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Why Mali’s rich intellectual heritage always evokes a mixture of fascination and antipathy

Mali’s rich intellectual heritage and why this ancient knowledge may be lost forever.

Child in Mail riding bike and gesturing peace sign

As the Birthplace of one of Africa’s biggest empires, Mali has one of the most interesting African histories. 

Initially a small kingdom stretching along the Niger River, at its peak the Mali Empire dominated and stretched over parts of present day Niger, Mali, Gambia, Senegal, Chad, Burkina Faso and Nigeria. 

At the heart of this vast empire was the region of Timbuktu which was founded in 989 CE. 

The city of Timbuktu in Mali, became a very important trading post for the caravans involved in the famous trans-Saharan trade, making it not only the economic metropolis of the empires of Mali and Songhai, but also the main religious and intellectual centre during the medieval period. 

Numerous monuments were erected, such as the famous Djingareyber mosques, built during the reign of the Malian Emperors like Musa Keita (Musa 1 or Mansa Musa), who is thought to be one of the richest people in recorded history. 

 It thus became the intellectual and trade nexus for Arab and European merchants from such distant places like; Venice and Andalusia.

Everyone was enthralled at Mansa Musa’s immense Gold trade stretching from west Africa, the entire Sahara desert all the way up to the Mediterranean. 

Timbuktu also welcomed thousands of students to receive teachings from some of the most enlightened scholars in the medieval world.

Knowledge, books, and intellectual life, held a central place in the heart of the Malian empire

As a matter of fact, it was arguably one of the best places on earth to buy a book during medieval times which makes it one of the greatest legacies of the Malian Empire to this day. 

Students and scholars came from all over the known world to take courses that were so intensive, that some would last up to 9 years – which was equivalent to a PhD.  

Today, the vestiges of this intellectual enterprise is visible through the famous medieval manuscripts famously called the Timbuktu manuscripts. 

These manuscripts are a result of a huge publishing enterprise that covered such diverse fields like; Quranic based homilies, Islamic law and theology, grammar, scholastic theology, Sufism, biographies of the Prophet, poetic verses in praise of the Prophet, prayers, supplications, logic, philosophy, astronomy, medicine, mathematics, rhetoric, treatises on transcendence, sermons, wills, jihad treatises and Astronomy.

These courses were taught at the Sankoré University (Sankoré Madrasah), which was built around 1325.

The majority of these manuscripts are either written in Arabic, or in an Africanized version of the Arabic alphabet, generally referred to as the Ajami script. 

Today, UNESCO estimates that there are nearly 900,000 manuscripts dating back to the 13th Century, stored in private family libraries in Mali as well as in various other national archives and libraries.

Present day and historical obscurantism has always jeopardized Mali’s intellectual heritage

For a better part of the world’s history, the story of Africa as described by outsiders has always been seen through a very negative prism.  

That is why whenever the intellectual richness of Timbuktu was presented in equal, or even in greater terms as to that of the Greco-roman tradition, there was a univocal hostility that actively sought to suppress such views that showed Africa in a different light.

This was compounded by the fact that, since the African Ajami script was used, the colonial prejudices at the heart of the colonial system considered the Timbuktu scripts as of little intellectual consequence since they did not use the Latin based script.  

Any European explorer or writer who frequented Mali in the 18th – 20th century, and happened to commit the cardinal sin of describing Africa other than through the savage prism, was almost considered to be a charlatan.


Written by Briana Anabtawi, Head of Service & Operations, LEXIGO: As Head of Service and Operations, Briana is responsible for quality, client satisfaction and efficiency in service delivery for LEXIGO Strategic Clients and Partners. Briana's professional background in the travel and tourism industry has provided her with a unique insight into culture, language and project management.