Photo: Sharaf Maksumov, Shutterstock

Mali and the Ottoman Empire

The civil war some years ago in the West African nation of Mali put the former colonial ruler France until recently back on the map to intervene militarily. This mission, which was not solely about bringing peace to the area, has turned the world’s attention back to this part of Africa. For people living in far-away parts of the world, events seem far from home when they hear about destruction and bloodshed in the news. After all, it is a country that most do not know and that is not rooted in their history. At least, that is how it seems at first glance.

Our children learn about the black continent in schools in the context of colonialism and imperialism, but Africa had already produced many regionally significant empires before the 19th century. One of these was the Songhai Empire, which in the 16th century stretched across what is now Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria and Benin.

Timbuktu was considered the heart of this powerful state, which was not only the most important West African centre for trade but also for Islam. The city’s wealth, which reached its zenith through the trade in gold, salt and slaves in the 16th century, still adorned a prestigious caste of Islamic scholars and scientists.

All good prerequisites for conquest, thought the Moroccan Sherif Ahmad Al-Mansur, and in 1591 he conquered Timbuktu and large parts of the Songhai Empire. The Moroccans’ rule in Timbuktu marked the initial decline of the once magnificent city on the Niger. Kilometre-long caravans loaded with gold and scrolls headed for Fez. Many Islamic scholars were deported to Morocco in the years that followed or, if they posed a political threat to the occupiers, massacred on the spot. The Sherif made Timbuktu and its surroundings a Moroccan province and appointed a Pasha as governor.

However, Moroccan power waned from 1618, when Fez last sent military support. With the fall of Ahmad III al-Abbas, the last scion of the Saadian dynasty, in 1659, Timbuktu regained its independence. From the descendants of the pashas of Timbuktu, the Islamic clergy elected a new governor whose powers shrank to a mayor’s office in the coming centuries.

Photo: Tremens productions, Shutterstock

For the Ottoman Empire, Timbuktu was relevant in two ways: On the one hand, it was the scholarly tradition and high knowledge that made this far-flung region so interesting to Constantinople, and on the other hand, Timbuktu was the important transhipment point for special goods. To this day, important religious legal opinions and writings – in the Ottoman language – can be found in the city’s mosques.

But what was the relationship between the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the entire north of the African continent (with the exception of Morocco), and Timbuktu and its neighbours in what is now Mali? First of all, it must be said that Africa was hardly explored until the middle of the 19th century. The course of the Ottoman Empire’s borders on the African continent was determined by the natural Sahara desert.

It is therefore necessary for researchers to know how far the Ottomans’ influence extended. As far as Timbuktu is concerned, we know that the Ottomans had a permanent envoy in the city who represented the interests of the governor of Tripoli in West Africa, and thus also those of the High Porte. The Moroccan pashas and their successors were officially recognised by the High Porte.

With the collapse of the Songhai Empire, small principalities developed that sparked a broad-based religious war in the early 19th century. The “Jihad of the Fulbe” sparked a decades-long conflict among the Islamic principalities. 

The Islamic scholars in Timbuktu had already realised at the beginning that this conflict was much more a question of prestige and power and had nothing to do with Islam at all. When the West African Messina Empire under their ruler Ahmadu Seku declared a jihad against the neighbouring Segu Tukulor Empire and he wanted to take the title of caliph, Sidi Ahmad al-Baqqai, at the time the most famous African Islamic scholar of Timbuktu, rebuked him in a letter that only the Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid I Han, as caliph of the Muslims, was allowed to declare a jihad: “Oh Ahmadu Seku! It is not in your power to declare jihad on a state. You are not the Imam of the Muslims. In these times, it is either Moulai Abd al-Rahman of Morocco or Sultan Abdülmecid I Han in Constantinople. Moulai Abd al-Rahman would have the right, but Sultan Abdülmecid is the greater, wiser and more powerful of the two! You, however, are just an ordinary commander!”

Based on this statement by Sidi Ahmad al-Baqqai, it can be assumed that Islamic scholars had recognised the Ottoman caliphate and mentioned the name of the Ottoman sultan in Friday prayers at least since 1839. In 1869, the tribal fighting between Tuareg and Haggars reached its peak, so that the Ottoman administration in Tripoli decided to intervene in the conflict. In order to re-secure the trade routes, the Ottoman Empire sent a punitive expedition of 2,000 soldiers under Ali b. Mehmed Bey to the area and defeated the Tuareg in open field battle at Ghat.

In a ceremonial act, the Ottoman flag was raised and the area around Ghat was placed under the rule of the Ottoman Sultan Abdülaziz I Han. A new administrative district of Ghat (Gat Kazası) was created, which was placed under the sub-province of Fezzan in present-day Libya. If you look at the size of this “district” on today’s map, it already resembled an Ottoman province (vilayet)! It stretched from Ghat in Libya to Agades in Niger via Gao, Timbuktu and Djenne in Mali. 40 soldiers occupied Djenne without bloodshed and raised the Sultan’s flag to the cheers of the people. When the French occupied the city in 1893 and raised their flag, Lieutenant Ömer Mikdat Efendi was sent with 20 soldiers to recapture the city. The city was taken and the flag of the half-moon flew over Djenne once again.

Little was known in Constantinople about what was happening in Africa; after all, much of the continent was still unexplored and the district of Ghat lay in the heart of the Sahara desert. In order not to put a greater strain on diplomatic relations with France, the area around Timbuktu and Gao was officially abandoned by the Ottomans in 1903. But the Ottoman soldiers remained there. The Ottoman flag could still be seen over Djenne and Agades in 1910. When they had to leave, the soldiers handed over their flags and weapons to the Tuareg tribes, who in the meantime had become loyal allies of the Ottomans. The Tuareg continued their fight against the French occupiers – under the banner of the Sultan.

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