Kathy Bennett had been in many Saharan cities during her time with The Company. But even as depressed Saharan cities went, Timbuktu wasn’t doing well. The sixty thousand or so people here were barely hanging onto a life that was harsh at best.
The economy was dependant on salt mines and trade with the Saharan nomads. Tourism had been seriously disrupted when Al Qaeda began kidnapping foreigners in 2008. Despite the research she had done it was still hard to believe this was the famous Timbuktu.
Legend said Timbuktu—or Tombouctou— had been originally settled by Egyptians. But it was the Saharan nomads that built the trading center there. Gold from the south and salt from the north fueled it growth. Under the Malian Emperor Askia Muhammad it was transformed into a center of Islamic culture and learning.
When Moroccan armies took Timbuktu in the late sixteenth century it began the city’s decline. The Saharan tribesmen seized it two hundred years later and it changed hands several times until the French finally seized it in 1879. Seventy years earlier the Frenchman Rene Caille won ten thousand francs prize for being the first European to reach the city and return.
Life seemed to have changed little over the hundred fifty since Caille entered the city and Kathy could imagine his reaction.
Nomads, cattle herders and camel caravans still crossed paths here, trading salt, livestock, and dates. The one bright in the city was its manuscript collection and the University.
Founded nearly a thousand years ago, Timbuktu’s University had been surprisingly similar to contemporary European Universities. Its three madrassahs taught over twenty thousand students and the library held nearly a million manuscripts. But that had ended in the sixteenth century and The University of Timbuktu had been a legend until four years ago.
Kathy had read and reread the dossier in the jet’s library about the new University. Four years ago an anonymous donor had funneled twenty million dollars through shady Swiss banks to reestablish the University. A new campus had been built on twenty five acres east of town. They’d also repaved the road through town and modernized the airport’s Instrument Landing System(ILS).
The thousand students at the University studied a variety of subjects but the school’s main focus was document research and restoration. Anthropology, ethnology, information technology, library science, photograph and chemistry were some of the best equipped departments. These were staffed with top notch faculty drawn from far and wide by generous salaries funded by the mysterious benefactor.
When the SUVs rolled onto the campus Kathy was impressed by the nine two story buildings lining the road. Their design mirrored the architecture of the Sankore mosque, home to the original university. The single two story classroom building stood just north of the circle drive next to the three story library and manuscript depository. Both were lavishly built in the Sankore architecture style. The school’s 6 megawatt hour solar farm was visible from the back of the school’s property.
As the driver stopped in front of the library Kathy pulled on a headscarf and they got out. A gravel path led to a porch with a heavy, carved wooden door. The lobby was simply but elegantly decorated with a tile floor and walls decorated with Islamic tiles. John walked to the reception desk where a young black man sat studying a thick chemistry book in French. He looked up and greeted them in fluent English.
“Good morning, welcome to Timbuktu University’s Manuscript Department. How can I assist you?”
John passed his card across the desk. “I’m a reporter interested in Malian metalwork that seems to have come from this area nearly a thousand years ago. I was told this was the place to come.”
The young man smiled broadly. “It certainly is.” He gestured to a waiting area to one side of the room. “Please have a seat and someone will be with you shortly.”
As John and Kathy sat in the comfortable but plain chairs the receptionist made a phone call. A minute or two later a stately African man in a western style suit entered the lobby and straight to where they sat. Both stood and he extended his hand to John, speaking in English.
“Mr. Parker, I am the Dean of the University and am pleased you have come here with your question.” He turned to Kathy and extended his hand. “Miss…”
John spoke. “Andrea Litz, my photographer and assistant.”
The man shook her hand. “Miss Litz, pleased to meet you.”
Kathy nodded and remained silent. This was a Muslim country and not everyone considered women equal with men. She was willing to go toe to toe with any man, but discretion was the better part of valor. Cultural sensitivity was an essential part of her work with The Company. The dean was speaking to both of them now.
“Will you join me in my office?”
As they followed the distinguished older man down the hall Kathy reflected that he looked just like any history professor anywhere else in the world. And he would be welcome in any college anywhere on the planet.
