The legacy of Timbuktu, Africa’s oldest university

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WE began the study of old universities by looking at African universities built in the colonial era.
In the first two parts of this column, we tracked the development of education and how such universities became centres of nationalist consciousness and resistance.
Two outstanding universities to emerge out of Africa were Makerere University and Fort Hare University. In Uganda, Makerere University was one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Africa from 1916 to 1959.
In South Africa, Fort Hare was the oldest university responsible for providing a high standard of education to students from across sub Saharan Africa.
These universities created an oasis of awareness of power and resistance for the Africans.
Although Uganda and South Africa stand apart as having produced the centres of learning during Africa’s long period of colonisation, these institutions came centuries after Timbuktu, the world’s first university dominated the world for producing outstanding scholars.
Long before the European Renaissance, Timbuktu in Mali ranked high alongside great empires in Ghana and Songhai.
The University of Timbuktu in Mali was situated in a city that was already thriving in the 12th century.
The city of Timbuktu had the most universities in any nation. It was proof of the talents, creativity and ingenuity of the African people.
Timbuktu mystified European explorers for centuries. In 1824, the Paris-based Société de Géographie offered a 10 000-franc prize for the first European to find the town of Timbuktu.
The ancient mosques, tombs and monuments of the university in Timbuktu comprised the Masajid of Djinguereber, the Masajid of Sidi Yahya, and the Masajid of Sankore.
In Islamic tradition, Timbuktu played a significant role in spreading Islam in West Africa starting in the 1329.
At its peak, long before Europeans built universities, the university at Timbuktu had an average attendance of around 25 000 students within a city of around 100 000 people.
Within the university curriculum there were various degrees of learning called primary, secondary and superior as well as what they called the Circle of Knowledge. Other subjects included literature, science, mathematics and medicine
Leo Africanus, a historian of the XVIth century wrote about Timbuktu:
“There are many judges, doctors and clerics here, all receiving good salaries from King Askia Mohammed of the State of Songhay. He pays great respect to men of learning. There is a great demand for books, and more profit is made from the trade in books than from any other line of business.”
Apart from being the epicentre of knowledge, Timbuktu was a very rich nation and served strategically as the epicentre of global trade routes following the Niger River.
It was the centre of the world because all gold came from this great and thriving city to the continent of Europe. This was the city where trans-Saharan commerce took place.
Merchants from many different locations carried out trade between Europe and present day Mali. Because of its unique geographical position, Timbuktu was a natural meeting point of Songhai, Wangara, Fulani, Tuareg and Arabs.
The inhabitants of Timbuktu traded in gold from the south, the salt from the north and the Divine knowledge came from Timbuktu. Timbuktu was therefore referred to as the cross-roads where “the camel met the canoe”.
As a result, Timbuktu became an important port where goods from West Africa arrived from the 11th century onwards.
The well known Malian, Abubakar II travelled from Timbuktu to the Americas several centuries before Christopher Columbus did.
Today, there are more than 700 000 manuscripts from the medieval era still surviving in public libraries and private collections and are now being digitalised. The books include those on religion, law, literature and science including letters between rulers, officials and merchants on issues such as taxes, trade, marriage and commerce.
These manuscripts also include subjects like mathematics, chemistry, physics, optics, astronomy, medicine, history, geography, Islamic sciences and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, government legislation and treaties, jurisprudence and a lot more.
Who would have known that Africa had the first university in the world where these subjects were being studied long before the Europeans came to Africa to conquer and plunder then tell us we did not have a history?
The tragic aspect is that the history and the monuments are currently under threat from Islamists who took control of northern Mali from the government. They were intent on destroying the monuments and tombs.
The international community and Mali’s government condemned the destructions of the mosques and tombs. Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith), which is said to have ties to al-Qaeda, seized northern Mali in March 2012, working with ethnic Tuareg rebels.
UNESCO called for the Islamists to respect Mali’s heritage sites, “For the sake of future generations, spare the legacy of their past.”
Another risk to this ancient civilization is the brittle condition of the manuscripts. They disintegrate easily like ashes.
In addition, the termites, insects and weather present a major risk. Piracy of the manuscripts and the selling of these treasures pose a serious threat to the future of the manuscripts of Timbuktu.
In December 1988, UNESCO, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, the UN’s cultural body, granted world heritage site status to Timbuktu in recognition of its importance to world history. This ancient university was therefore added to UNESCO world heritage list in 1988 for its three mosques and 16 cemeteries and mausoleums.
The Timbuktu Educational Foundation is now the legal custodian of the manuscripts. It has its head office in California, USA. The foundation’s aim is to restore preserve, translate, publish and protect the 700 000 manuscripts.
Timbuktu represents a turning point in the history of Africa. Reclaiming the manuscripts and the museums restores self-respect, pride, honour and dignity that slavery, colonialism and racism has stripped away from black Africa. It also helps to obliterate the images of Africans as uneducated, backward and primitive.
The University of Timbuktu produced thousands of black African scholars and leaders of the highest rank, character and nobility. Timbuktu is a symbol of Africa and her civilization.
While we celebrate the African universities that emerged during the colonial era, we must look beyond and reclaim the glory of Timbuktu as a pre colonial great centre of learning.

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