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Timbuktu and the travellers

Timbuktu‘s long-lasting contribution to Islamic and world civilization is scholarship. By the fourteenth century, important books were written and copied in Timbuktu, establishing the city as the centre of a significant written tradition in Africa.

Timbuktu grew to great wealth because of its key role in trans-Saharan trade in gold, ivory, slaves, salt and other goods by the Tuareg, Mandé and Fulani merchants, transferring goods from caravans coming from the Islamic north to boats on the Niger.

Tales of Timbuktu’s fabulous wealth helped prompt European exploration of the west coast of Africa.

Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Abdullah Al Lawati Al Tanji Ibn Battuta (born February 24, 1304; year of death uncertain, possibly 1368 or 1377) was a Moroccan Berber scholar and jurisprudent from the Maliki Madzhab, and at times a Qadi or judge. However, he is best known as a traveller and explorer, whose account documents his travels and excursions over a period of almost thirty years, covering some 117,000 km. These journeys covered almost the entirety of the known Islamic world and beyond, extending from North Africa, West Africa, Southern Europe and Eastern Europe in the West, to the Middle East, Indian subcontinent, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and China in the East.

Timbuktu and the travellers

House of Ibn Battuta when he was in Timbuktu

In the fall of 1351, Ibn Battuta set out from Fez, reaching the last Moroccan town Sijilmasa more than a week later. When the winter caravans began a few months later, he joined one, together with two of his cousins, ibn Ziri and ibn ‘Adi.

After a month, he arrived at the Central Saharan town of Taghaza, actually a dry salt lake bed. A long and difficult journey lay ahead, requiring special advance guides or takshif with local experience to arrange a passage, without the takshif, the entire caravan usually disappeared without a trace.  After another 900 harrowing kilometres through the worst part of the desert, Ibn Battuta finally arrived at Iwalatan (Walata) in Mali.  Then he traveled southwest along a river he believed to be the Nile but it was actually the Niger River until he reached the capital of the Mali Empire. There he met Mansa Suleyman, the king since 1341. Dubious about the miserly hospitality of the king, he nevertheless stayed for eight months before journeying back up the Niger to Timbuktu. Partway through his journey back across the desert, he received a message from the Sultan of Morocco commanding him to return home.

Timbuktu and the travellers

Plaque commensurate visit of Ibn Battuta to Timbuktu in 1353

After the publication of the Rihla, little is known about Ibn Battuta’s life. He may have been appointed a qadi in Morocco. Ibn Battuta died in Morocco some time between 1368 and 1377 from the same disease that claimed his mother’s life, the Black Death. For centuries his book was obscure, even within the Muslim world, but in the 1800s, it was rediscovered and translated into several European languages. Since then, Ibn Battuta has grown in fame and is now a well-known figure in the Middle East, not only for being an extensive traveller and author, but also for aiding in the conversion of the people along the trade routes that he took

Major Alexander Gordon Laing (27 December 1793–26 September 1826) was a Scottish explorer and the first European to reach Timbuktu.Captain Laing was instructed by secretaries of the colonies to undertake a journey, via Tripoli and Timbuktu, to further elucidate the hydrography of the Niger basin. Laing left England in February 1825, and at Tripoli on the 16th of July, he started to cross the Sahara, being accompanied by a sheikh who was subsequently accused of planning his murder. Ghadames was reached, by an indirect route, in October 1825, and in December Laing was in the Tuat territory, where he was well received by the Touareg.

Timbuktu and the travellers

Alexander Gordon Laing’s house in Timbuktu in the year 1826

On 10 January 1826, he left Tuat and made for Timbuktu across the desert of Tanezroft. Letters from him written in May and July following told of sufferings from fever and the plundering of his caravan by Tuareg, Laing being wounded in twenty-four places in the fighting. Another letter dated from Timbuktu on 21 September announced his arrival in that city on the preceding 18 August, and the insecurity of his position owing to the hostility of the Fula chieftain Bello, then ruling the city. He added that he intended leaving Timbuktu in three days time.From native information it was ascertained that he left Timbuktu on the day he had planned and was murdered on the night of 26 September 1826. His papers were never recovered, though it is believed that they were secretly brought to Tripoli in 1828.

Timbuktu and the travellers

Boubacar SADECK, the art writer now occupy Gordon Laing’s house for his activity copying and transfering of 16th century manuscripts

While in England in 1824 Laing prepared a narrative of his earlier journeys, which was published in 1825 and entitled Travels in the Timannee, Kooranko and Soolima Countries, in Western Africa.

Timbuktu and the travellers

Gallery of Boubacar Sadeck’s works

In 1903 the French government placed a tablet bearing the name of the explorer and the date of his visit on the house occupied by him during his thirty-eight days stay in Timbuktu.

