1 Mayıs 2015 Cuma

Golden City: Timbuktu

For some reason, the history of Africa is not interesting to Turkish academia. Some part of this continent was, however, inside the territory of the Ottoman State until recently. The topic of this article covers the history of Timbuktu, which was once one of the most important centers in Africa, and Europe's desire to Timbuktu.

“Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, and silver from the country of the white men, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom are only to be found in Timbuctoo” says an old African (Tamasheq) proverb[1].

The life of Timbuktu, which today is inside the territory of Mali, began as a trading center of Tuareg people by the end of 11th century. Timbuktu, which became an important city by constant growth, has gained an international reputation as the center of trade and knowledge despite its different perception in the eyes of the Europeans [2]. Even though the exact location of Timbuktu was not known in Europe for many centuries, the city was believed to have houses which were made of gold [3]. The name of this city is variably called Tombuto, Tambucto, Tombuctoo or Timbuctoo in European languages.

Timbuktu was one of the important centers where Islamic sciences were taught. Although the region was ruled by different people, such as Mali, Songay and Mor, scholars uninterruptedly continued doing research and teaching students. Scholars in Timbuktu have been interested not only in tafsir (Quranic exegesis), hadith (Prophetic tradition), fiqh (Islamic law) and kalam (theology), but also linguistics, history, mathematics, logic and astronomy. A bibliographic dictionary, which was written by Ahmad Baba (1556-1627) and contains the biographies and works of scholars between the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century, demonstrates Timbuktu's high level in Islamic sciences and its close contact with Makka and Madina [5].

Sankore Madrasah in which scientific activity has lasted for centuries
Leos Africanus (Hasan bin Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Zayyati), who traveled around Africa upon the request of Pope in the 16th century, gives clues in his travel book regarding the intellectual life in Timbuktu [6]: “Here are great store of doctors, judges, priests, and other learned men, that are bountifully maintained at the kings cost and charges. And hither are brought diuers manuscripts or written bookes out of Barbarie, which are sold for more money than any other merchandize”.

Hunwick, an African historian, presents notable information about Timbuktu [7]. Timbuktu's being center of knowledge was the impetus for the increase in writing and trading of books from there. Timbuktu did not import manuscripts only from north Africa and Egypt. Scholars got education in Makka where they went to for religious pilgrimage and also in Cairo which was on their way back, bringing the books they copied in those places to their own libraries. There was an active copying tradition in Timbuktu, too. It can be realized from the colophons on the books written in Timbuktu that the writing process was a professional business. Hunwick mentions al-Quran al-Karim with 1420 date in the library of Mahmud Kati he encountered on August, 1999. The last page was written in Ottoman Turkish and al-Quran was recorded in the name of Sharifa Hadija Hanim foundation.

Thousands of manuscripts are waiting to be read
UNESCO added Timbuktu to the World Heritage List in 1988. By the support of the Ford Foundation, Timbuktu manuscripts project was initiated in order to protect these manuscripts by digitization in 2000. This project also is included in Memory of the World projects of UNESCO [8].

Few cities in the world are surrounded by legends as Timbuktu. The city is located at the intersection of the caravan trades in the Sahara. The fundamental commodity of the Saharan trade was gold. Throughout the Middle Ages, almost two-thirds of the gold need in the world were provided by the West Africa. Later on, since gold came from Guinea in the 17 and 18th centuries, gold currency was called “guinea”. A tremendous amount of gold was sent to the north and sold in the Timbuktu market. Gold was carried from here to Fez and Tripoli passing through the Sahara by camels. Most of this gold used to be sold to Europe. As time went on, the knowledge that the gold came from Timbuktu spread out over Europe. This played an important role in shaping the image of Timbuktu in Europe. Even though the gold trade passing through Timbuktu ended a long time ago, the myth of Timbuktu became bigger and more pervasive in Europe [4].

