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Collection Islamic Manuscripts from Mali

Traditional Landscape

Timbuktu, an important center for culture and commerce, is a city whose monuments and architecture reflect its physical environment. Timbuktu is situated on the edge of the ever increasing Sahara Desert as well as on the Niger River, whose waters provide for the greenery that breaks up the uniform tan color of the buildings. The river and the earth supply the basic building material which is still often used–the mud brick, similar in nature to the adobe brick of the American Southwest. The nature of this building material restricts the height of the buildings, except in special cases. For example, the minarets of mosques have wooden beams with exposed ends that are used to reinforce the towers. These high walls are not load-bearing; their monumental nature is a clear indication of the wealth of Timbuktu during its heyday, as well as the size of its population at that time. The buildings are constructed in the classical style of West African Islamic architecture.

At the height of its glory beginning in the 14th century–until its decline in the 17th century– Timbuktu was a religious and trade center. Mosques, such as the famous Sankore Mosque, were more than structures where believers worshiped, they were also important centers of education and scholarship. The mosques had libraries containing manuscripts such as those featured in this online presentation. Because Timbuktu was a center for commerce, many warehouses were constructed to house merchandise in preparation for transport. Both warehouses and monumental buildings were built with mud brick.

The city’s domestic architecture also is invariant in color–tan. House doors are made of wood, however, and are often decorated, allowing families to express their individuality. Palm trees planted in the courtyards of houses also provide both shade and add color to the surroundings.