Home of the prestigious Koranic Sankore University and other madrasas, Timbuktu was an intellectual and spiritual capital and a centre for the propagation of Islam throughout Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries. Its three great mosques, Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia, recall Timbuktu’s golden age. Although continuously restored, these monuments are today under threat from desertification.
The three great mosques of Timbuktu, restored by the Qadi Al Aqib in the 16th century, bear witness to the golden age of the intellectual and spiritual capital at the end of the Askia dynasty. They played an essential part in the spread of Islam in Africa at an early period.
Timbuktu is thought to have been founded towards the end of the 5th century of the Hegira by a group of Imakcharen Tuaregs who, having wandered 250 km south of their base, established a temporary camp guarded by an old woman, Buktu. Gradually, Tim-Buktu (the place of Buktu) became a small sedentary village at the crossroads of several trade routes. Quickly converted to Islam (the two great mosques of Djingareyber and Sankore appeared during the Mandingue period), the market city of Timbuktu reached its apex under the reign of the Askia (1493-1591). It then became an important centre of Koranic culture with the University of Sankore and numerous schools attended, it is said, by some 25,000 students. Scholars, engineers and architects from various regions in Africa rubbed shoulders with wise men and marabouts in this intellectual and religious centre. Early on, Timbuktu attracted travellers from far-away countries.
Although the mosques of El-Hena, Kalidi and Algoudour Djingareye have been destroyed, three essential monuments – the mosques of Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia – fortunately still stand as testimony to the grandeur of Timbuktu.
The Mosque of Djingareyber was built by the sultan Kankan Moussa after his return in 1325 from a pilgrimage to Mecca. Between 1570 and 1583 the Qadi of Timbuktu, Imam Al Aqib, had it reconstructed and enlarged, adding the whole southern part and the wall enclosing the graveyard situated to the west. The central minaret dominates the town and is the most visible landmark of the urban landscape. A smaller minaret on the eastern facade completes the profile of the Great Mosque which has three inner courtyards.
Like Djingareyber, the Mosque of Sankore, built during the Mandingue period, was restored by the Imam Al Aqib between 1578 and 1582. He had the sanctuary demolished and rebuilt according to the measurements of the Kaaba at Mecca, which he had taken with a rope during his pilgrimage.
The Mosque of Sidi Yahia, south of Sankore, was probably built around 1400 by the marabout Sheikh El Moktar Hamalla in anticipation of a holy man who appeared 40 years later in the person of Cherif Sidi Yahia, who was then chosen as Imam. It was restored in 1577-78 by the Imam Al Aqib. Apart from the mosques, the World Heritage site comprises 16 cemeteries and mausolea, essential elements in a religious system as, according to popular belief; they constitute a rampart that shields the city from all misfortune. The most ancient mausoleum is that of Sheikh Abul Kassim Attouaty, who died in year 936 of the Hegira (1529) and was buried 150 m west of the city with 50 ulemas and holy persons from Touat. Equally noteworthy and from the same general period are the graves of the scholar Sidi Mahmoudou, who died in year 955 of the Hegira (1547) and of Qadi Al Aqfb, the restorer of mosques, who died in year 991 of the Hegira (1583).