The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu

Mali_Timbuktu from a terrace by Heinrich Barth 1858
View of Timbuktu in 1858 by explorer Heinrich Barth 

As you all know Timbuktu was a great center of knowledge in search for  for many centuries starting at least in the 12th century. It was visited by people from around the world, in search of knowledge.

Timbuktu was one of the world’s first and oldest thriving universities! Students came from all over the world to study at Timbuktu. Imagine that, students from the middle east, and Europe coming to study in Africa! There are over 700,000 manuscripts at the great Sankore University in Timbuktu, and many more at other libraries including the  Ahmed Baba Institute, Al-Wangari Library, and others.

Enjoy this documentary about the lost libraries of Timbuktu commented by the Scottish/Sierra Leonean writer Aminatta Forna. Enjoy, and discover with me the treasures of Africa.

Why the name: Bamako?

Map of Mali with its capital Bamako
Map of Mali with its capital Bamako

What does Bamako have in common with London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, or Madrid? Of course it is the capital of a country, Mali, like all those other cities. However, the real similarity, is that it is located on the banks of a major river (like all those cities): the third largest river on the African continent, the Niger River, also known as Joliba (or the river of blood), near the rapids that divide the upper and middle Niger valleys in the southwestern part of the country. The city first grew on the north banks of the river, and later spread to the south banks as well.

Flag of Mali
Flag of Mali

The name Bamako comes from the Bambara word Bàmakɔ̌ meaning “river of crocodile“. It was founded at the end of the 16th century by the Niaré people, also called Niakaté, who are Sarakolés. The crocodile being the fetish of Bamako, in the olden days, a virgin girl was offered to it every year… however this tradition was abandoned a long time ago. A hunter from Lambidou (Kayes region) by the name of Simballa Niakaté chose the city’s site. However, it was his eldest son Diamoussa Niakaté who founded the city Bamako. The 3 crocodiles which symbolize Bamako found their origin in the 3 creeks that crossed Bamako: Lido, Diafarana, and Bèlèsôkô. The creeks come together in the city to flow into the Niger river. Just as the city’s symbol is 3 crocodiles, and so 3 creeks/rivers, it also comprises 3 major bridges which link both banks of the Niger River.

Mali Empire (Wikipedia)
Mali Empire (Wikipedia)

The area of the city has been continuously inhabited since the Palaeolithic era for more than 150,000 years. The fertile lands of the Niger River Valley provided the people with an abundant food supply and early kingdoms in the area grew wealthy as they established trade routes linking across West Africa, the Sahara, and leading to northern Africa and Europe. The early inhabitants traded gold, ivory, kola nuts, and salt. By the 11th century, the Empire of Ghana (this will be the subject of a post soon) became the first kingdom to dominate the area. Bamako had become a major market town, and a pathway to Timbuktu the center of knowledge via the Niger river. Later, the Mali Empire grew during the early Middle Ages and replaced the Empire of Ghana as the dominant kingdom in West Africa, dominating Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, and Mauritania. In the 14th century, the Mali Empire became increasingly wealthy because of the trade of cotton and salt. It was eventually succeeded by the Songhai Empire.

The Pink Market (Le Marche Rose) in Bamako ca 1900s
The Pink Market (Le Marche Rose) in Bamako ca 1900s

By the late 19th century, the French dominated much of western Africa, and in 1883, present-day Mali became part of the colony of French Sudan, and was its capital in 1908. Cotton and rice farming was encouraged through large irrigation projects and a new railroad connected Bamako to Dakar on the Atlantic coast. Mali was annexed then into French West Africa, a federation which lasted from 1895 to 1959. Bamako remained the capital of Mali after independence in 1960.

Bamako on the banks of the Niger River (Wikipedia)
Bamako, on the banks of the Niger River (Wikipedia)

Bamako is known as the crossroads of West Africa, since it is located 1000 km from Dakar (Senegal) and Abidjan(Côte d’Ivoire), 850 km from Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), and 120 km from the border with Guinea. With a population of 1.8 million, Bamako is viewed today as the fastest growing city in Africa and sixth-fastest in the world. It is a buoyant city full of life. Enjoy a visit to the “river of crocodiles,” the crossroad of West Africa, and don’t forget to bathe in the centuries’ old history of great West African kingdoms in Mali, and its rich traditions.

Kankan Musa: The Richest Man in World History

Kankan Musa (Source: Atlas Catalan, 1375)
Kankan Musa (Source: Atlas Catalan, 1375)

Today, I would like to talk about the richest man planet earth has ever seen… yes, you heard me right, the richest man whose fortune was estimated to be over 400 billion dollars, or 310 billion euros. Did you guess who that was ? If you thought Bill Gates, I am sorry to disappoint you. It is the great Emperor of Mali, Kankan Musa, also written Kankan Moussa, or Mansa Musa, or Mansa Moussa, or Kankou Moussa.