The European explorers who set out for new markets, new trade routes and new sources spread out all corners of the world in order to accomplish their purpose. Besides being an interesting place, Africa had significant natural resources. Some of these explorers had a desire to become the first European to reach Timbuktu. Few of them achieved their aim. This cultivated the image of Timbuktu as an unreachable city in addition to its image of golden city. The phrases, such as “To Timbuktu and back”, “It is a long way to Timbuktu”, “I will knock you clear to Timbuktu” and “Go to Timbuktu”, are the reflection of Timbuktu's image of unreachability on the language.

We can see the clues about how Europe imagines Africa in the article “Africa” in the 1778 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica [9]: “abounds with gold and silver in a greater degree . . . and it is surprising that neither the ancient or modern Europeans, notwithstanding their extraordinary and insatiable thirst after gold and silver, should have endeavoured to establish themselves effectively in a country much nearer to them than either America or the East Indies and where the objects of their desires are to be found in equal, if not greater, plenty”.

An African map published in 1790 by the African Association
The European adventure in Africa dates back to very early times. After 18th century, this adventure, however, turned into a systematic exploration movement. In 1788, the African Association (with the full name, The Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa) was founded, whose purposes were to determine and map the route of the Niger River and more importantly to find the famous city Timbuktu. William Sinclair, grandchild of the association co-founder Sir John Sinclair, says the following in his article about the association [10]: “In 1788 he took a leading part in forming an association to promote discoveries in Africa. At that date the map of Africa, beyond the coast-line and Egypt, was almost a blank. Hitherto Europeans had visited that continent to plunder, oppress, and enslave: the share of this country in the slave-trade is the most astounding and disgraceful chapter in its history. The object of this society was to promote the cause of science and humanity, to explore the mysterious geography, to ascertain the resources, and to improve the condition of that ill-fated continent. In furtherance of their designs they employed able and experienced travellers to penetrate as far as they could into the interior, and collect information on all subjects interesting to the philosopher or the philanthropist. Towards the expenses of these missions each member paid an annual subscription. ... The result of their labours has thrown new lustre on the British name, and widely extended the boundaries of human knowledge. They have caused a solid and permanent glory, and have acquired higher claims to the admiration of mankind than many of those whose achievements fill the first place in the page of history”. At the end of his article, William Sinclair wishes this: “Had the Association continued its existence, it might have done much for the peaceful solution of many African problems, and for the general improvement of commerce and knowledge”. Later on, the areas under the investigation were colonized by France. Taking into account France's lack of administrative skill, Sinclair's wishes are convincing. These wishes, however, can unfortunately not be fulfilled as long as the West has the exploitative attitude towards the non-Western countries.

Europe's desire for Timbuktu also was reflected through poems. Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892), a poet laureate, won the “Chancellor's Gold Medal” from Cambridge University by his poem “Timbuctoo” at the age of 18. William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), an English novelist, penned another poem titled “Timbuctoo” in order to satirize Alfred's poem [11].

West Africa was a French colony between 1893 and 1960. The traditional education keeps on in Timbuktu where an intense scientific activity continued until 18th century. Timbuktu now is far from the good old days and has become a place where thousands of manuscripts are in the storerooms of houses and the poverty prevails.

When the host in the documentary “The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu” of BBC saw the manuscripts about astronomy and mathematics in Timbuktu, she was very surprised at these books. Of course a person, coming from a wealthy country that has enslaved black people and exploited (with the West's innocent word 'colonize') their countries, will be surprised.

References and Notes

[1] Dubio Felix, Timbuctoo-The Mysterious, Translation from French by Diana White, London, 1896, p. 276.

[2] Y. G.-M. Lulat, A history of African higher education from antiquity to the present: a critical synthesis, London, 2005, p. 72.

[3] Brian Gardner, The Quest for Timbuctoo, London, 1968, p. 9.

[5] Ira Marvin Lapidus, A history of Islamic societies, Cambridge University Press, 2002 , p. 409. For the contributions of Islam to intellectual life in Africa, please refer to: Scott Steven Reese, The transmission of learning in Islamic Africa, Brill, 2004.

[6] Leo Africanus, The history and description of Africa: and of the notable things, Translated by John Pory, Prepared by Robert Brown, Hakluyt Society, London, 1896, vol. 3, p. 825. All the volumes can be downloaded here (vol. 1, vol. 2 and vol. 3).

