Sankore University, Timbuktu

Timbuktu is a word that some may be familiar with. Its not a mythological city neither can it be categorized as fiction. Timbuktu is an actual city that was famous for many things which we will discuss below. It’s definitely amazing that for as many who may think Africans only gained education, wealth and prestige at the time of colonial rule , will be pleasantly surprised I hope to find out that this isn’t the case. Without wasting much of your time , lets dive into the mystery of Timbuktu and the significance it held in its prime.


  1. Timbuktu or ‘Timbuctoo’ as it was initially spelled, is a city in The north of the ancient Mali empire. Timbuktu was founded by a tribe of Tuareg nomads supposedly in the 12th century 1100CE. These nomads settled in this area most likely because of its prime location which was near the Niger river and Sahara desert which made for a potentially flourishing trade route. Timbuktu was a great city of prestige and significance in its day. A city known for its vibrant economy and of a people who sought knowledge.
A map showing the strategic location of Timbuktu.

2 . Trade in Timbuktu flourished immensely because of its prime location. The city rose to become one of the most prosperous cities of its time. Gold and slaves were sold in exchange for salt ,clothes and horses from neighbouring nations who did trade with the city. Timbuktu was the most prosperous city in the Mali empire and its fame was part of what put the Mali empire on the world map at that time. Timbuktu because of its flourishing trade route became a metropolitan city. Attracting Arabs, Sudanese people, Aegean, Moroccans and Algerians.

A painting of Heinrich Bach of ancient Timbuktu.

3. Mansa Musa was the 10th ruler of the Mali kingdom. He ruled from 1312-1337 CE. Mansa Musa was a muslim and is most famously remembered for his pilgrimage to Mecca, which took place in 1324. Historical and Oral accounts have it that Mansa Musa displayed such great wealth, that it put Mali on the map as the most powerful and richest empire in west Africa. Getting inspiration from his trip to Mecca, Mansa Musa got architects from Cairo and Spain to build the grand Djinguereber mosque and his palace. He also oversaw the building of the university of Sankore during his reign. All these were built in the city of Timbuktu. Sankore University had the largest collection of books and written documents in Africa at that time, even surpassing the collection of its predeccesor Alexandria university in Egypt.

4. Timbuktu was an important city that helped spread Islam in Africa. This was spread by the scholars who studied at the Sankore university where many majored in Koranic studies. Many scholars resided in Timbuktu, with numerous books written and copied during that time. Thousands of works were written in Arabic. Today these writings are kept and preserved by the UNESCO world heritage site. Not only was the Koran studied at the center of learning in Timbuktu, but the university also taught its students astrology, history, geography and medicine. The city was also famous for its doctors. Its fame was spread through out Africa, Europe, Asia and the world.

BERLIN, GERMANY – JUNE 18: Restored Islamic Manuscripts on Astronomy of Timbuktu are displayed at the Praesentation of Islamic writings from Timbuktu in the Foreign Office on June 18, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Michael Gottschalk/Photothek via Getty Images)

5. Religion was also a major activity that was part and parcel of the daily lives of the people of Timbuktu. However like most metropolitan cities, indigenous religions were still practised despite Islam being the state religion.

Djinguereber mosque, Timbuktu.

6. Marriage systems in the city at that time was similar to many other African marriage traditions. The man had to pay a bride price with witnesses present. Then the man throws a wedding feast separately for his male friends and the woman throws a feast for herself and her female friends. You could say it looks something like today’s tradition of a stag-do or a bachelorette party. Only difference was that this was the actual marriage ceremony. A man could only have one wife, but he could keep concubines. Adultery was not a grounds for divorce or seen as wrong for either partner. However, abusive language was considered a grounds for divorce. Interesting!! I cant say for certain if this law still applies today in modern day Mali and in the way they conduct their marriage.

7. Decline of the Mali empire started in the 15th century. The empire faced decline when routes of trade opened in the west coast of Africa. Another major reason for its decline was the incessant attacks on the city by other rural kingdoms and rebel Tuareg warriors. Timbuktu was occupied by the Moroccans for a period of time, then was taken over by the Fulanis, before finally being occupied by the french.

Its been a real treat learning and writing about Timbuktu. To know that as Africans our narrative is not limited to the single story of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. We have a rich heritage; scholars , doctors , deep thinkers are not only a thing for the ancient Greeks but in Africa as well. Timbuktu still stands today in Mali and is a hub of tourism for those who are curious enough to explore this ancient city.

I hope you learned something of value from this article and a new sense of African pride has been restored or re-enforced if at all it was ever lost. More articles coming your way, till next time guys!!


Anirudh (2018). Mansa Musa | 10 Facts About The Richest Man In History | Learnodo Newtonic. [online] Learnodo-newtonic.com. Available at: https://learnodo-newtonic.com/mansa-musa-facts

This is africa. (2017). Mali: The Importance of Timbuktu to African heritage | This is africa. [online] Available at: https://thisisafrica.me/arts-and-culture/mali-importance-timbuktu-african-heritage

Timbuktu | History, Map, Population, & Facts | Britannica. (2019). In: Encyclopædia Britannica. [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Timbuktu-

Google Books. (2019). An Account of Timbuctoo and Housa. [online] Available at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?

Cartwright, M. (2019). Timbuktu. [online] Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available at: https://www.ancient.eu/Timbuktu/.

Timbuktuheritage.org. (2019). Timbuktuheritage.org – History of Timbuktu – A Multicultural African Legacy. [online] Available at: http://www.timbuktuheritage.org/timhistory.html.

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