Ink road across Africa
Translated by Sara Plaza
If I ask you to think about ‘African libraries’, most of you will probably create a picture in your mind of modern units from different nations of the great continent. However, if I ask you to think about ‘African libraries a long time ago’, when a great part of those territories were still a mystery for Europeans that will only ‘discover’ them a long time afterwards... what would you think of?
(If this was an auditory, this would be the moment when everybody is silent and thoroughly checks their hands, the person’s before them back of the neck, broken floor tiles...).
On many occasions we have been sold an image of this part of the world as ‘tribal Africa’, ‘black continent’, ‘tam-tam and oral tradition land’, ‘artistic works as a means of transmitting wisdom’... Hollywood classics, travel books written by the XIX century explorers and the huge popular imagery slowly created will probably make us think of an Africa consisting of exotic dances and even more exotic songs, and of peoples without writing, without books and, of course, without libraries...
Maybe some of you will be surprised when I tell you that one of the greatest knowledge centers of that continent –one as important as other contemporary units- was placed on the fringe of the Sahara desert, at one of those crossroads where the main trading roads met.
It was –and is still- called Timbuktu. In this post I will try to tell you a small part of its history and the history of its books.
Timbuktu (or Tombuctu according to the French spelling) is situated in the present State of Mali, Western Africa. It was founded ten centuries ago by Tuareg o Targui people, those famous ‘desert blue men’, nomads of Berber origins that moved on their camels from place to place across this huge country without owner that was the Sahara Desert (did you know that ‘Sahara’ means precisely ‘desert’ in Arabic?). These peoples –that, curiously, had already developed a millenarian system of writing- established the original settlement, but initially it was populated by merchants from the neighboring city-state of Djenne, putting up a lot of markets and commercial headquarters. Timbuktu became a prosperous city very soon, for it was the place where trans-Saharan caravans met and cross each other. These caravans exchanged goods between the Islamic North (salt) and the southern area of Niger (gold, slaves, fruit, ivory), and Timbuktu was a rest area for camels and their owners. In the XI century there were many traders of Fulani, Mandé and Tuareg ethnic groups settled there. All of them were Muslims. The city belonged to several different empires: Ghana, Mali from 1324, Songhay from 1468... And it was under Songhay rule when Timbuktu became ‘the crown jewel’ and reached its entire splendor.
(It is unbelievable how many and how different city-states, empires and confederations emerged and disappeared in Africa before European history touched those peoples. Many times we are ready to believe that there was no history or anything worth to mention up to arrival of explorer such as Livingstone, Stanley, Burton... However, as I stated at the beginning, they are only part of our popular imagery).
In 1591, the city was captured by a band of Moroccan adventurers taking orders from a Spanish renegade named ‘Pasha Joder’. ‘Pasha’ was an honorific titled and the other word (a common Spanish swearword, actually) was the expression this so foul-mouthed guy used most.
This marked the beginning of the end of Timbuktu grandeur. In 1893 it fell in the hands of French colonial power –despite Tuareg strong resistance- and in 1960 achieved its independence together with the entire French Sudan (present Mali). In the 1990s, the city was attacked by Tuareg people pursuing the creation of their own State. The so-called ‘Tuareg Rebellion’ did not last long and ended in the burning of their weapons in 1996.
Nowadays, Timbuktu is an impoverished city. However, it was a mystery to Europeans for centuries, especially because being a Muslim center, anyone not professing Islam was forbidden from entering the city. At that time many legends were told about its wealth –many of them based on real facts- and a lot of men and western organizations set out to ‘discover’ Timbuktu and its fabulous treasures. In 1788, a group of Englishmen formed the ‘African Association’ in order to find the city and place it on the map. In 1824, the Geography Society of Paris offered a 10.000 francs prize to the first non-Muslim that got into the city and came back with relevant information. The Scot Gordon Laing arrived in 1826 but was assassinated. The French René Caillié, disguised himself as a Muslim, was there in 1828 and came back to tell everybody about it and win the prize - and the honor of having being the first European in entering the legendary city. Only three other Europeans were able to imitate his heroic deed before 1890.
It is one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites from 1988, and its mosques made of adobe and mud gives Timbuktu –and many other places in the region- the aureole of mystery that still hangs over the city. It is said that the silhouettes of these buildings were a source of inspiration for the Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí. Regretfully, the city is turning into desert and has been declared in danger from 1990. Timbuktu is so enigmatic that a survey carried out in 2006 among Britain youth revealed that the 34% did not believe that the city was real and the 66% regarded it as ‘a mythical place’
Throughout the XV century a number of Islamic institutions were created in Timbuktu. The Sankore mosque is one of the most famous, also known as ‘Sankore University’ for the madrassa or Islamic school housed inside. It was built in 1581 and became the center of the Islamic academic community of that region though other surviving mosques –such as Djinguereber and Sidi Yahya- are even older. An Islamic madrassa does not look like a medieval university (comparing educational institutions in the same period). The madrassa consisted of a group of independent schools, each of them managed by a teacher or imam. Students joined a certain professor and classes took place in open places in the yards of the mosque or at private residences. Classes were mainly focused on the study of the Koran, but subjects such as Logic, Astronomy, History, Music, Botanic, Religion, Commerce and Mathematics were also important taught. Academicians wrote their own books as part of a socio-economic model based on scholarship. Benefits got from books sale were second in order of importance behind gold and salt trade. There were more than 100.000 books in the city, most of them written in Arabic or Pulaar (the language spoken by Fulani people), and their contents included the subjects studied at the madrassa. Between the XVI and XVIII centuries, the amount of books and the standard of knowledge reached such a high level that it was wisely expressed in the following saying: ‘Salt comes from the north; gold comes from the south, but God’s word and wisdom treasures come from Timbuktu’.
It is believed that there were more than 120 libraries in the city as part of the African ‘ink road’, which connected northern Africa with the east of the continent -under Arab traders’ control also- following the caravans’ roads. In recent times, libraries were reduced to 60-80 private institutions devoted to the conservation of priceless manuscripts. At present, Mamma Haidara, Kati, Al-Wangari and Mohammed Tahar libraries are good examples. The library that belongs to Kati’s family encompasses 3.000 documents from Andalusia, the oldest dated between the XIV and XV centuries. Nowadays, there are more than one million original documents kept in Mali and it is believed that 20 million more might be found in other parts of Africa, especially in the neighboring region of Sokoto, Nigeria. Many of them are kept as a family treasure and nobody will reveal their existence...
There are several joint international projects aimed at recovering this heritage in every way possible. In August, 2002, the Ink Road International Symposium was celebrated in Bamako (the capital of Mali). In 2006, joint efforts between Mali and South Africa governments made it possible to initiate a research on this matter. The UNESCO has set in motion the Timbuktu Manuscript Project and there is a foundation committed to preserving historical documents in the city itself.
Although there are no book artisans left, memories of their trade still remain that remind us of a flourishing business a long time ago...
The history we are usually told –not only about books- seems to be focused on Europe and very few times pays due attention to other geographical and cultural spaces. The Western Africa rough draft made in these lines might also be written about pre-Hispanic Central America, about its beautiful codices and its paper industry of amatl fig tree. How much have we been taught about it? How much have we learnt about it? How much do we know about it?
Far from pretending to ‘give voice to those without it’ –Sara will talk about this issue next week-, maybe we can try to ‘refresh memories’: memories of worlds that also had skillful bookbinders, fantastic illustrators and expert researchers, such as the ones from Timbuktu.