[7] John O. Hunwick, West Africa, Islam, and the Arab world: studies in honor of Basil Davidson, Princton, 2006, pp. 41-42. Hunwick presents a comprehensive bibliography regarding Timbuktu: John O. Hunwick, “Timbuktu: a bibliography”, Sudanic Africa, vol.12, pp. 115-129 , 2001. This paper can be downloaded here.

[8] You can reach the Timbuktu website of UNESCO the World Heritage List here. You can also reach the detailed information about the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project here. The website of The Library of Congress provides some part of thousands digitized manuscripts. West African Arabic Manuscript Database Project has classified approximately 23,000 manuscripts based on their subjects. One of the catalogs published by Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation presents 9000 manuscripts in the Ahmad Baba library, Timbuktu. The book titled Arabic Literature of Africa The Writings of Western Sudanic Africa edited by John O. Hunwick was published in 2003. Another valuable book about the intellectual life in Africa was published under the title The Trans-Saharan Book Trade : Manuscript Culture, Arabic Literacy and Intellectual History in Muslim Africa in 2010. The Meanings of Timbuktu (Editors  Shamil Jeppie and Souleymane Bachir Diagne) published in 2008 can be downloaded here.

[9] Robin Hallett, “The European approach to the interior of Africa in the eighteenth century”, The Journal of African History, vol. 4, no.2, pp. 191-206, 1963.

[10] William Sinclair, “The African Association of 1788”, Journal of the Royal African Society, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 145-149, 1901. The association used to publish the information they gathered under the title of Proceedings of the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa. You can reach the pdf version of  the 1798  report. Robin Hallett published the association's records under the title of Records of the African Association in 1963,  London.

[11] William Makepeace Thacke, The works of William Makepeace Thacke, Kensington Edition, Volume XXX, New York, 1904, p. 457-460 or William Makepeace Thackeray, Essays, Reviews, Hesperides Press, 2008, p. 410-412. The 1904 edition of the book can be downloaded here.

Fiqh/Law and Handasa/Geometry

While reading Sadri Maksudi's Hukuk Tarihi Dersleri (Lectures of Legal History) in Ottoman-Turkish, the section titled “Leibniz'in Hukuk Tarihine Hizmeti (Leibniz's service to legal history)” drew attention to me [1]. I checked whether there was any recent study dealing with the same topic. I encountered the paper titled “Law & Geometry: Legal Science from Leibniz to Langdell” [2], which reminded me of an old Turkish couplet [3]:

Hendese ilm-i fıkhın mizanıdır 
Kim anı kem eyleye, nasın çinganıdır. 

Handasa (geometry) is the balance of the science of fiqh
Whoever looks down to it or neglects it is the most inferior of people.

Geometry is deemed a balance for fiqh in this couplet. Those who ignore geometry are criticized. “Islamic law” terminology is commonly used instead of fiqh, but does not wholly cover the meaning of fiqh. This couplet establishes a relationship between law and geometry. In geometry, definite knowledge is obtained through proving theorems, which is mentioned in Tahafut al-Falasifa by Imam Ghazali. Because of this importance, geometry kept its position in the curriculum until the Ottoman madrasas were abolished. Toderini, an Italian Jesuit, could not fail to mention the importance of geometry in the madrasas [4].

References and Notes

[1] Sadri Maksudi, İkinci Sene Hukuk Tarihi Dersleri, 1926-1927 sene-i tedrisiyesinde takrir edilen ders notları, Ankara Hukuk Mektebi, p. 9.  The book can be downloaded here.

[2] M. H. Hoeflich, "Law & Geometry: Legal Science from Leibniz to Langdell", The American Journal of Legal History, vol. 30, no. 2 (Apr., 1986), pp. 95-121.

[3] Prof. Ekrem Bugra Ekinci said on a radio program that this couplet was hung on the wall in Darü'ş-Şafaka High School in the Ottoman era.

[4] Giambatista Toderini, Türklerin Yazılı Kültürü [Turkish Literature], Translation from French into Turkish by Ali Berktay, İstanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2012, p.65-67.