Architecture in Timbuktu

 

Bored and unable to sleep, I found myself perusing through my writing folder on my computer. (The joy’s of a college student). I found a folder containing papers I wrote last fall during my first semester in college. Within this folder, was a ten page paper on architecture in Timbuktu. This was a group project, my partner, Matt, took over the power point, and I volunteered myself up to write the paper. As I skimmed through the paper, I was reminded that I’m sometimes lacking when it comes to research papers but also how bummed I was that no one other than my professor would ever read it. Then I remembered that I, a late night blogger, had a blog to post it on. So humor me, and enjoy.

Understanding a city’s history, the very essence of its existence, is integral to understanding its architecture. Timbuktu, which is located in northern Mali, was founded by a group of Tuareg herdsmen at the beginning of the eleventh century.[1] There are multiple theories behind its name: One theory suggests that Tuareg traders would leave their goods with an old woman named Buktu so the Tuareg herders would refer to returning to Tin Buktu “the place of Buktu.”[2]  Another theory suggests that Buktu is not a person’s name, but rather it means “woman with a large navel” in the language of the Songhai, an ethnic group located near Timbuktu.[3] Trade played a vital role in turning Timbuktu from a temporary camp ground into a metropolis of sorts. Timbuktu’s advantageous location near the Niger River enabled it to become a trading cross roads. Timbuktu’s entry into trading can be attributed to gold, slaves, salt, and manufactured goods from the Mediterranean.[4] It trades with Ghana, the Sahara, the Middle East, and Europe.[5] Timbuktu reached its peak in the early 1500s, under the rule of King Askia Mohammed, who ruled for thirty-five years and during his reign united West Africa in the Songhai Empire.[6] During this time Timbuktu was also an intellectual center. It established one of the first universities which students attended from near and far to learn law, literature, and the sciences.[7] “At a time when Europe was emerging from the Middle Ages, African historians [in Timbuktu] were chronicling the rise and fall of Saharan and Sudanese kings. Astronomers charted the movement of the stars, physicians provided instructions on nutrition and the therapeutic properties of desert plants, and ethicists debated such issues as polygamy and the smoking of tobacco.[8] Some scholars even argue that these works may even provide a needed link between the West and Islamic world. In 1591, the city was invaded by the Moroccan armies.[9] Scholars who encouraged resistance were killed; the rest were carried off to Marrakesh, in Morocco.[10] This ended Timbuktu’s status as an educational center. Later, when ocean trade networks were established, it declined as a commercial center as well.

            Understanding Timbuktu’s religious background is also essential to understanding its architecture. When Timbuktu was established, nature was a critical component of construction. Aside from being readily available, mud was used for construction because it represented nature or “earth” and therefore mother earth, and was spiritual in nature.[11] The earth was viewed as viable force, structures and buildings built from the earth were considered sacred.[12] The introduction of Islam did not affect the significance of mud buildings.[13] In fact, Islam used mud to symbolize creation. An example of mud architecture is the tomb of Askia Muhamad which was once a part of an ancient Gao mosque.[14] The use of this architecture again at the mosque of Hamdallahi near Mopti suggests this technique was used and perfected over centuries.[15]

            There are many general characteristics of architecture in Timbuktu. As previously mentioned, the use of mud or banco as a construction material was common. However, this technique was abandoned because of cost and environmental impact. Mosques, tombs, and shrines in Timbuktu are mostly made of banco and/or mud. Banco is a mixture of rice straw and clay. [16]This is problematic in the wet season. Constant renovation was and still is needed to keep these important architectural intact. The application of a fresh layer of plaster is typically the method of protecting these buildings. Originally, banco was enriched for use via baobab flour, rice powder, and gum Arabic.[17] Today, banco, clay, and clay stone are used to rebuild mosques.[18] Some cylindrical clay stone is also replaced by rectangular European bricks.[19] Intricately carved wooden screens are a common aspect of Timbuktu’s architecture because they allow ventilation into buildings but protect those inside from view.[20]

            In regards to city planning, Timbuktu had no plan. It consists of narrow alley-ways and “secretive” doorways. [21] In present day Timbuktu, there are ruined buildings and vacant lots which are evidence of the city’s lack of funding.[22]

