Camels, Canoes and Timbuktu

exploring the history of a fabled city

by Geoffrey Clarfield (January 2012)

…is the rumour of Timbuctoo
A dream as frail as those of ancient Time?
Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1829

In 1829 when Alfred Lord Tennyson was writing his poem on Timbuctoo as a student at Cambridge University, educated Europeans knew almost nothing about the history of sub-Saharan Africa, and even less about Timbuktu.

Surprisingly enough, a few short decades after Tennyson wrote his poem, European powers were engaged in what historians now call the “scramble for Africa.” By 1900 almost the entire continent was ruled by European powers, the largest territories being held by the French and the English with the French occupying Timbuktu in 1893. Only the Ethiopians managed to maintain their independence and only partially, as the Italians were soon to conquer and occupy Eritrea on the Red Sea.

Nevertheless, it is clear that Timbuktu has maintained its hold on the Western imagination for centuries. Part of the reason for this is that for just under a thousand years since its founding in the eleventh century, the city was the major trading entrepot between the pagan and the Islamicising kingdoms of West Africa and the wider Islamic world of North Africa and the Middle East.

As West Africans and their royal rulers converted to Islam during the early and later Middle Ages, they came into contact with what one historian of the Middle East has called the Islamic oikumene, a “common market,” a shared social, cultural, religious, economic and political world linked by a common faith, that included the cities of Cairo and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, where people traveled, traded and migrated freely.

In the early second millennium, Timbuktu soon became the farthest and most developed Westerly trading and scholarly outpost of literate Islamic civilization, linked to the rest of the world through the camel caravans of the Saharan trade routes and for that alone, it would have been remembered for all time, regardless of its local political ups and downs.

When Muslims conquered Hindu India, only then did they begin to study the traditions and history of their conquered subjects. Likewise, only after the modern European conquest of sub Saharan Africa have Western academics treated African history as a legitimate field of study. It is only in the last fifty years, with the rise of independent African states, that these countries modernized elites have shown a concerted interest in the details of their own social history. For the really keen, most of this history can be found in dry as dust tomes, such as the multi volume Unesco History of Africa. It is therefore no surprise that these kinds of books do not make it to the New York Times best seller lists. But do not fear; help is on the way!

Marq De Villiers and Sheila Hirtle have finally provided English speaking people with a readable English language social history of Timbuktu (Timbuktu-The Sahara's Fabled City of Gold). They have not only mastered most of the secondary sources about Timbuktu in both French and English, but they have traveled and lived there. Their book takes the form of a travelogue. Like good hypnotists they often take you into their power by starting a chapter with a sensual description of contemporary Timbuktu, it peoples and environment and from there bring you back in time, ending each chapter with a reminder of where they were sitting, sleeping, eating drinking or conversing when the chapter began.

Here is a taste of how they describe the owner of one of the most cherished private libraries in Timbuktu, one that houses thousands of ancient manuscripts:

Abdul Kader Haidara’s Timbuktu home sprawls off an unnamed sandy alley –they’re all sandy in Timbuktu, and none of them are named-in the southeast quadrant of the city. We pulled up outside its walled courtyard late one winter afternoon; children were playing in the sand…Sidi Haidara spoke fluent and effortless French, among many other languages…our host was a renowned expert on Timbuktu’s literary heritage…and was himself the head of the family that owned…one of the largest extant collections of ancient manuscripts left in the Saharan Sahel…Could we see it? …he fished a bunch of keys from his robe and opened the door…Inside a small room thus revealed, from floor to roof were tottering piles of ancient manuscripts, some in loose bundles, some in battered tin trunks or leather portfolios, others simply piled higgledy-piggeldy  on the dusty floor…I carefully lifted one from the pile…

Later they explain to the reader that there are probably more than a million ancient historical manuscripts spread across Islamic West Africa that if properly copied, transcribed and translated, would provide hundreds of social historians with decades of work in bringing to light the complex and varied social history of this part of the world.

It is no accident then that Timbuktu is located in the desert, just a few kilometers away from the exact point where the Niger River flows north into the southern desert edge. It is the natural point of confluence between the desert and the Sahel and a meeting point for the major ethnic groups that have inhabited the region – Tuareg, Fulani, Arabs, Songhai, Wangara and others. It is the place where the camel meets the canoe.

For centuries Timbuktu was also the home of resident Jewish traders whose trading networks went as far north as Morocco. As the dynasties who rose and fell dominated Timbuktu, so did their degree of orthodoxy and tolerance ebb and flow. We read of rulers who banished Jews and who at the same time enforced the hijab (face veil) on local Muslim women and then, we read of rulers who brought back the Jews and allowed women to go unveiled, in a curious foreshadowing of the kinds of social tensions that pervade contemporary Islamic societies.

Despite these short periods of intolerance and despite changing regimes, it seems that the residents of Timbuktu practiced and continue to practice a tolerant version of Islam that respects the equality of women.

