Meanwhile, back on Poverty Alley and Desolation Row…
When Europeans first set out on their conquests of the world, starting at the end of the 15th century, it was a matter of common understanding that European Christians were the most advanced form of humanity yet developed, while everyone else was inferior to the point that most were not even regarded as fully human, and were therefore murderable or enslaveable with impunity, though conversion to Christianity at least gave them the chance of evolving fully into humans after a number of generations.
Three hundred years earlier, the greatest trading empire in the world was centred upon Timbuktou and Gao, the latter the capital of Mali. It encompassed an area of land three times the size of modern France, and stretched all the way to the Atlantic Ocean in the west. More than a million manuscripts from the time, written in Sudani, a dialect of Arabic, demonstrate extensive and sophisticated knowledge of most intellectual material, including astronomy and mathematics, the two subjects above any others for which thinking people in Europe were being burned at the stake at the time of Columbus, and for at least a century afterwards. The Mali Empire, like those of Ghana before it, and the Songhai after it, were Moslem, and developed in parallel with the great Moslem civilisations further north, across the Maghreb in Egypt and Tunisia and Morocco and Spain. There were more schools, including universities, in the Mali Empire, than in the whole of Europe combined.
Clearly Europeans had at least some inkling of this because, even to this day, people in Europe still make reference to Timbuktou, though most assume it is another Shangrila or Eldorado, a town from some writer’s imagination, to the extent that 19th century dictionaries include the name, but define it as a metaphor for “any faraway place”.
The Mali empire lasted for three hundred years, and to be fair it was not the arrival of the Europeans which brought it down; that had already been achieved by the Nigerian Songhai, and then by the Moroccans who defeated the Songhai at the end of the 16th century, and made Timbuktou the capital. Today Timbuktou is so far declined that the Berber origin of the city’s name has become accurate again, not Tim but Tin-Bouctou, the place of the sand dunes.
Today’s Mali gives little hint of the greatness of its past – but then, neither does today’s Athens, and Jerusalem before 1967 was much the same, though neither of them have witnessed the sort of political and economic disintegration currently facing Mali, a consequence of the Tuareg peoples in the north of the country seceding in 2012 and declaring their own state, Azawad – essentially a conflict between nomadic Berberin whose roots lay in Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and across the Maghreb, traditional Moslems who had run the country for many years, and the new breed of radical Moslem who has begun to appear globally. A military coup followed, and not long afterwards the French launched Operation Serval, enabling the government to push back the Moslem radicals, and to reclaim most of the north.
Mali is fortunate in having the river Niger, which renders it self-sufficient in food; cotton and gold are exported, but it is listed among the twenty-five poorest nations in the world.
Marks against: 4 (contemporary)
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