reliance Building, Chicago
Reliance Building. 1895. Photo courtesy of Cornell University Library

I was fascinated by architectural history long before I moved to Chicago.  As a child I amused myself by keeping a running count of Doric vs Ionic capitals on the pillars on front porches throughout town.  (So many ways to be a dork.  So little time.)

When I came Chicago for graduate school, I found myself in architecture geek heaven.  Think Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and, above all, the birth of the skyscraper.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Chicago was a boom town with an expansion problem. The city's growing business district was hemmed in by Lake Michigan, the Chicago River, and the tangle of railroads leading in and out which had fueled the city's boom.  There was nowhere to go but up.

For centuries, the height of buildings was limited by the ability of the walls to support not only their own weight, but those of the floors above them. The taller the building, the thicker the walls had to be support it. Some of Chicago's earliest tall buildings, like Burnham and Root's sixteen-story Monadnock Building (1893), still used masonry load-bearing walls and needed dramatically thickened bases to support the weight of more floors.

The first true skyscrapers left such limitations behind, thanks to two new technologies.  The development of skeleton framing and curtain walls, in which a metal frame supports a strong thin outer wall, ended the structural limitations on building heights.  Elisha Otis's invention of the first safe elevator made higher buildings practical as well as possible.

Chicago's Home Insurance building, constructed in 1884-85, was the first building to use a steel skeleton.  Others soon followed.  Rapidly adopted by other cities,  the skyscraper defined twentieth century America as surely as the cathedral defined medieval Europe.

Just another way to reach toward the heavens.