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FACING DOWN THE RULERS OF WALL STREET A HUNDRED YEARS AGO. THEY ARE BACK.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

FROM HERE TO TIMBUKTU

I have to say that Mansa Musa made quite an entrance. He materialized out of the Sahara heat shimmers like a mirage in 1324. His unexpected arrival stunned the Islamic potentates of Cairo and Mecca out of their smug self assurance, and shocked the European Christians out of their complacency. Because when Mansa paused in Cairo to stock up on souvenirs, he paid in gold. And he bought a lot of souvenirs. Mansa was leading 80 camels just to carry his gold. He came from a land whose ancient name was Kaya Magha, which meant “King of Gold”. And Mansa was certainly that. Mansa spent so much gold on his Hajji, that for the only time in all of recorded history, the price of gold in all of Europe and Africa and the Middle East was determined by one single man. And no one had ever heard of Mansa before, nor of his kingdom of Mali, nor of the city he claimed to have come from, the mysterious and mythical, Timbuktu. In the Berber language of the desert tribes, the name means “the well at the end of the world”.
The river Niger begins as a tiny spring in the West African highlands of Ghana, just 150 miles from the Atlantic. But the Niger immediately turns its back on the ocean and instead flows eastward. As it does the river collects vast amounts of gold, which could easily be extracted from the waters.
Dugout canoes then carried the gold downstream, following the river’s arc to the north, penetrating the desert. At the peak of that arc, in Timbuktu, slabs of salt, mined from the blistering floor of the heart of the Sahara, and carried 500 miles across the sands on camel back, were exchanged for the gold.
The salt was then transferred to other canoes for distribution a thousand miles further south in the equatorial heart of black Africa. There, the final commodity, slaves, were  exchanged for the salt and then marched, locked in shackles, back upstream.
And it was at the point of contact between the two worlds, the Arab north and the African south, that the economic ties were joined. And at about the same time that William the Conquer was winning the battle of Hastings, the village of Timbuktu was founded.
What made this trade possible, what made the city of Timbuktu possible, was the Niger River and an extraordinary pack animal, the Arabian camel (Camelus dromedarius). This ungulate with three stomachs evolved in North America, but went extinct there about 1 million years ago, at the start of the ice ages. By the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago, its new home range was the arid and unforgiving Arabian Peninsula.
This amazing beast can lose up to 40% of its body weight, and can gulp down, up to 21 gallons of salt laden brackish water within 10 minutes; either of which behavior would kill a lesser creature. Its mouth and throat are so soft that it can ingest thorns and bare branches without injury. Its huge soft padded feet allow it to climb sand dunes with ease. Its long eyelashes and double eyelids allow it to survive the most fierce sand storms on earth. Known in Arabic as a Jamal, the camel can easily carry 200 pounds of cargo for twenty miles a day through blistering heat. And it can do it for fifty years.
The camel was first domesticated in Arabia about 3.500 years ago, and by the time they were introduced into the Sahara by Arab traders about the second century A.E, there were few wild dromedaries left. It was these ships of the desert, combined with the great river, which built the greatest of West African kingdoms, Mali.
Mansa was the second Musa (or “King of Kings”) from Mali to go on Hajji. His predecessor, Kankan Musa, had appointed Mansa as his Deputy King when he began his pilgrimage. But the desert had swallowed Kankan and his party without a trace, and after a year of silence, in 1307, Mansa had been crowned Musa of Mali, Emir of Melle, Lord of the Mines of Wangara, conqueror of Ghanata and Futa-Jallon, and quite possibly the richest man in the world. Only Genghis Kahn ruled a larger empire.
Mali was a multiethnic and multi-religious kingdom larger than Western Europe, and containing some 400 cities and uncounted villages. Timbuktu was the gateway for Islam into Mali. There it thrived alongside shrines to Sango, the thunder God, and Legba, messenger to all the African gods. A devout Muslim, Mansa felt no need to convert all his subjects. Instead, when he retuned to Mali in about 1325, he was inspired to rebuild Timbuktu, already a mud brick metropolis of 100,000 people.
Mansa brought an architect from Muslim Spain to design his new palace, as well as the mud brick Djinguereber Mosque (above), where 2,000 people took their daily prayers. The cities’ University of Sankoré began attracting world class astronomers and mathematicians and Islamic scholars. A Mali proverb observed, “Salt comes from the north, gold from the south…but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom are only to be found in Timbuktu.”
The city was famous for its libraries. Leo Africanus, an Islamic historian, wrote that in Timbuktu, “There is a great demand for books, and more profit is made from the trade in books than from any other line of business.” The scholar Ahmad Baba claimed that his personal library was one the smaller ones in the city, containing only 1,600 books. The entire city and its environs was said to hold during the golden age of Mali perhaps 10,000 ancient, pre-Islamic manuscripts. Book copying was a big business in Timbuktu.
Musa ruled his kingdom for perhaps 25 years. He died about the year 1337. The city of Timbuktu was ruled by his descendents for another century, until the empire of Mali was replaced by the Sunni empire, which was more African than Muslim. But the stories of so much gold attracted the interest of European monarchs, and in the sixteenth century Portuguese “explorers”, pushing down the coast, reached out and destroyed Timbuktu without ever seeing the city. First contact diseases killed thousands. Armies from Morocco then killed more when they captured the weakened city in 1591.
But although the Moroccan leader Ahmad I al-Mansur hungered for the wealth of Timbuktu, he had no conception on what that wealth was based. In 1593 he began to dismantle the economic engine by first exiling the scholars, men like Ahmad Baba, because he considered them “disloyal”. For the first time it its history ignorance reigned in Timbuktu. The economic engine had lost its spark, and slowly died.
When Europeans finally arrived in the nineteenth century they were shocked to discover the mysterious and romantic city of Timbuktu was a dusty backwater, little more than a local market town, slowly being reclaimed by the desert from which it had sprung.
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