Granted, I work with these materials daily, but I cannot help but be fascinated with the beautiful visuals available on Aluka regarding the ancient center of learning in Timbuktu. You can see some of the range on Aluka here.

For those of you who might have thought Timbuktu was just a euphemism for some far off backwater, think again. According to the essay on Aluka written by Dr. Susan McIntosh of Rice University, a leading expert on Timbuktu:

“During the 14th century, the town apparently experienced a period of prosperity, marked by the construction of the Djinguereber and Sankoré Mosques by Kankan Moussa, the mansa of Mali. He imported an Andalusian architect, Abu Ishaq as-Saheli, who was paid a princely sum of gold to design and build the mosques.

Following the collapse of the Empire of Mali in 1433, Timbuktu was incorporated into the Songhay Empire in 1468, and reached its apogee of prosperity and scholarship in the 16th century during the reign of the Songhay Askia Dynasty. The Sankoré and Djinguereber Mosques were rebuilt and enlarged in the 1570s, and the University of Sankoré was reported to have thousands of students studying theology, law, astrology, and other subjects.

When the Andalusian-born Leo Africanus visited Timbuktu in the early 1500s, he reported that people were very wealthy, and that books and manuscripts imported from North Africa were the most profitable commodity. Libraries containing these manuscripts are among the most brilliant jewels of the city’s heritage.”

I have always been fond of the story of Mansa Mussa, the most powerful of all of the ancient Malian kings, of which Timbuktu was the highest seat of higher learning. He travelled to Mecca, as a pious Muslim, and literally levelled the world economy. According to the Timbuktu Foundation:

“Mansa Mussa’s pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 had made Mali known worldwide. The great rulertook 60,000 porters with him. Each porter carried 3 kilograms of pure gold, that is, 180,000 kilograms or at least 180 tons of gold (Reference: Volume IV UNESCO General History of Africa, pages 197-200).

He had so much gold with him that when he stopped in Egypt, the Egyptian currency lost its value and as result, the name of Mali and Timbuktu appeared on the 14th century world map.”


On Aluka, there are many Timbuktu manuscripts dating from the heydays of Timbuktu learning. These are hand-written, extraordinarily fragile and available digitally. Aluka has GIS maps, 3D visuals, images and other documents that help to contextualize the location.

By Michael Gallagher

My name is Michael Sean Gallagher. I am a Lecturer in Digital Education at the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. I am Co-Founder and Director of Panoply Digital, a consultancy dedicated to ICT and mobile for development (M4D); we have worked with USAID, GSMA, UN Habitat, Cambridge University and more on education and development projects. I was a researcher on the Near Futures Teaching project, a project that explores how teaching at The University of Edinburgh unfold over the coming decades, as technology, social trends, patterns of mobility, new methods and new media continue to shift what it means to be at university. Previously, I was the Research Associate on the NERC, ESRC, and AHRC Global Challenges Research Fund sponsored GCRF Research for Emergency Aftershock Forecasting (REAR) project. I was an Assistant Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (한국외국어대학교) in Seoul, Korea. I have also completed a doctorate at University College London (formerly the independent Institute of Education, University of London) on mobile learning in the humanities in Korea.

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