Home of the prestigious Koranic Sankore University and other madrasas, Timbuktu was an intellectual and spiritual capital and a centre for the propagation of Islam throughout Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries. Its three great mosques, Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia, recall Timbuktu's golden age. Although continuously restored, these monuments are today under threat from desertification.
Located at the gateway to the Sahara desert, within the confines of the fertile zone of the Sudan and in an exceptionally propitious site near to the river, Timbuktu is one of the cities of Africa whose name is the most heavily charged with history.
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.
The Djingareyber Mosque, the initial construction of which dates back to Sultan Kankan Moussa, returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca, was rebuilt and enlarged between 1570 and 1583 by the Imam Al Aqib, the Qadi of Timbuktu, who added all the southern part and the wall surrounding the cemetery located to the west. The central minaret dominates the city and is one of the most visible landmarks of the urban landscape of Timbuktu.
Built in the 14th century, the Sankore Mosque was, like the Djingareyber Mosque, restored by the Imam Al Aqib between 1578 and 1582. He had the sanctuary demolished and rebuilt according to the dimensions of the Kaaba of the Mecca.
The Sidi Yahia Mosque, to the south of the Sankore Mosque, was built around 1400 by the marabout Sheik El Moktar Hamalla in anticipation of a holy man who appeared forty years later in the person of Cherif Sidi Yahia, who was then chosen as Imam. The mosque was restored in 1577-1578 by the Imam Al Aqib.
The three big Mosques of Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia, sixteen mausoleums and holy public places, still bear witness to this prestigious past. The mosques are exceptional examples of earthen architecture and of traditional maintenance techniques, which continue to the present time.
The three mosques and the sixteen mausoleums comprising the property are a cliché of the former great city of Timbuktu that, in the 16th century, numbered 100,000 inhabitants. The vestiges of urban fabric are essential for their context. However, as indicated at the time of inscription of the property, rampant urbanization which is rife in Timbuktu, as in Djenne, is particularly threatening to the architecture, and the large public squares and markets. Contemporary structures have made irretrievable breaches in the original parcelling and obviously exceed the scale of the traditional buildings. This process is ongoing and most recently a new very large institute was built on one of the public squares, compromising the integrity of the Sankore Mosque. Urban development pressures, associated with the lack of maintenance and flooding, resulting from the heavy rains, threaten the coherence and integrity of the urban fabric and its relation to the property.
The three mosques are stable but the mausoleums require maintenance, as they are fragile and vulnerable in the face of irreversible changes in the climate and urban fabric.
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The three mosques retain their value in architectural terms, traditional construction techniques associated to present-day maintenance, and their use. However, the Sankore Mosque has lost a part of the public square that was associated with it following the construction of the new Ahmed Baba Centre. Following this construction, the status of the mosque in the urban context and part of its signification have been compromised and require review and reconsideration.
Overall, because of the threat from the fundamental changes to the traditional architecture and the vestiges of the old city, the mosques and mausoleums risk losing their capacity to dominate their environment and to stand as witnesses to the once prestigious past of Timbuktu.
The site of Timbuktu has three fundamental management tools: a Revitalization and Safeguarding Plan of the Old Town (2005), and a Strategic Sanitary Plan (2005), that are being implemented despite certain difficulties; and a Conservation and Management Plan (2006-2010) is being implemented and which shall be reassessed shortly.
The management system of the property is globally appropriate as its legal protection is jointly assured by the community of Timbuktu through management committees of the mosques, the cultural Mission of Timbuktu and the Management and Conservation Committee of the Old Town of Timbuktu. This mechanism is strengthened by two practical functioning modalities, initiated in consultation with the World Heritage Centre: the Town Planning Regulation and the Conservation Manual. The specific long-term objectives are the extension of the buffer zone by approximately 500 m to assure the protection of the inscribed property ; the development of the historic square of Sankore to integrate corrective measures proposed by the Committee at its 33rd session and by the reactive monitoring mission of March 2010 ; the extension of the inscribed property to include the entire Timbuktu Medina ; the development of an integrated conservation and sustainable and harmonious management project for the site, in the wider framework of development of the urban commune and in close cooperation with the elected members of the Territorial Communities of Timbuktu and the development partners ; the active conservation of the mausoleums.
This West African city—long synonymous with the uttermost end of the Earth—was added to the World Heritage List in 1988, many centuries after its apex.
Timbuktu was a center of Islamic scholarship under several African empires, home to a 25,000-student university and other madrasahs that served as wellsprings for the spread of Islam throughout Africa from the 13th to 16th centuries. Sacred Muslim texts, in bound editions, were carried great distances to Timbuktu for the use of eminent scholars from Cairo, Baghdad, Persia, and elsewhere who were in residence at the city. The great teachings of Islam, from astronomy and mathematics to medicine and law, were collected and produced here in several hundred thousand manuscripts. Many of them remain, though in precarious condition, to form a priceless written record of African history.
Now a shadow of its former glory, Timbuktu strikes most travelers as humble and perhaps a bit run down.
But the city’s former status as an Islamic oasis is echoed in its three great mud-and-timber mosques: Djingareyber, Sankore, and Sidi Yahia, which recall Timbuktu's golden age. These 14th- and 15th-century places of worship were also the homes of Islamic scholars known as the Ambassadors of Peace.
Most of Timbuktu’s priceless manuscripts are in private hands, where they’ve been hidden for long years, and some have vanished into the black market in a trade that threatens to take with it part of Timbuktu’s soul. There is hope that libraries and cultural centers can be established to preserve the precious collection and become a source of tourist revenue. Some fledgling efforts toward this end are now under way.
