After Islamist Threat Repelled, Spotlight Hits ‘Jews’ of Fabled Timbuktu

Ancient Saharan City Is Home to 1,000 Jewish Desendants

Rescue: Men recover ancient manuscripts in January after the French seized Timbuktu from Islamic rebels.
Getty Images
Rescue: Men recover ancient manuscripts in January after the French seized Timbuktu from Islamic rebels.

By Nathan Guttman

Published February 22, 2013, issue of March 01, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Timbuktu, the remote and ancient Sahara Desert city that was until recently controlled by Al Qaeda-affiliated groups, is not often thought of as an outpost of Jewish life. Yet this West African town of some 55,000, in northern Mali, is still home to an estimated 1,000 descendants of Jews who converted to Islam centuries ago.

In three villages near the city, local residents still refer to these descendants as “the Jews,” but visitors and activists report that Malians of Jewish ancestry did not suffer any form of discrimination, even with the infiltration of violent Islamist extremists to the region. It also appears that the ancient documents that serve as proof of Jewish life in Timbuktu survived the recent attacks on the city’s historic library.

Interest in this Jewish history peaked two decades ago, when a local scholar, armed with ancient trade documents containing Hebrew script, launched a research project that documented the Jewish roots of some local residents. This ignited a search for identity among some of these individuals, and brought a degree of international attention to their existence. But mutual disappointment followed amid disputes over financial aid from Jews overseas. Activists on both sides have since given up on reconnecting residents of Timbuktu to their Jewish roots.

In the West, Timbuktu, which lies on the edge of the Sahara Desert and close to the Niger River, has become a metaphor for the impossibly remote and inaccessible. But its long idyll of deep obscurity in Western consciousness ended in 2008, when jihadis affiliated with the Al Qaeda affiliate in the Islamic Maghreb took over the city — in tandem with a separatist, more secular group of Tuareg nomads in rebellion against Mali’s central government.

The Al Qaeda jihadis, who came to dominate northern Mali, soon drove out the Tuaregs. They also imposed a violent and draconian version of Islam on its inhabitants, who have long been known for practicing a moderate and tolerant form of Islam. Music, long central to Malian culture, was banned. There were public hand amputations for alleged thieves. And the gravesite shrines of venerated Sufi saints were toppled.

This past January, France sent troops to the region to help the Malian government retake the city. The rebels quickly retreated without a fight, but not before setting fire to the city’s library, which housed thousands of medieval manuscripts from the period when Timbuktu was the capital and the storied cultural center of North Africa’s Songhai Empire.

During these recent years of tension, the few channels of communication between American Jewish activists and Jewish descendants in the Timbuktu region dried up, and visits became too dangerous to carry out. Still, experts on the region believe that Jewish descendants were not targeted by the rebels and were not subjected to any hardship specially targeting them.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • This 007 hates guns, drives a Prius, and oh yeah — goes to shul with Scarlett Johansson's dad.
  • Meet Alvin Wong. He's the happiest man in America — and an observant Jew. The key to happiness? "Humility."
  • "My first bra was a training bra, a sports bra that gave the illusion of a flat chest."
  • "If the people of Rwanda can heal their broken hearts and accept the Other as human, so can we."
  • Aribert Heim, the "Butcher of Mauthausen," died a free man. How did he escape justice?
  • This guy skipped out on seder at his mom's and won a $1 million in a poker tournament. Worth it?
  • Sigal Samuel's family amulet isn't just rumored to have magical powers. It's also a symbol of how Jewish and Indian rituals became intertwined over the centuries. http://jd.fo/a3BvD Only three days left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.