Kankan Musa was the tenth Mansa, King of Kings, or Emperor of the great Empire of Mali from 1312 to 1337. At the time of Musa’s accession to the throne, the Empire of Mali consisted of territories which had belonged to the Empire of Ghana and Melle, and surrounding areas.

Emperor Kankan Musa
Emperor Kankan Musa

His name, Kankan Musa or Kanga Musa meant « Musa, son of Kankou Hamidou », in reference to his mother (In those days, the Mandinka people were a matriarcal society). Kankan Musa is often referred to, in literature, as Mali-koy Kankan Musa, Gonga Musa, and Lion of Mali. He had lots of titles, including Emir of Melle, Lord of the Mines of Wangara, Conqueror of Ghanata, Fouta Djallon (also written Futa Jallon), and at least a dozen other areas.

Empire of Mali (Wikipedia)
Empire of Mali (Wikipedia)

He took the Empire of Mali to its peak, from the Fouta Djallon to Agadez (in northern Niger), including the ancient Ghana, and Songhai Empires. He established diplomatic relationships with Portugal, Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt. His reign corresponds to the golden era of the Malian Empire.

Assemblée constitutive de l'empire du Mandé (Source:
Assemblée constitutive de l’empire du Mandé (Source:

Kankan Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca made him popular in North Africa, and in the Middle East. Musa made his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, with a procession of 60,000 men, 12,000 servants who each carried four pounds of gold bars, heralds dressed in silks who bore gold staffs, organized horses and handled bags. Also in the train, were 80 camels, which carried between 50 and 300 pounds of gold dust each (Gold was the currency in Mali). He gave away gold to the poor along his route. Musa not only gave gold to the cities he passed on his way to Mecca, including Cairo and Medina, but he also traded gold for souvenirs. Moreover, he would also build a new mosque every Friday in any city he so happened to pass by. Musa’s journey was documented by several eyewitnesses along his route, who were in awe of his wealth and extensive procession, and records exist in a variety of sources, including journals, oral accounts and histories. Musa’s visit with the Mamluk sultan Al-Nasir Muhammad of Egypt in July 1324 is well-recorded.

Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu
Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu

Musa’s generosity, however, inadvertently devastated the economy of the region. In the cities of Cairo, Medina and Mecca, the sudden influx of gold devalued the metal for the next decade. Prices on goods and wares greatly inflated. To rectify the gold market, Musa borrowed all the gold he could carry from money-lenders in Cairo, at high interest. This is the only time recorded in history that one man directly controlled the price of gold in the Mediterranean. Imagine a single man controlling the economy of not only one country, but of an entire region!

Sankore University in Timbuktu
Sankore University in Timbuktu

Mansa Musa was a great builder. He had several mosques and madrasas built in Timbuktu and Gao. The most important of its constructions is the University of Sankore. In Niani, his capital, he built an Audience Hall, a building communicating directly with the royal palace through an interior door.  It was “an admirable Monument” surmounted by a dome, adorned with arabesques of striking colours. The windows of the upper floor were plated with wood and framed with silver, while those of a lower floor were plated with wood, framed in gold. This palace no longer exists. Like the Great Mosque, the Hall was built in cut stone. The Italian art and architecture scholar Sergio Domian said: “At the height of its power, Mali had at least 400 cities, and the interior of the Niger Delta was very densely populated.” Can you imagine that? In this day and age, how many countries in this world can boast 400 densely populated cities? Yet, the Mali of Kankan Musa claimed it all.

Manuscripts a Tombouctou (Mali) montrant de l'astronomie et mathematique
Manuscripts a Tombouctou (Mali) montrant de l’astronomie et mathematique

At the end of his life, in 1332 or 1337, the Empire of Mali limits were from the Atlantic Ocean to the Eastern shores of the Niger River, and to the forests of Taghaza in the middle of the Sahara. Kankan Musa was not only a rich man who gave to all, built mosques, and great places of worship, he was also a just conqueror, and a great builder. He took the Empire Mali to its peak, and made it the talk of places as far as the Middle East and Europe. Many Europeans and Middle Easterns would send delegations of architects, merchants, writers, astronomers, mathematicians and teachers, to study in his great university at Timbuktu. So next time someone asks you who was the richest man on planet earth, remember to tell them that before Bill Gates, there was Kankan Musa!

La Charte du Mandé: Première déclaration de droits de l’Homme au Monde?

