Urbanization of Timbuktu


How Islam and Urbanization impacted 12th century Timbuktu. With Picture Analysis.

The urbanization of historical cities has been a point of interest for many historians. How cities grow and mesh all the while absorbing ideas from different identities. Timbuktu, during the reign of Mansa Musa was no different, it became a cosmopolitan intellectual city that was open to trade and immigrants. How Timbuktu operated in the larger picture of the Malian Empire and under the influence Islam is also a narrative which is important. One should keep in mind that urbanization did not begin with the entrance of Islam, but it only reshaped how urbanization worked in Timbuktu.

For any major city, there has to be a focal point, and for Timbuktu, it was the masjid. One could buy leather, books, incense, and silk slippers all within walking distance of the local masjid.[1] The masjid was a place that Muslims used to gather for worship, but also for commerce. It was this mix of religion and commerce that gave birth to urbanization within Timbuktu. It is also imperative to remember that these markets were permanent just as the masjid was. [2]  Vendors established a sense of familiarity and staying in the same location was part key.

Although, cities such as Timbuktu were centers of human activity and intellect, they were not under the direct authority of the King, in this case Mansa Musa. Cities ran themselves based on local laws, other than taxes, which came the palace. Local rulers were able to set laws on issues such as property and minor disputes.[3] What is unique is that there was a strict separation between residential and commercial areas.

The access to water, the prestige of the local masjid, bathhouses and libraries were all staples of Timbuktu, but security was the one thing that the King was expected to provide. There was, a distinction between the royal area were the king conducted his royal business and the commercial/residential areas. [4] These two worlds would merge in front of the palace were; celebrations, public justice, meetings between the King and subjects would take place. The short space between the palace, the kind and public during these times required high levels of security.

Mansa Musa himself, would conduct his business from a balcony, on a throne known as a bembe, made from ebony and  elephant tusks as arm rests. While surrounded by his officials he would hear cases and make on the spot rulings. Always with a military escort and an executioner, Mansa Musa enjoyed control over his kingdom which reached as far north as Taghaza and as far West as the Atlantic. [5] Mansa Musa was not stingy with his wealth as he supported doctors, legal scholars, and artists through out his kingdom.

For Timbuktu in particular, it was 1324 when Mansa Musa annexed the city and absorbed the city into his empire. He quickly had masjids  and schools built, thus very quickly Timbuktu was able to become an intellectual hub. Wherever masjids were founded schools were usually physically attached. This was a staple in many Muslim dominated cities. The proximity to the Arab speaking North gave Timbuktu an information advantage. Inhabits in Timbuktu would receive information/books before the rest of the Empire, due to its location on the Niger River. Students from Timbuktu would go to Fez and students from Fez would to Timbuktu and return with information to share and produce.[6]

Timbuktu was able to absorbed Islam while maintaining a certain “Sudanese” or black ethical and cultural systems,epically in gender relations, as Ibn Battuta explained in his writings. Inheritance ran through the sons of the oldest sister of the family, instead of the oldest son of the oldest son which is common is Islamic dominated areas. Men and women had friends of the opposite gender that were not related. It was not uncommon for men and women to share private spaces together, which was a taboo in certain Islamic dominated areas. [7]

The openness of Timbuktu to absorb information as a city and produce information was key for their success. It did not hurt to have a King in Mansa Musa who had imperial ambition and who wanted to protect his borders while supporting the learning efforts of the city. Geography, was a blessing for the residents of Timbuktu as they were privy to information and trade. Although, Islam was not the driving force behind this urbanization, it did help to unify the inhabits to a common cause.

Picture Analysis

These are four different drawings of Timbuktu, but they all tell the same story. The first, a postcard from the 1800s, we see a landscape where the largest building in view is the masjid. Moving to the right, a painting of traders approaching the city, the masjid is the only recognizable building. The painting on the lower left shows men on top of a building overlooking the city. One can clearly see the masjid, but also the distinction between housing huts and commercial areas. The last drawing is an ariel view, but it shows the same as the previous, a masjid with scattered mud brick structures, with housing huts on both ends. When one looks at these four pictures, a 360 view of  Timbuktu is clear.

[1] Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, The History of African Cities South of the Sahara: From the Origins to Colonization, (Princeton, Markus Wiener Publishers, 2009), 94

[2] Vidrovitch, History of African Cities, 93.

[3] Vidrovitch, The History of African Cities, 92.

[4] Vidrovitch, The History of African Cities, 94

[5] Basil Davidson, The Lost Cities of Africa, (Boston, Atlantic- Little Brown, 1959), 91.

[6] Vidrovitch, The History of African Cities, 109.

[7] Davidson, Lost Cities of Africa, 94.


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