Moomtaz Emrith  Windsor, ON,  Canada)

When I was in High School in the early 1950’s, learning about History and Geography among others, I remember Africa, as a continent, being referred to as “the dark continent”. Little did I know then why it was so called? All I understood was that Africa, unlike Europe, was uncivilized and wild. Yet it would not take me long to realize that not all of Africa was that ‘Dark’ after all!  The blatant statement was grossly exaggerated. There was Egypt, which was in Africa and which boasted a civilization that went back thousands of years in time. Also, there were the countries in the northern part of the continent, notably: Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria — not to mention many of the coastal regions in the east of the continent that were well developed and flourished as little realms, or states on their own.

It is a known fact that the advent of Islam in seventh century in Arabia, would give a boost to the study of the sciences and a new impetus to trade and commerce led by the Arabs, who were mostly adherents of the new religion of Islam and who, in the process, impacted positively on the advance of civilization itself. From Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, where Islam began, the new religion would soon spread far and wide in the Middle East and other parts of Africa where one city in West Africa called TIMBUKTU, emerged by 15th century as a prime Centre for Islamic learning and culture and as a thriving trading post – a reputation it would hold for over a couple of centuries (1400-1600 A.D.).

Timbuktu has three of the oldest mosques in Africa, built with mud, straw and wood in the 14th century. They are all designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1988.

It is also a known fact that the Arab mariners and traders opened new avenues and routes for business and trade and, as fervent proselytizers of their new faith, they were also enthusiastic promoters, through examples and practice, of the religion of Islam and culture among the peoples of the Middle and the Far  East — regions that were then scarcely known to the Europeans.  The City of TIMBUKTU, now part of the Republic of Mali in Africa, became, in medieval times, a prime Centre of Islamic learning  where students from the then known Islamic world came to get educated in the Islamic religion and culture. Thus, Timbuktu became in the 15th century, a renowned intellectual venue and also a prosperous place, located as it was, in the cross-centre of the Saharan caravan route. However, in the ensuing years, with the advent of new marine routes and competition from the European countries for the lucrative spice trade in the East, the caravan route would slowly fall into decline and so would the fame and glamour of Timbuktu. Its location at the northern tip of the Niger River near the Sahara Desert became risky and perilous because of the mighty Sahara and frequent raids by marauders and thieves. Timbuktu would gradually fall into hard times and become practically a shadow of its once reputable image. Even to-day, it is an impoverished city being encroached by the Sahara Desert and getting covered with sand dunes. So much so, the name Timbuktu would gradually come to assume an aura of mysticism, shrouded in mystery, a fantasy land located far, far somewhere in the farthest corner of the world… in the imagination of people! Indeed, Timbuktu would become a metaphorical connotation in the English language meaning just that.

Yet, as the world knew, Timbuktu was no mystical place nor was it a legendary creation of the human mind despite all the mystery the very name Timbuktu generated in one’s imagination. It was a very real city in West Africa with a glorious history of its own.

The City was actually founded by the Tuareg nomads in the 12th century and, given its then strategic location – a meeting point at the River Niger and the Sahara Desert, it soon evolved both as a flourishing trading post and also as “an intellectual and spiritual Centre for the propagation of Islam throughout Africa.” Thus, it became an important exchange hub for the trading of goods coming from the Mediterranean coasts and central Sahara, particularly salt, gold, ivory and even slaves. Trade was done only in gold. Understandably, the prosperity and fame of Timbuktu grew and scholars and students converged to Timbuktu from all over the Islamic world and Africa, notably from Cairo, Persia, Baghdad, among other places.

Timbuktu thus boasted at the time one of the oldest universities in Africa – the University of Timbuktu — established in the twelfth century by its famous ruler Mansa Musa. It comprised three units, namely: the Djinquereber Mosque, the Sidi Yahya Mosque and the Sankore Mosque, which were all built in 14th century. The architecture of the mosques was kind of unique. They were all constructed entirely with mud, straw and wood. They all have literally survived and are still standing and each is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and, as such, are protected as historical monuments.

However, the University of Timbuktu was not like any modern university. It did not have a formal central organization. Instead it had several independent madrassas (schools) and teaching usually took place in the mosque’s courtyard. The main focus was always on the study of the Holy Qur’an and Islam-related subjects although other academic subjects like: chemistry, physics, languages and linguistics, geography, philosophy history and art were also taught. The teachers at the madrassas were ever held in high esteem and respect for their knowledge and learning.


The University of Timbuktu, at one time had some 25,000 students out of total population of 100,000 in the City. The University also housed tens of thousands of manuscripts on Islam, written or copied and published in Timbuktu or in other parts of the advanced Muslim world and sent to Timbuktu to be used by scholars and students.  However, after the conquest of the country by the French in 1894, many of the Manuscripts were taken to Paris where they are stored at the Librairie de France.

Timbuktu came under Moroccan rule in 1591 and then taken over by the French who would remain there until 1960, when France would give Mali its independence and Timbuktu became formally a part of the Malian Republic.

Timbuktu, the once flourishing city, has lost much of its lustre.  It is an impoverished place and has been in steady decline for generations and, to-day, it is but a shadow of its hey days as a cultural city. Its population has been dwindling and desertification has only been making matters worse. The Sahara Desert has been steadily encroaching on what was once one of the most famous centres for Islamic learning teeming with scholars and students.  Among others, Timbuktu, given its location at the edge of the huge Sahara Desert, was unable to meet the challenges of modern trade routes and technology that came in the wake of the Age of Enlightenment and the Renaissance in Europe. The odds would prove too much for the desert nomads and the caravan routes across the mighty Sahara were becoming more and more risky and perilous.

Little wonder then that the City of Timbuktu gradually sank into oblivion and came to assume a kind of mystical aura and became shrouded into mystery and mysticism and eventually assumed a metaphorical connotation in the English language referring to some land far, far away … that existed only in the human imagination. Yet reality was otherwise. Timbuktu was — and is — a real place and once formed an integral chapter in the glorious history of Islam. Ibn-Battuta (1304-1369), the Arab-Marco Polo, visited the fabled city and talked glowingly of “its wealth and gold” in his famous Book of Travels – the “Rihla”.