When I was growing up, I often heard the phrase, “way out in Timbuktu.” I just assumed it was somewhere a long way away. I asked my older brother one day, “where is Timbuktu?” He said, “Africa”. I guess I didn’t give it much more thought, but it sounded cool. Decades later when I was creating a board game to play with my children the term came to my mind.
The game involves players traveling around the world collecting treasure. In the process of crisscrossing the world’s continents I wanted strange and exotic places to be encountered. These would include tales of fabled lost cities such as Atlantis and Shangri-La. I thought of Timbuktu but had convinced myself that there was no such place. It was a cute phrase that I heard as a child (way out in Timbuktu), but had grown to doubt any such place actually existed.
The word “Timbuktu,” in several languages, including English, does refer to something such as, “a remote destination.” In the past, the word Timbuktu was used more often than it is today. During the 17, 18, and 19th centuries the people of Europe had a fascination with this legendary desert city of wealth. They had heard it was in Africa but did not know exactly where it was, or if it was indeed true or not. It was not officially discovered by Europeans until almost the middle of the 1800’s.
Timbuktu is indeed a city located in the sands of the Sahara desert in the country of Mali, the northwest portion of Africa. There are about 20,000 people living there today. It remains a difficult travel destination. Camel caravans still trek in and out of the city. Founded a millennium ago, by the 13thcentury, the city was a crossroads for trade caravans with salt and gold as important trading commodities traveling from West Africa to Egypt and the Middle East. Because of the gold it was sometimes referred to as the African El Dorado. This allure attracted European explorers who for centuries failed to reach the fabled city and return to tell of their exploits. Many died trying to discover it due to disease or attacks by desert nomads. By the time French explorers actually reached Timbuktu in 1828 they found it was anything but a city of gold. There was not much wealth of any kind. Mostly just mud huts with thatch roofs, much as it is today. Time had passed the fabled city by and the desert sands were slowly reclaiming it.
At its height in the 16th century Timbuktu had been a mecca for literary scholars within the Islamic faith. The population at that time was as much as 60,000. Many libraries with thousands of books existed in the city hundreds of years ago. These ancient writings and texts are the true Treasure of Timbuktu. Near the middle of the 20th century some literary scholars realized thousands of old books and manuscripts had been hidden in old boxes and trunks among the homes of Timbuktu. Many of these ancient documents had been passed from generation to generation buried in the sands as many of the residents consider these family heirlooms not to be sold. As the centuries passed many were indeed lost to the sands of time. Fortunately, almost 30 thousand manuscripts have been found and are being cataloged, stored and preserved at the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu. Some are 800 years old. The writings cover the full gamut of topics including science, astronomy, medicine, Islamic law, and history. Old writings and manuscripts continue to this day to be discovered by the residents of Timbuktu and throughout the desert area of Mali. This has created some renewed historical and archaeological interest in the quiet and remote village of today. Scholars are hopeful many thousands are still to be found but are concerned it may be too late for a number as many that are being found are almost too fragile to study.
Oral history has always been an integral part of the peoples of the desert; however the number of ancient texts that have been found and continue to be unearthed in the desert sands around Timbuktu reveal a rich cultural history that needs to be preserved. These priceless manuscripts are a true treasure to the African people of the Sahara.