            Guilds are common and play a vital role in Timbuktu’s socio-economic development. Masonry played a monumental role during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It has one of the most prominent guilds and is led by two important families: The Hamane Hou who live in the Sankoré quarter and the Koba Hou who live in Djingareyber.[23] In Timbuktu, the history of masonry can be traced by analyzing the construction of different mosques. “The secret guilds, master craftsmen in this type of architecture, are often cited among the mysteries of Timbuktu.”[24] The first President of the National Assembly of the Republic of Mali was quoted saying: “The mystery of Timbuktu is found in ponds populated by supernatural genies, in alleys haunted on winter nights by tutelary spirits. It is also found in its amulets and talismans, in the effective practices of its healers, in the secret guilds of its blacksmiths and masons.”[25] Masons were considered to have magical powers and legends depict that a true mason would transform into a lizard should a wall he was constructing fall down. Today, the Hamane Hou & Koba-Hou families consult each other for community repairs and maintain respectful relations. Unlike in the fifteenth and sixteenth century where masonry was a profession passed from father to son, anyone could become a mason in Timbuktu. However, Timbuktu’s society still reserves professional honors and privileges for these ancient families.[26]

            Cadi El Aqib, a religious, bourgeois nobleman, was an important architect in Timbuktu. He was the main financer and builder of the mosques of Timbuktu. His knowledge of architecture was extensive. Following his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1581/1582, he gave the present Sankoré mosque the dimensions of the Kaaba.[27] In 1568, he had the mosque of Mohamed Naddi, also known as the Sidi Yahia mosque, restored.[28] Aqib also used his power as cadi, to organize fund-raising for the mosques.

            In present day Timbuktu, there are approximately fifteen mosques. However, there are three key mosques: The Djingareyber Mosque, The Sidi Yahia Mosque, and the Sankoré Mosque. “These mosques are typical of Sudanese architecture, characterized by massive pillars, an interior courtyard and a pyramid-shaped minaret.”[29] These mosques also made up the first university centers in Timbuktu, although each had unique specificities related to their location and function.[30]

            The first of the mosques, the Djingareyber Mosque, was started in 1325. It was financed primarily by Kankous Moussa, the emperor of Mali. Moussa payed Abu Ishaq Essaheli Attouwaijine, an Andalusian architect, forty thousand gold mithquals for its construction.[31] Attouwaijine is said to be credited with inventing the mud brick building technique.[32] The mosque is located in the west side of Timbuktu and is bordered by houses on the north and east sides, a cemetery and school on the west side, and a fort to the south.  The mosque covers approximately five thousand square meters, making it the largest of the three key mosques. Despite its size, it was too small to accommodate the crowd that gathered to celebrate the end of Ramadan.[33] A field next to the mosque was used for the service. The mosque is made of banco with the exception of a small section of the north facade which was built with limestone.[34] The mosque’s east facade has a minaret, indicating the direction of the Kaaba, which is approximately ten meters tall.[35] The Djingareyber mosque’s roof consists of branches and palm-tree joists and is covered with palm matting. [36] Openings in the roof allow light and air in the mosque. The interior of the mosque consists of eight large rows which are separated by doors.[37] Timber columns form narrow pathways through the mosque.[38] Despite the openings in the roof there is little natural light.[39] There is little decoration. However, the wall surrounding mihrab is painted white and yellow and has pictures inscribes into the wall. Although the mosque has been renovated, there is no electricity.[40][41] The Djingareyber Mosque has two large courtyards. One is used for prayer in the summer; the other is used for storing construction materials such as limestone and palm-tree trunks.[42]

            The second of the three mosques, the Sankoré Mosque (also spelled Sankora), is located on the north-east side of the city on a sand dune. It was built in the 1100s although the most recent construction occurred during the nineteenth century. Mohammed Abu Bakr al-Wangari, an Islamic scholar from the town of Djenné, established the University of Sankoré in the sixteenth century.[43] The Sankoré mosque “doubled as a university specializing in law and theology in the sixteenth century when Timbuktu’s collection of manuscripts attracted 25,000 students”, many of which are preserved in the Ahmed Baba.[44] These manuscripts provide valuable insight into the social, economic, and political situations of Timbuktu’s golden age. The Sankoré mosque is made entirely of banco and is significantly smaller than the Djingareyber Mosque. It measures only fifty by twenty-five meters.[45]  The exterior of the mosque is also penetrated with wooden beams that serve as scaffolding during renovations. The interior of the Sankoré mosque is similar to that of the Djingareyber. “The interior consists of three colonnades defining the rows for prayers in the winter, and a courtyard for summer prayers.”[46] Unlike the Djingareyber, however, it has been equipped with both electricity and running water. In addition to renovation problems due to building materials, sand encroachment has aided the deterioration of the mosque.[47] The mosque has a fifteen-meter-high minaret which was the tallest structure in Timbuktu at the time it was built.[48] Today, however, the tallest structure is a water tower.[49]

