A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Fall of Timbuktu to Rebels a Reminder of the City's Onetime Greatness

The name "Timbuktu," to many Westerners,has long been synonymous with remoteness, isolation, a bit of mystery, Those attributes do not so much reflect the city's history as they do a particular Western concept of it, perhaps inspired by the fact that from the Mediterranean one had to cross the great Sahara to reach it, or even just by the somewhat magical sounds of the name itself. At an earlier time, in the Islamic world and the Mediterranean, the name of Timbuktu evoked fabulous wealth, a city rumored to abound in gold. That was never really the case either. But Timbuktu was once both a great entrepot where the Saharan caravan trade met the Niger River Valley, and a center of Islamic learning, the greatest university center south of the Mediterranean coastal cities.

On Sunday, Timbuktu became the latest front in Mali's war, when Tuareg rebels of the MNLA took the city in the wake of the recent coup in Mali. (See my earlier post here.) But soon after, the MNLA's erstwhile allies, the Islamist Ansar Eddine, reportedly pushed the MNLA out. Now there are reports that Al-Qa‘ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has joined Ansar Eddine in Timbuktu. The Moor Next Door tries to make sense of it, with many useful links.

I'm not going to try to sort out the tribal and religious factions in Mali, because despite being a blogger and being based in Washington, I still resist pontificating on things about which I know absolutely nothing at all. Which is the case here.

Djinguereber Mosque
Timbuktu, though, is another matter (though I've never been there). When I originally posted on the Mali coup I noted that, though Mali is not considered part of the Middle East these days, its Saharan regions had long been linked to the trans-Saharan trade, and the late Col. Qadhafi's meddling and Tuareg policies had spilled over into the Sahara and Sahel. But the links go even deeper, for long before Timbuktu became a symbol in European imagery for the remote and mysterious (and before the author of a children's book discovered that it rhymed with "Kalamazoo"), Timbuktu was known throughout the Arab world for its wealth, its gold, and its reputation as a major center of Islamic learning. It was echoes of that reputation which made Europeans want to find the city, and the difficulties of doing so gave birth to the image of one of the most remote places on earth.

But Timbuktu's original fame was not for its remoteness, but for its key location at the intersection of major trade routes across the Sahara. Located only a few miles from the upper Niger, it also provided access to the cultivable lands to the south.

European Image of Mansa Musa
In 1324 AD, the Emperor Mansa Musa of Mali made a famous pilgrimage to Mecca. Musa ("Mansa" is a Mandinka title meaning roughly, Emperor) was enormously rich in gold, and famously gave so much gold away that his hajj actually distorted prices throughout the Mediterranean basin. Musa added Timbuktu to the Mali Empire and proceeded to build its great mosques and its famous Islamic university; the reputation of his wealth soon combined with the reputation of Timbuktu's university and mosques to make its name familiar throughout the Arab world, though it was never Musa's capital. Ibn Battuta visited it and described it (but then, he went just about everywhere.)

By the time the Europeans got there finally, in the 1800s, the glory days had faded, but three of the medieval mosques still stand and the great University of Sankore still survives as the University of Timbuktu.
Azawad (Wikipedia)

The Tuareg rebels may, indeed, be tugging Timbuktu and other cities such as Gao back into a North African orbit rather than a sub-Saharan one, especially if they were to succeed in breaking the northern, desert region they call Azawad off from the rest of Mali.

Though Mauritania, Algeria, and Libya are certainly concerned about the events in Mali and worried about the possible role of AQIM among the Tuareg, so far the issue has been in the hands of the Economic Council of West African States (ECOWAS), which has been pressuring the new junta to restore the elected government. While the junta has delayed a promised return to the constitution, the rebels have taken Gao, Timbuktu and other cities of the north.

For more on Timbuktu's history, see the Timbuktu Foundation website,  and the Timbuktu Wikipedia article. To follow events in Mali see the links in The Moor Next Door's piece linked by me above.

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