September 22 – Independence Day in Mali

Posted on September 22, 2014

The Great Mosque of Djenne is the
largest mud building in the world.
Today the African nation of Mali celebrates its 1960 independence from France.

How does a nation that is the third largest supplier of gold in the whole continent still have about half of its people living below the International Poverty Line? (Shockingly, the International Poverty Line is set way down at $1.25 per day. That's...low!)

Part of the problem for people in Mali is that quite a bit of the nation is the Sahara Desert. Most of the people live in the southern region along the Niger and Senegal rivers. Most Malians fish or farm (or fish AND farm).
Mali used to be part of three different empires, at various times in history: the Ghana Empire, the Mali Empire, and the Songhai Empire. The power of these empires came from controlling trans-Saharan trade in gold, salt, and enslaved people. One of the ancient cities, Timbuktu, was a center of trade but also a center of Islamic learning. This was back in the 1300s, before the European Renaissance, and Arabia and Northern Africa were the center of scholarship, math, and science in the Western world.

Eventually, however, European sea routes made the trans-Saharan trade routes obsolete, and much of the African empires' power dissipated. Science, art, and other studies took off in Europe, and European nations began to establish colonies and military outposts in Africa and elsewhere.

You live way out in Timbuktu!”

Do people use “Timbuktu” to mean the farthest-away, unreachable place in the universe? Back when I was a kid, I would hear that fairly frequently. Why did this Mali city become code for faraway and hard to reach?

Mali is landlocked, so there is no way to access any part of it by sea. That right there limits access to the nation, especially in the past. Mali and Timbuktu in particular are deep inland, and Timbuktu is perched on the edge of the Sahara. As I mentioned earlier, it was a big-time trade center, back in the day – but of course the crossing of the continent-wide desert was difficult.

So, yeah, Timbuktu was far from most, and hard to reach.

But there had to be thousands of towns as far away and hard to reach. Why Timbuktu?

Part of the reason for Timbuktu's fame was that it was the home of one of the first universities in the world. The Sankore Masjid, an Islamic university, had evolved from visitors and travelers congregating at three mosques and was established as a university by the early 1300s. It could house up to 25,000 students at a time, and the library was the largest in Africa since the famed Library of Alexandria, with between 400,000 to 700,000 manuscripts.

The university was very different than those developing in medieval Europe. Students were not registered, and there was no central control; rather, students associated themselves with a single teacher. Classes took place in the open courtyard of one of the mosques or in private homes.

Which sounds pretty great!

What is Timbuktu like now?

Everyone heard about Timbuktu, partly because several historians described it in their books, and at first it came to symbolize a fabulous, wealthy place. Eventually it became thought of as sort of an outlandish place – very far away, very exotic, very strange.

These days it suffers from desertification. Desert sands have been blowing more and more into the city, and the streets (made of sand) have become higher than the entrances of the houses, which means that people have to go down to get into a house.

But there is another danger. Get this: in 2012 northern Mali, including Timbuktu, fell into the hands of Muslim extremists—and many of the residents fled to other towns. Apparently the extremists destroyed many shrines and mausoleums, apparently feeling that the brand of Islam represented by those structures was the wrong brand. Later, in early 2013, as French and Malian troops approached the city to take back Timbuktu, the Islamic rebels set fire to many buildings and fled themselves, back into the Sahara, back where they couldn't be found.

Yes, you got that right: Islamic extremists torched Islamic mosques and also Islamic homes and libraries, including an important 16-million-pound library with thousands of ancient documents from Islamic scholarship! Why????

Burned books

But here's a cool twist: Abdoulaye Cisse, acting director of the library, and Abba Alhadi, an illiterate man who helped to take care of the manuscripts, had worked for months to save the majority of the documents. When rebels first poured into Timbuktu, Cisse stopped moving the ancient manuscripts to the new state-of-the-art building the extremists had taken over. And Alhadi had begun stuffing thousands of books into empty rice and millet sacks. Every night he had loaded the millet sacks onto a trolley and pushed them across town. He had piled the sacks into a lorry and onto the backs of motorcycles. Others drove the manuscripts to the banks of the Niger River, and from there they had traveled by boat south to a town that the extremists didn't control, where they were openly loaded into cars and taken to Mali's capital, Bamako.

Apparently the extremists never thought to worry about Alhadi. He was, after all, a little old man who walked with a cane and who couldn't even read!

Two weeks of moving manuscripts in millet bags ended up saving around 28,000 texts. Unfortunately, nobody was able to rescue the 2,000 documents that had been moved to the new library building before they arrived. However, most of those documents were in a basement room that the rebels had never discovered. Even those manuscripts that were burned, Cisse explained, had been digitized. They were irreplaceable, and their destruction is horrifying—but it could have been SO much worse!

Also on this date:

Anniversary of the Peace of Basel in Switzerland

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