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)

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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.