René Caillié (19 September 1799 – 17 May 1838) was a French explorer, and the first European to return alive from the town of Timbuktu.

Timbuktu and the travellers

House of René Caillié in Timbuktu 1828

The Paris based Société de Géographie was offering a 10,000 franc reward to the first European to see and return alive from Timbuktu, believed to be a rich and wondrous city.

Timbuktu and the travellers

Another view the René Caillié’s house

He spent eight months with the Brakna Moors living north of the Senegal River, learning Arabic and being taught, as a convert, the laws and customs of Islam. Caillié spent years learning Arabic, studying the customs and Islamic religion before setting off with a companion, and later on his own, traveling and living as the natives did.He laid his project of reaching Timbuktu before the governor of Senegal, but receiving no encouragement then he went to Sierra Leone where the British authorities made him superintendent of an indigo plantation. Having saved £80 he joined a Mandingo caravan going inland. He was dressed as a Muslim, and gave out that he was an Arab from Egypt who had been carried off by the French to Senegal and was desirous of regaining his own country.

Timbuktu and the travellers

Street of Rene Caillie 

Resuming his journey in January 1828 he went north-east and reached the city of Djenné, whence he continued his journey to Timbuktu by water. After spending a fortnight (20 April – 4 May) in Timbuktu he joined a caravan crossing the Sahara to Morocco, reaching Fez on the 12 August. From Tangier he returned to France

Heinrich Barth (16 February 1821 – 25 November 1865) was a German explorer and scholar of Africa.Barth entered Timbuktu in September 1853. His success as an explorer and historian of Africa was based both on his patient character and his scholarly education.Barth was different from the explorers of the colonial age, because he was interested in the history and culture of the Africans peoples, rather than the possibilities to exploit them. He meticulously documented his observations and his own journal has becomes as much as an invaluable source for the circumstances of the 19th century Sudanic Africa. Although Barth was not the first European visitor who paid attention to the local oral traditions, he was the first who seriously considered its methodology and usability for historical research. Barth was the first truly scholarly traveler in West Africa.

Timbuktu and the travellers

House of Henrich Barth in Timbuktu 1853

Barth could read Arabic known as Abdul Karim, and was able to investigate history of some regions, particularly the Songhay empire. He also seems to have learned some African languages. He established close relations with a number of African scholars and rulers, from Muhammad al-Amin al-Kanemi in Bornu, through the Katsina and Sokoto regions to Timbuktu, where his friendship with Ahmad al-Bakkay al-Kunti led to his staying in his house and being protection from an attempt to seize him.

Timbuktu and the travellers

Another photograph of Henrich Barth’s house

Robert Adams, an African-American sailor, claimed to have visited the city in 1811 as a slave after his ship wrecked off the African coast. He later gave an account to the British consul in Tangier, Morocco in 1813. He published his account in an 1816 book, The Narrative of Robert Adams, a Barbary Captive (still in print as of 2006), but doubts remain about his account.  Other Europeans reached Timbuktu were the German Oskar Lenz with the Spanish Cristobal Benítez in 1880 and the American D.W. Berky the leader of the first American Trans-Sahara expedition Biskra to Timbuktu from October 29, 1912 to May 12, 1913.

Timbuktu and the travellers

D.W. Berky, the American Traveller’s house when he was in Timbuktu 1913 

About 60 British merchant seamen were held prisoner there during the Second World War, and during May 1942 two of them, William Soutter and John Graham of the British SS Allende died there and are buried in the European cemetery.

Timbuktu and the travellers

Another view of Berky’s house



3 responses to “Timbuktu and the travellers

  1. Pingback: MyNetFaves : Web 2.0 Social Bookmarking

  2. mamadou August 19, 2008 at 8:20 am

    Alaikumsalam Mat Salo

    I have not able to trace whether our root exists in West Africa but the number of our comrade in there too little compared to those from China and India and some traces of those from Thailand and Vietnam too.

    Thanks for your comment. I will try to make it bigger.

  3. Mat Salo August 18, 2008 at 8:58 pm

    Assalamualaikum Mamadou..

    Pertama mau ucapkan Selamat HUT RI kepada Bpk.. Pak, you were not around any Indonesian embassy or consulate in Africa yesterday? Yes, I know the feeling…

    Anyway, I was interested when you mentioned ‘pinasse’. It sounds a lot like ‘pinisi’ schooner that was made famous by the Bugis. I’m curious, Pak. In South Africa you can find pockets of ‘Malay/Indo’ civilization.. but what about West Africa? Is there any evidence of our culture there?

    Thanks for sharing the Ibn Batutta story, Pak. And your travelogue, as usual is descriptive and well-written. If you don’t mind, Pak. Please make the photos a bit bigger if you can? – Not this post, but on the previous ones…

    Gimana, Pak. Nyambut Idul Fitri nanti Bapak pulang kah?

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