Her prep work on the plane had revealed quite a bit about him. He was born to wealthy Nigerian parents and educated in France. After getting a PhD from Oxford he returned to Africa and spent twenty years compiling a thirty volume set on pre-Islamic Africa. Twenty years later it was still the best in the field. He was the perfect choice to be Dean of the University.
His office was a book lined room with a single window looking out on a lush garden. As they settled across the desk from him a young Nigerian man set a tray of coffee on the desk then left. Kathy knew this was the Dean’s grandson who was his secretary and protégé. The man’s son had filled this role before taking a prestigious position with a leading South African University.
“So, how can I help you Mr. Parker?”
John laid a manila folder on the large desk. “I’m doing an article on archaeology and came across these specimens. Can you identify them?”
Opening the folder, the Nigerian studied the photos of the iron tools from under the Mississippi mound. Summoning his grandson, he had the young man retrieve several books from the shelves. After comparing the photos to the books he finally looked up and nodded.
“May I ask what exactly your story is about?“
“The iron trade and the trade in iron tools specifically.“
The academic nodded. “Where exactly did you find these samples?”
John nodded. “Someone in the office passed them to me when they heard about my story. They didn’t tell me much about them, just asked me if I was interested.”
The dean regarded the two with interest and contemplation. Finally he shrugged and nodded. “I can say I have never seen any examples of Malian tools this well preserved. Except for a few details I would suspect a modern facsimile of the original. However, that is out of the question. These are most definitely the original item.”
John was taking notes. “How old are they?”
“I’m going to guess fifteen hundred years old but to be certain they would have to be carbon dated. The Mande people have been experts in iron working for several millennia.”
John was impressed. “That’s a long time.”
“Its not just the craft itself they value. Blacksmiths are considered to have spiritual powers. The very act of taking rock and transforming it into tools was looked upon as something supernatural — a gift from the gods.”
“Blacksmiths were held in high esteem. They provided spiritual, medical and political advice to the people. Their skills—and secrets— were passed from father to son. The hunter’s shirts they made were believed to endow supernatural powers.”
John was still scribbling. Finally he looked up.
“Which part of Mali did these come from?”
The man sipped his coffee and sat back, regarding the two for a very long time. Finally he spoke. “These were manufactured by Dogon craftsmen not far to the south of here. As I said these specimens are the best I have ever seen.”
As John made another note Kathy kept her poker face on while her excitement mounted at the mention of the Dogon. Finally the journalist closed his notepad and stood. “Sir, we are very privileged to have met you and very grateful for your help.”
As the man stood slowly Kathy spoke for the first time. “Doctor, it’s privilege to finally meet you. Your Encyclopedia of Pre-Islamic Africa was a great help in my classes several years ago.”
He smiled at her. “Thank you. That book was hard work, but truly a labor of love.” He looked at the manila folder John held. “There is so much about Africa that is unknown even here.”
The three moved from the inner office, past the secretary and into the hallway. “Very few people know the grandson of the great Sundiata, Mansa Muhammad, sailed west with a fleet of ships. Some scholar actually believe he reach America.”
Even though John and Kathy kept their eyes on the scholar, each could feel the excitement growing in the other. The older man went on. “Five hundred years ago a French noble married a Songhay princess and took her back to Paris. Her personal physician treated the future Charles VII many times. West Africa and Western Europe were very close commercially and diplomatically. Over half of Europe’s pre-Colombian gold came from the Malian Empire. Five hundred years ago the Italian historian Beneditto Dei was sent here by Florentine bankers to negotiate a trade agreement.” He nodded gravely. “The wars that cemented Switzerland’s democracy were funded by our gold.”
They had reach the lobby now and he smiled at the two of them. “Did you know my father wanted me to be a petroleum engineer? When I was sent to France I had to take my history classes at the same time as the chemistry classes. After a year my uncle discovered what I was doing. But by then my history grades were so good and my chemistry grades so bad I had to drop chemistry.”
Everyone smiled and they all shook hands. He went on. “When you find out more about the specimens please let me know.”
John nodded. “I will. Thank you again for your help.”
The two Americans left the building and the man returned to his office. The young man behind the desk watched the black SUVs pull away from the curb. He had never seen the Men In Black before but had heard of them once or twice. That was why he waited five minutes to pick up the phone and dial a number written on a card in his pocket.