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Midday Matinee – Rethinking Timbuktu

January 30, 2013

Midday Matinee

Midday Matinee – Rethinking Timbuktu

Timbuktu is in the news. When I was a kid it was used as a symbol of a remote far, far away place. Now I learn that it had libraries with African manuscripts dating back to 1204. Who knew. (More)

Midday Matinee is our people watching, people doing and people being feature. Join the Woodland Creatures for an afternoon break.

Timbuktu, Mali was just recaptured by the French who rousted the Malian rebels.

Islamist insurgents retreating from Timbuktu set fire to a library containing thousands of priceless historic manuscripts, according to the Saharan town’s mayor, in an incident he described as a “devastating blow” to world heritage. …

“The manuscripts gave you such a fantastic feeling of the history of this continent. They made you proud to be African. Especially in a context where you’re told that Africa has no history because of colonialism and all that. Some are in private hands but the fact is these have been destroyed and it’s an absolute tragedy.”

It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012.

Founded in the 5th century, the economic and cultural apogee of Timbuktu came about during the15th and 16th centuries. It was an important centre for the diffusion of Islamic culture with the University of Sankore, with 180 Koranic schools and 25,000 students. It was also a crossroads and an important market place where the trading of manuscripts was negotiated, and salt from Teghaza in the north, gold was sold, and cattle and grain from the south.

I admit to not even thinking that Timbuktu was a real place when I was a kid. Literature certainly reinforced my notions. This quote from the play Oliver comes to mind.

When the title character (Oliver) sings to Bet, “I’d do anything for you, dear”, one of her responses is “Go to Timbuktu?” “And back again”, Oliver responds.

Ali Farka Touré inverted the stereotype: “For some people, when you say ‘Timbuktu’ it is like the end of the world, but that is not true. I am from Timbuktu, and I can tell you that we are right at the heart of the world.”

I have been rethinking Timbuktu. It has gone from being a really fun word to say and a mysterious place to becoming a symbol of my ignorance and the limits of my western education and worldview. It gives lie to the notion that Africa is/was a place of ignorant savages with no civilization or learning. In the 11th century Africans were writing their own history. They weren’t just storytellers with a proud oral tradition they were writers. They had schools, madrassas, lots of them. Timbuktu was a trading center on the edge of the Saharan desert on the Niger River. It was and is a real place.

Now that I know more about Timbuktu I am wondering what else in my ‘education’ deserves to be questioned. I am also wondering if there isn’t some way besides a city making the news because of war that might cause me to rethink what I thought I knew.

  • NCrissieB

    Thank you for this fascinating article, addisnana. I saw a documentary on Timbuktu that highlighted the history of this once world-famous market city. At the junction of several trans-Saharan and sub-Sarahan caravan routes, pretty much anything and anyone that moved in northern Africa passed through Timbuktu.

    Attempting to destroy that heritage is … revolting.

    • addisnana

      I wish there was a way for wars and warriors to avoid destroying cultural heritage on their way out of town. The Iraq museum, the buddhas in Afghanistan and the libraries in Timbuktu would all have been worth preserving in my mind.

      I am still fond of saying Timbuktu. What a great name for a city that once once in the middle of most of the trade and travel that happened in Africa.

  • Jim W

    PBS News Hour included a segment on Timbuktu.

    Famous quote. “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”

    • addisnana

      Ambrose Bierce and of course, Mark Twain and credited with this quote.

  • winterbanyan

    This was fascinating, addisnana. I knew something about Timbuktu, but clearly not enough. I had no idea that it had such a library.

    Eurocentricity has deprived us of a lot of important knowledge. When I was in school and studied so-called “world history” it was all about European history with a smidge about China and some about the Americas…mostly North America. You get the feeling the rest of the world has been slumbering for thousands of years.

    • addisnana

      Travel is much better for learning about the history and cultures of those places that were short changed in our education. It also requires money and free time….resources not everyone has. There’s always, as Jim and Crissie pointed out PBS and documentaries.

      • Jim W

        You can add “al jazeera” for current events.