Religion wasn’t the city’s only industry. Timbuktu sits near the Niger River, where North African’s savannas disappear into the sands of the Sahara, and part of its romantic image is that of a camel caravan trade route. This characterization had roots in reality and in fact continues to the present in much reduced form. Salt from the desert had great value and, along with other caravan goods, enriched the city in its heyday. It was these profitable caravans, in fact, that first brought scholars to congregate at the site.
In the 16th century Moroccan invaders began to drive scholars out, and trade routes slowly shifted to the coasts. The city’s importance and prestige waned and scholars drifted elsewhere. French colonization at the close of the 19th century dealt another serious blow to the former glories of Timbuktu.
Things in Timbuktu deteriorated to the point that, though recognized as a World Heritage site only a few years before, it was placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 1990. But with major improvements to the preservation of the three ancient mosques Timbuktu earned its way off that list in 2005.
Timbuktu struggles to draw tourist revenue and develop tourism in a way that preserves the past—new construction near the mosques has prompted the World Heritage Committee to keep the site under close surveillance. Perched as it is on the edge of the Sahara, relentless encroachment of the desert sands is also a threat to Timbuktu.
Sankore mosque city in the western African country of Mali, historically important as a trading post on the trans-Saharan caravan route and as a centre of Islamic culture (c. 1400–1600). It is located on the southern edge of the Sahara, about 8 miles (13 km) north of the Niger River. The city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988. In 2012, in response to armed conflict in the region, Timbuktu was added to the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger.
Timbuktu was founded about 1100 ce as a seasonal camp by Tuareg nomads. There are several stories concerning the derivation of the city’s name. According to one tradition, Timbuktu was named for an old woman left to oversee the camp while the Tuareg roamed the Sahara. Her name (variously given as Tomboutou, Timbuktu, or Buctoo) meant “mother with a large navel,” possibly describing an umbilical hernia or other such physical malady. Timbuktu’s location at the meeting point of desert and water made it an ideal trading centre. In the late 13th or early 14th century it was incorporated into the Mali empire.
Timbuktu, Mali: Great Mosque By the 14th century it was a flourishing centre for the trans-Saharan gold and salt trade, and it grew as a centre of Islamic culture. Three of western Africa’s oldest mosques—Djinguereber (Djingareyber), Sankore, and Sidi Yahia—were built there during the 14th and early 15th centuries. After an extravagant pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, the Mali emperor Mansa M?s? built the Great Mosque (Djinguereber) and a royal residence, the Madugu (the former has since been rebuilt many times, and of the latter no trace remains). The Granada architect Ab? Is??q al-S??ili was then commissioned to design the Sankore mosque, around which Sankore University was established. The mosque still stands today, probably because of al-S??ili’s directive to incorporate a wooden framework into the mud walls of the building, thus facilitating annual repairs after the rainy season. The Tuareg regained control of the city in 1433, but they ruled from the desert. Although the Tuareg exacted sizable tributes and plundered periodically, trade and learning continued to flourish in Timbuktu. By 1450 its population increased to about 100,000. The city’s scholars, many of whom had studied in Mecca or in Egypt, numbered some 25,000.
In 1468 the city was conquered by the Songhai ruler Sonni ?Al?. He was generally ill disposed toward the city’s Muslim scholars, but his successor—the first ruler of the new Askia dynasty, Mu?ammad I Askia of Songhai (reigned 1493–1528)—used the scholarly elite as legal and moral counselors. During the Askia period (1493–1591) Timbuktu was at the height of its commercial and intellectual development. Merchants from Ghud?mis (Ghadamis; now in Libya), Augila (now Awjidah, Libya), and numerous other cities of North Africa gathered there to buy gold and slaves in exchange for the Saharan salt of Taghaza and for North African cloth and horses.
After it was captured by Morocco in 1591, the city declined. Its scholars were ordered arrested in 1593 on suspicion of disaffection; some were killed during a resulting struggle, while others were exiled to Morocco. Perhaps worse still, the small Moroccan garrisons placed in command of the city offered inadequate protection, and Timbuktu was repeatedly attacked and conquered by the Bambara, Fulani, and Tuareg.
Timbuktu, Mali: market European explorers reached Timbuktu in the early 19th century. The ill-fated Scottish explorer Gordon Laing was the first to arrive (1826), followed by the French explorer René-Auguste Caillié in 1828. Caillié, who had studied Islam and learned Arabic, reached Timbuktu disguised as an Arab. After two weeks he departed, becoming the first explorer to return to Europe with firsthand knowledge of the city (rumours of Timbuktu’s wealth had reached Europe centuries before, owing to tales of M?s?’s 11th-century caravan to Mecca). In 1853 the German geographer Heinrich Barth reached the city during a five-year trek across Africa. He, too, survived the journey, later publishing a chronicle of his travels.
Timbuktu was captured by the French in 1894. They partly restored the city from the desolate condition in which they found it, but no connecting railway or hard-surfaced road was built. In 1960 it became part of the newly independent Republic of Mali.
Timbuktu is now an administrative centre of Mali. In the late 1990s, restoration efforts were undertaken to preserve the city’s three great mosques, which were threatened by sand encroachment and by general decay. An even greater threat came in 2012 when Tuareg rebels, backed by Islamic militants, took control of the northern part of the country. The Tuaregs claimed the territory, which included Timbuktu, as the independent state of Azawad. However, the Tuareg rebels were soon supplanted by the Islamic militants, who then imposed their strict version of Shar??ah (Islamic law) on the inhabitants. The Islamic militants—in particular, one group known as Ansar Dine—deemed many of Timbuktu’s historic religious monuments and artifacts to be idolatrous, and, to that end, they damaged or destroyed many of them, including tombs of Islamic saints housed at the Djinguereber and Sidi Yahia mosques. Work to repair the damage began after the militants were routed from the town in early 2013. Pop. (2009) 54,453.