            In order to fund the annual reparations of these buildings seasonal collective rebuilding works are organized.[50]These repairs are funded primarily by the middle class and are encouraged by both religious and administrative authorities in Timbuktu.[51]  The earliest mosque repairs date back to the fourteenth century. “It was common for worshippers who came to pray at the Djingareyber Mosque to contribute 500 mithquals from one Ramadan to the next.”[52] During the sixteenth century large donations for maintenance of the mosques were made by “religious and bourgeois noblemen”.[53] Today, “private sources for financing mosques are scaled down because of the reduced power of the Ulema and middle classes.”[54] Present day Timbuktu is still largely made of mud; the mosques, tombs, and shrines are mud. Unfortunately, many of these ancient buildings may be lost; for Timbuktu’s shrinking population makes collecting enough money for reparations difficult.[55]

            The last of the three mosques, the Sidi Yahia Mosque, is located in the old city center, in the Badjindé quarter.[56] Here, “the eponymous patron saint is buried.”[57] The mosque was built originally out of banco during the fifteenth century. As previously mentioned, the Sidi Yahia mosque was restored in 1568 by Cadi El Aqib. However, in 1922 it was reconstructed again but this time almost completely of limestone.[58] As a result, little rebuilding and maintenance is necessary. The Sidi Yahia Mosque has three courtyards: two for summer and winter prayers and a third courtyard in the south which was been transformed into a cemetery.[59]

            “The rebuilding of mosques is done collectively and unites the entire population” of Timbuktu.[60] There are two types of collective work: that done by the masons and that of the rest of the population. In Timbuktu, the construction or reconstruction of a mosque, the house of God, “is seen as a self-sacrifice, an act of gratitude and submission to the All Powerful.”[61]This view has kept many to continue to aid in the restoration despite the deteriorating population and other economic problems in Timbuktu.

            Water was and remains essential to existence in Timbuktu. Despite the heat and low precipitation levels, Timbuktu is surprisingly not short of water. “Its municipal wells maintain their steady flow from aquifers deep below the surface: fossil waters left over from more verdant times, still being recharged by the Niger.”[62] However, the steady water supply has not stopped the dunes from edging closer and closer to the city.

            Much of African architecture is anthropomorphic in nature. That is, “in their various parts and rooms, housing and village settlements represent the image of the mythological ancestors held sacred in formal association with the model of the human body in their organization of architectural space.”[63] This relates to the renaissance principle created by Michelangelo that one must understand the anatomy of the human body in order to understand architecture.[64] An example of this anthropomorphic architecture exists in Timbuktu in the form of urban housing. Here, the house is said to represent the primordial blacksmith and his wife.[65] Here, blacksmiths were once considered to have magical capabilities and “were charged with maintaining the shrines, the consecrated objects to which super- natural powers are attributed, and the structures in which they are housed.”[66]

            Although Timbuktu may appear to be a meek, mud-city in the middle of nowhere, it is a city with a power history and unique architecture. Its architecture unites the city through restoration. While Timbuktu is no longer the cultural, trading, or social center it once was, it is still the site of a unique form of architecture that mirrors the city’s past both in its uniqueness, earthliness, and its struggle to remain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

De Villiers, Marq & Sheila Hirtle. “Space, Time, and Timbuktu.” Natural History 116.6 (July 2007): 22-26. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Evans Library, College Station, TX. 1 Oct. 2008

<http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=25408303&site=ehost-live.>

 

Guadio Attilio, Le Mali [Mali]. Paris. Karthala 1998

 

 

Hammer, Joshua “THE TREASURES OF TIMBUKTU.” Smithsonian 37.9 (Dec. 2006): 46-57 Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Evans Library, College Station, TX. 1 Oct. 2008

<http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=23168772&site=ehost-live>.

 

Prussin, Labelle. “Non-Western Sacred Sites: African Models”. The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 58, No. 3, Architectural History 1999/2000 (Sep., 1999): 424-433 JSTOR. Evans Library, College Station, TX. 1 Oct. 2008

<http://www.jstor.org/stable/info/3335517>.

 

Prussin, Labelle. “Sudanese Architecture & the Manding”. African Arts, Vol. 3, No. 4 (summer, 1970) 12-67 JSTOR. Evans Library, College Station, TX. 1. Dec, 2008

 

 

Sidi, Ali Ould. “Monuments and Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in Timbuktu.” Museum International 58.1/2 (May 2006): 49-58. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Evans Library, College Station, TX. 1. Oct. 2008

<http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=20857238&site=ehost-live&gt;.

 

Waters, Irene. “The Road to Timbuktu.” Contemporary Review 288.1683 (winter 2006): 496-502. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Evans Library, College Station, TX. 1 Oct. 2008

<http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=23913070&site=ehost-live&gt;.

