University of Timbuktu

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The University of Timbuktu is a collective term for the teaching associated with three mosques in the city of Timbuktu in what is now Mali: the masajid (mosques) of Sankore, Djinguereber, and Sidi Yahya.[1] It was not a university in the modern sense, but a loosely organized scholastic community that endured for many centuries during the medieval period.


Timbuktu quickly grew in importance by the start of the 12th century, with a thriving economy based on trading salt, gold, spices and dyes. As the wealth of the city grew, it also became a center of learning, attracting scholars and manuscripts.[2] It acquired a reputation for learning and scholarship across the Muslim world.

According to African scholar Shamil Jeppie in The Meanings of Timbuktu:

...Timbuktu is a repository of history, a living archive which anybody with a concern for African history should be acquainted with. Timbuktu may be hard to get to but it played an essential role as a centre of scholarship under the Songhay state until the invasion from the rulers of Marrakesh in 1591, and even thereafter it was revived.[3]

After Timbuktu was occupied because of the 1591 Battle of Tondibi, the university went into decline.[1] In 1593, Ahmad I al-Mansur cited "disloyalty" as the reason for arresting, and subsequently killing or exiling, many of Timbuktu's scholars, including Ahmad Baba al Massufi.[4]

The university[edit]

The University of Timbuktu was unlike the modern university in that there was no central organization or formal course of study. Instead, there were several independent schools, each having its own principal instructor. Students chose their teachers, and instruction took place in mosque courtyards or private residences. The primary focus was on study of the Quran and Islamic subjects, but more academic subjects were also taught,[1] such as "medicine and surgery, astronomy, mathematics, physics, chemistry, philosophy, language and linguistics, geography, history, as well as art."[5] Teachers associated with the Sankore mosque and the mosque itself were especially respected for learning.[1][2]

It boasted up to 25,000 students out of a total city population of 100,000.[6]

Noted scholars associated with the institution include:[5]

  • Mohammed Bagayogo (1523-1593), associated with the Sankore masajid
  • Ahmad Baba al Massufi (1556-1627), a student of Mohammed Bagayogo and the author of more than 40 books; deported to Morocco in 1594


Of the tens or hundreds of thousands of manuscripts written or copied in Timbuktu, some were taken by the French, the former colonial masters, but many surviving examples had been stored in the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Islamic Studies and Research, Timbuktu's main library, which was completed in 2009.[7] However, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a terrorist group, took control of the city[8] in 2012. They were forced out by French and Malian government troops the next year, but not before setting fire to two buildings housing many of the manuscripts, including the Ahmed Baba Institute.[8] Fortunately, most of the manuscripts had been removed and hidden before the AQIM takeover.[9]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "Wonders: Sankore Mosque". PBS. 
  2. ^ a b Owen Jarus. "Timbuktu: History of Fabled Center of Learning". Live Science. 
  3. ^ Shamil Jeppie & Souleymane Bachir Diagne (eds). The Meanings of Timbuktu. HSRC Pess: Cape Town, 2008
  4. ^ Hunwick, John O. (2003). Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire: Al-Sadi's Tarikh al-Sudan down to 1613 and other contemporary documents. Leiden: Brill. pp. lxii–lxiii. ISBN 90-04-12560-4. 
  5. ^ a b "The University of Sankore, Timbuktu". Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation. 
  6. ^ "Timbuktu". UNESCO. 
  7. ^ "Timbuktu library – a treasure house of centuries of Malian history". The Guardian. 28 January 2013. 
  8. ^ a b "Timbuktu mayor: Mali rebels torched library of historic manuscripts". The Guardian. 28 January 2013. 
  9. ^ Walt, Vivienne (28 January 2013). "Mali: Timbuktu's Ancient Manuscripts Are Safe, Preservationists Say |".