From the earliest days, travelers had remarked on the freewheeling way of Timbuktu’s women,… traits they shared with Tuareg and Berbers everywhere. The photographer Angela Fisher had once remarked on, “the strange wild beauty of the Tuareg women, unveiled and free, with their often startling blue eyes and fair skin burnished to old ivory by the Saharan sun”, and their bold ways. Travelers as far back as Ibn Battuta were fascinated…by their extraordinary freedom. Of all the many things Battuta reported about the people of Mali and its cities, including Timbuktu, none had riveted him more than their famously relaxed view of human relations…  

Since the gradual conversion of Timbuktu and its surrounding inhabitants to Islam, the city and its environs have participated in a series of kingdoms each defining a particular historical era. De Villiers and Hurtle do more than an adequate job narrating the rise and fall of the dynasties that have made Timbuktu a centre of civilization or a backwater, and they are able to give a coherent account of the rise and fall of monarchs with all their peccadilloes, strengths and weaknesses.

These are not just “lists of kings.” In a fair amount of detail they outline the ebb and flow of Timbuktu’s history from its first conquest or incorporation by the pagan empire of Ghana, through Muslim rulers such as Mansa Musa and the later Songhai, punctuated by periods of Tuareg rule until the conquest by the Moroccans in 1591, and the area’s general decline until its conquest by the French in the 1890’s. 

But perhaps the most fascinating part of the book is where the authors explain the underlying economic pattern of the region that made Timbuktu such an important place for so many centuries. They give us a clue to this underlying social and economic pattern of the region when they quote their Tuareg guide who tells them, “Reality is salt, slaves, gold, camels, and caravans.”

It is a curious ecological fact that the Saharan regions surrounding Timbuktu are rich in salt. For hundreds of years the people in and around Timbuktu have bartered this salt with ethnic groups to the south whose diet is lacking in salt but, who have farmed the Sahel and West African forests for centuries and who in turn have provided the people on the edge of the desert with the food that they have needed and the gold that comes from the lands south of Timbuktu. Much of this food and gold has been traded up the Niger River and much of the salt has been traded down the river. For long periods of time a measure of gold was the local trading equivalent of an equal measure of salt. 

At the same time the people who have lived beyond the desert to the north, on the plains of North Africa have had a thirst for gold, as the basic currency on which their economy ran until colonial times and which does not occur in abundance in the north (we retain this historical token in the word for an English gold coin, the Guinea, which betrays its origins on the West African coast).

It was the sale of gold that helped build the cultures of the Sahel… It was gold that financed the Mansas of Mali…It was gold that was the engine of Timbuktu’s expansion…It is worth repeating: two thirds of the world’s gold supply in the late Middle Ages came from West African mines…by the time of the askias, the gold business had been systematized…the counting houses of the great families knew to the gram what came from which field…and how much profit it could bring.

The people in and around Timbuktu provided gold and slaves to the northerners and no doubt much of their own labour was done by slaves. The caravans brought gold and slaves to the north, traders, luxury goods and scholars to the south.

To put it simply if a ruler maintained a hold on an expansive area that included the city of Timbuktu and its environs, and held it against all comers, he would trade in gold, slaves and salt and end up with a surplus of cash, as he and his merchant elite knew the value of gold as a trading commodity. Thus a well run kingdom could have the necessary food, slave labour and cash surplus to expand, wage war, reward soldiers, trade, invite scholars to come from other parts of the Islamic world, buy manuscripts, build libraries, palaces and mosques and support learning. This is the underlying pattern which drove one ethnic group to oust another until crazed by West African gold, and understanding its source, the Moroccans invaded in the late 16th century only to withdraw some years later.

There is a scholarly consensus that the indigenous glory of Timbuktu ended with its conquest by the Sultans of Morocco, who came down from their royal city of Marrakech and with their later withdrawal, somehow sapped the energy and ambition of local rulers until their final subjection by the French at the turn of the nineteenth century. This is period that saw periods of unending interethnic strife, plagues, earthquakes and holy wars.

What De Villiers and Hurtle fail to mention is that by the late 1500s, the Spanish were injecting more gold and silver from the New World into the European economy, thus reducing the importance of the trade in gold from West to North Africa and into the Mediterranean. Soon after the British, French and Portuguese established themselves on the Atlantic coast of West Africa to begin the infamous Atlantic slave trade, where African slaves were now brought to the coast for transport to the Americas instead of the northerly route that had once been monopolized in Timbuktu.

A new age had dawned, and with it an economy that would one day give sufficient strength to countries such as France, that faced both the new world and the Mediterranean and who would in turn conquer Morocco, the Sahara and its trade routes, pacify the Tuareg and occupy most of West Africa including Timbuktu.

In the mid nineteen seventies I lived in the city of Marrakech and from time to time I would walk along the old medieval walls of the city, pondering what one writer has called “the golden trade of the Moors” and the caravans and kings who set out from this city to conquer the lands of the Sudan, the source of the slaves and precious metals that came through Timbuktu that the Moroccan Sultans so badly coveted. Having read this book, I now better understand the once hidden origins of their passion for gold.

For me De Villiers and Hurtle’s book has finally answered the question that Tennyson posed. The rumour of Timbuktu is not a dream as frail as ancient time. It is a city rich in history and tradition and one that once was rich in gold and fabulous palaces that no longer exist. Its story is now available to the general reader through the efforts of travelers and writers such as these. This is the kind of book that makes me want to walk the streets of that fabled city.


Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.

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