“From here to Timbuktu” is a common phrase used to describe a fantastical non-existent or outlandish place that is presumed to be far away. The fact that the town of Timbuktu was once a hub of trade and education is uncommon to most and was a joy to research on.
Now I did promise to shed a light on African architecture and architects, but I now see a need for a bit of history. I believe the histories of a place and people help in understanding the culture and philosophy of a time when a building or society was built.
Timbuktu was a town that flourished from the trans Saharan trade between North and West Africa. The trade of choice was salt, gold, ivory and slaves, but its genuine claim to fame was it being the center of the Islamic scholarly community.
Which brings me to the topic of hand, 'The University of Timbuktu', also known as The Sankore Madrasah/Mosque. A man named Mansa Kankou Musa reigned over Mali in 1324 and designed and saw the construction of this great Mosque/School, but what’s quite fascinating was that his benefactor was a wealthy Mandika lady, and it became a world class learning institution.
The Sankore Mosque/Madrasah
The construction methods were simple mud on timber supports. Stone was used on the walls surrounding doorways. The roofs were made of split palm beams and palm matting that was later covered in earth.
The curious wood protrusions that are half embedded and rhythmically arranged on the side of the building were initially a functional scaffolding used to climb up the building when re-plastering was needed once a year, but was later added for aesthetic effect.
The wooden protrusions
The Sankore Madrasah is also remarkable for its large pyramidal mihrab, as seen below.
Unfortunately the Mali Empire declined after the Moroccan invasion of 1590, and with it, its buildings, but the mosques were rebuilt and in December,1988 UNESCO declared Timbuktu a World Heritage Site. The buildings are always being resotored due to destruction via desertification, but I'm glad the uniqueness of the designs are always maintained.
Another one of my favorite mosques in Mali is the ever popular “Great Mosque of Djenne’ ‘ as seen above.
Of note, is that, although I centered this post on the Sankore Mosque, most of Timbuktu's ancient and local architectural language is similar to this mosque. In short, not a hut in sight.
So here’s to Africa's architecture, scholarly contributions and innovative designs.