L'Empire du Mali a son apogee (1230 - 1545)
L’Empire du Mali à son apogée (1230 – 1545)

J’ai été admirablement surprise de lire la charte du Manden (Mandé), qui semble être la première déclaration des droits de l’homme au monde.  Elle fut prononcée lors de l’intronisation de Soundiata Keïta comme empereur du Mali en 1222.  Imaginez-vous ma joie: première declaration des droits de l’homme au monde, érigée en Afrique? en 1222? plusieurs siècles (7 siècles) avant la fameuse déclaration des droits de l’homme de l’ONU? Waou…! Et après on vous dira qu’il n’ya jamais rien eu en Afrique. Lisez, et rejouissez-vous, car au Mali, du temps de l’empereur Soundiata Keïta, il y avait le concept du droit de l’homme et l’amour de l’être humain.


La Charte du Manden (Mandé)

Soundiata Keita a l'Assemblée constitutive de l'empire du Mandé avec les chefs de guerre (Source:
Soundiata Keïta a l’Assemblée constitutive de l’empire du Mandé avec les chefs de guerre (Source:

1. Les chasseurs déclarent :

Toute vie (humaine) est une vie.

Il est vrai qu’une vie apparaît à l’existence avant une autre vie,

Mais une vie n’est pas plus “ancienne“, plus respectable qu’une autre vie,

De même qu’une vie n’est pas supérieure à une autre vie.

2. Les chasseurs déclarent :

Toute vie étant une vie,

Tout tort causé à une vie exige réparation.

Par conséquent,

Que nul ne s’en prenne gratuitement à son voisin,

Que nul ne cause du tort à son prochain,

Que nul ne martyrise son semblable.

Assemblée constitutive de l'empire du Mandé (Source: Wikipedia)
Assemblée constitutive de l’empire du Mandé (Source: Wikipedia)

3. Les chasseurs déclarent :

Que chacun veille sur son prochain,

Que chacun vénère ses géniteurs,

Que chacun éduque comme il se doit ses enfants,

Que chacun “entretienne”, pourvoie aux besoins des membres de sa famille.

4. Les chasseurs déclarent :

Que chacun veille sur le pays de ses pères.

Par pays ou patrie, faso,

Il faut entendre aussi et surtout les hommes ;

Car “tout pays, toute terre qui verrait les hommes disparaître de sa surface

Deviendrait aussitôt nostalgique.”

Assemblée constitutive de l'empire du Mandé (Source:
Assemblée constitutive de l’empire du Mandé (Source:

5. Les chasseurs déclarent :

La faim n’est pas une bonne chose,

L’esclavage n’est pas non plus une bonne chose ;

Il n’y a pas pire calamité que ces choses-là,

Dans ce bas monde.

Tant que nous détiendrons le carquois et l’arc,

La faim ne tuera plus personne au Manden,

Si d’aventure la famine venait à sévir ;

La guerre ne détruira plus jamais de village

Pour y prélever des esclaves ;

C’est dire que nul ne placera désormais le mors dans la bouche de son semblable

Pour allez le vendre ;

Personne ne sera non plus battu,

A fortiori mis à mort,

Parce qu’il est fils d’esclave.

le Manding, berceau de l'empire du Mali (photo: Olivier Epron)
le Manding, berceau de l’empire du Mali (photo: Olivier Epron)

6. Les chasseurs déclarent :

L’essence de l’esclavage est éteinte ce jour,

“D’un mur à l’autre”, d’une frontière à l’autre du Manden ;

La razzia est bannie à compter de ce jour au Manden ;

Les tourments nés de ces horreurs sont finis à partir de ce jour au Manden.

Quelle épreuve que le tourment !

Surtout lorsque l’opprimé ne dispose d’aucun recours.

L’esclave ne jouit d’aucune considération,

Nulle part dans le monde.

Manuscripts a Tombouctou (Mali) montrant de l'astronomie et mathematique
Manuscripts à Tombouctou (Mali) montrant de l’astronomie et mathématique

7. Les gens d’autrefois nous disent :

“L’homme en tant qu’individu

Fait d’os et de chair,

De moelle et de nerfs,

De peau recouverte de poils et de cheveux,

Se nourrit d’aliments et de boissons ;

Mais son “âme”, son esprit vit de trois choses :

Voir qui il a envie de voir,

Dire ce qu’il a envie de dire

Et faire ce qu’il a envie de faire ;

Si une seule de ces choses venait à manquer à l’âme humaine,

Elle en souffrirait

Et s’étiolerait sûrement.”

La grande mosquee de Djenne (Mali - heritage du grand empire du Mali)
La grande mosquée de Djenné (Mali – héritage du grand empire du Mali)

En conséquence, les chasseurs déclarent :

Chacun dispose désormais de sa personne,

Chacun est libre de ses actes,

Chacun dispose désormais des fruits de son travail.

Tel est le serment du Manden

A l’adresse des oreilles du monde tout entier.

Youssouf Tata Cissé

Texte réécrit par Youssouf Tata Cissé dans “Soundjata, la Gloire du Mali”, éd. Karthala, ARSAN, 1991