 


[1] De Villiers, Marq, and Sheila Hirtle. Space, Time, and Timbuktu. (Natural History 116.6) 22-26

[2] De Villiers, Marq & Sheila Hirtle. Space, Time, and Timbuktu 22-26

[3] De Villiers, Marq & Sheila Hirtle. Space, Time, and Timbuktu 22-26

[4] De Villiers, Marq & Sheila Hirtle. Space, Time, and Timbuktu 22-26

[5] Hammer, Joshua. The Treasures of Timbuktu. (Smithsonian vol. 37) 46-57

[6] Hammer, Joshua. The Treasures of Timbuktu. 46-57

[7] Hammer, Joshua.  The Treasures of Timbuktu. 46-57

[8] Hammer, Joshua. The Treasures of Timbuktu. 46-57

[9] Hammer, Joshua. The Treasures of Timbuktu. 46-57

[10] Hammer, Joshua.  The Treasures of Timbuktu.  46-57

[11] Prussin, Labelle. Non-Western Sacred Sites: African Models. (The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. Vol. 58) 425

[12] Prussin, Labelle. Non-Western Sacred Sites: African Models. 425

[13] Prussin, Labelle. Non-Western Sacred Sites: African Models 425

[14] Prussin, Labelle. Sudanese Architecture and the Manding. (African Arts. Vol. 3) 18

[15] Prussin, Labelle. Sudanese Architecture and the Manding. 18

[16] Sidi, Ali Ould. . Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in Timbuktu. Notes

[17] Sidi, Ali Ould. Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in Timbuktu  54

[18] Sidi, Ali Ould. Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in Timbuktu  54

[19] Sidi, Ali Ould. Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in Timbuktu  54

[20] De Villiers, Marq & Sheila Hirtle  Space, Time, and Timbuktu 22-26

[21] De Villiers, Marq & Sheila Hirtle Space, Time, and Timbuktu 22-26

[22] De Villiers, Marq & Sheila Hirtle. Space, Time, and Timbuktu 22-26

[23] Sidi, Ali Ould Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in  51

[24] Sidi, Ali Ould.  Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in 52

[25] Guadio, Attilio. Le Mali. (Paris. Karthala 1998) 206-7

[26] Sidi, Ali Ould. Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in  52

[27] Sidi, Ali Ould Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in  55

[28] Sidi, Ali Ould Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in 55

[29] Sidi, Ali Ould Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in  50

[30] Sidi, Ali Ould  Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in  50

[31] Sidi, Ali Ould Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in  50

[32] Waters, Irene. The Road to Timbuktu. (Contemporary Review 288) 501

[33] Waters, Irene. The Road to Timbuktu. 501

[34] Sidi, Ali Ould Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in  50

[35] Sidi, Ali Ould Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in  50

[36] Sidi, Ali Ould Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in  50

[37] Sidi, Ali Ould Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in  50

[38] Waters, Irene The Road to Timbuktu. 501

[39] Waters, Irene The Road to Timbuktu. 501

[40] Sidi, Ali Ould Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in  50

[41] Waters, Irene The Road to Timbuktu. 501

[42] Sidi, Ali Ould Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in  50

[43] Hammer, Joshua. The Treasure of Timbuktu

[44] Waters, Irene The Road to Timbuktu. 501

[45] Sidi, Ali Ould Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in  50

[46] Sidi, Ali Ould. Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in  50

[47] Sidi, Ali Ould. Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in  50

[48] De Villiers, Marq & Sheila Hirtle. Space, Time, and Timbuktu 22-26

[49] De Villiers, Marq & Sheila Hirtle. Space, Time, and Timbuktu 22-26

[50] Sidi, Ali Ould. . Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in  49

[51] Sidi, Ali Ould. . Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in  49

[52] Sidi, Ali Ould. . Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in  54

[53] Sidi, Ali Ould. . Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in  55

[54] Sidi, Ali Ould. . Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in  55

[55] De Villiers, Marq & Sheila Hirtle. Space, Time, and Timbuktu 22-26

[56] Sidi, Ali Ould. . Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in  50

[57] Sidi, Ali Ould. . Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in  49

[58] Sidi, Ali Ould. . Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in  49

[59] Sidi, Ali Ould. . Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in  49

[60] Sidi, Ali Ould. . Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in  55

[61] Sidi, Ali Ould. . Monuments & Traditional Know-how: the Example of Mosques in  

[62] De Villiers, Marq & Sheila Hirtle. Space, Time, and Timbuktu 22-26

[63] Prussin, Labelle. Non-Western Sacred sites: African Models. 428

[64] Prussin, Labelle. Non-Western Sacred sites: African Models. 428

[65] Prussin, Labelle. Non-Western Sacred sites: African Models. 429

[66] Prussin, Labelle. Non-Western Sacred sites: African Models. 429

Posted on October 31, 2009, in School Paper, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Exceptional post but I was wondering if you could write a
    litte more on this topic? I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit further. Thank you!

  2. I was excited to read this and appreciate the information. Truly. However, I think it would’ve “popped” more if you had included pictures of the architecture.

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