Unlike the written history that helps keep Europe’s past alive, the history of Africa is conveyed in myth, song and dance. That was, to say the least, the common worldly assumption. But it simply isn’t true. Now, Africa’s written history is quietly being brought to light in the most undefined of places, Timbuktu. Almost everyone has heard of Timbuktu; yet, only a few people know that the town exists. BEYOND TIMBUKTU is a new one-hour-plus documentary film whose purpose is to shed light on the story of a rich and colorful West African literary culture that had been lost. With support, mainly from Libya and South Africa, Timbuktu in Mali is now witnessing a renaissance as work is underway to copy, restore and interpret its timeless legacy.
Timbuktu is a living medieval city located in the northernmost center of the West African country, Mali, between the Niger River and Sahara Desert. Settlements in the town began about 600 AD. African traders from the south made their way up the long river in boats loaded with their riches: gold, grains, honey and ivory. Arab and Muslim merchants from the north arrived in camel caravans and brought salt, copper, dates, silk, and horses. Coming together at a magical oasis, the Epopotamo, a ‘well’ owned by an old wise-woman, where Africans and Arabs met and traded gold for salt. Ultimately, the area rapidly developed into a commercial emporium, civilizational magnet and center for Islamic scholarship.
I became interested in making this film about Timbuktu for several reasons. My grandmother came from Mali, so I have a personal interest in learning about the region where I have family ties. I also have a growing concern for historical and cultural misconstructions and the widespread of ignorance in today’s world. For instance, A comment British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper made in 1963, still resonates: “Perhaps in the future there will be some African history to teach,” Professor Trevor-Roper told his students. “But at present there is none. There is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness.” Such a scandalous and selfish remark is certainly not the only force shaping young minds in today’s world. Everything from heresy to religious teachings to comic books, films, popular music and family upbringings play a major role in forming people’s view of the "other."
The fact is, while Europe was still groping its way through the dark ages, Timbuktu stood as a light house of intellectual enlightenment, and undoubtedly the most bibliophilic institution on earth. Scientists, astronomers, scholars, engineers, poets and philosophers gathered there to exchange and debate ideas and preserve their findings on paper; hundreds of thousands of documents, texts, scripts and poems, written in Arabic and various African languages. At least 600,000 books, manuscripts and original historical documents on West African cultural lore, Islamic laws and scientific treaties are known to survive; some written as early as the 12th century.
The medieval literary and cultural heritage, and the threat it faces is the focus of my film. BEYOND TIMBUKTU is part history and part mystery. The extraordinary manuscripts of Timbuktu: invaluable historical documents, objects of tremendous beauty, and a testament to a great place of learning and civilization. For centuries, caravan travelers made daring journeys across the Sahara Desert to reach the people and markets of West African towns and villages, where they traded salt, gold, slaves, spices, textiles and books. By the mid-fifteenth century, Timbuktu had developed into a major center of Islamic learning. The city's libraries became repositories of all the world's knowledge; housing not only works by Arab and African writers but the collection also includes volumes of Greek and Roman classics.
For the most part, the place of Timbuktu in the history of Islamic scholarship goes back almost 1,000 years; a time when Arabic and Islam first penetrated the West African literary region. This area’s history goes back to a point, some 600 to 800 years ago, when learning in Timbuktu became so central that even those scholars from Morocco, Egypt, Arabia, Andalusia and Córdoba in Spain, the Orient and other places in the center of the Muslim world came to Timbuktu to study. Timbuktu was a literary center removed from the destructive modern world, beyond. Yes, indeed, an African Eldorado. Arabs called the camel the “jewel” of the Sahara, because it can travel in the desert for weeks without water. Timbuktu, if it were so rich, resilient, robust and glamorous, why did it turn into such a bone yard?