Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

Lesson 5: Trekking to Timbuktu: Timbuktu's Golden Age of Scholarship--Teacher Version

Created November 17, 2010


The Lesson


Timbuktu French Map

1743 French Map of Northwest Africa, depicting the areas covered in this curriculum unit.

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

Timbuktu reached its peak as a center of Islamic culture and scholarship in the 16th century. This was its Golden Age. It was now a major city in the Songhai Empire. Of the city's population of nearly 100,000, a quarter were students and scholars. Many of these came from other parts of the Islamic world to study or teach at the cities many madrasas (Islamic schools) and its three universities, the most renowned being that associated with the Sankore Mosque.

Guiding Questions

  • What was the Songhai Empire?
  • What factors made Timbuktu a spiritual and intellectual center of Islam?
  • What were the schools there like?
  • What books were used?

Learning Objectives

  • Identify the empire of Songhai and describe Timbuktu's role in its economy
  • Understand how Timbuktu became an important spiritual and intellectual center of Islam
  • Describe the Islamic schools of Timbuktu
  • Understand how manuscripts were produced and used in Timbuktu

Preparation Instructions

Become familiar with the lesson material. Bookmark relevant websites for later reference.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. The Songhai

In the 15th century, the leaders of a kingdom known as the Songhai (also spelled Songhay) began expanding their domain along the Niger River. Like the kingdoms of Ghana and Mali that flourished in the region in earlier centuries, Songhai grew powerful because of its control of local trade routes. Timbuktu would soon become the heart of the mighty Songhai Empire.

  • Access Empires of the Western Sudan. Click on the map to enlarge it. Find Timbuktu. This empire is much larger than Ghana and Mali ever were.
  • Go to Songhay. The sahel was the region between the Sahara Desert and the equatorial rain forest. Discuss with your students the ways in which Askia Muhammad strengthened the bonds of Islam in the West African communities. Note that while Islam was practiced in the cities, the majority of local natives were non-Muslims. What types of religious practices might they have pursued?
Activity 2. Universities and Libraries of Timbuktu

Although Songhai's early ruler was not interested in scholarship, his successor, known as Askia Mohamed, certainly was.

  • Access Golden Age. Read the first five paragraphs. Why was Askia Mohamad a hero among the Islamic scholars in Timbuktu? What became a big industry in Timbuktu at this time? (Book/manuscript production) What types of courses were taught at Sankore? (A mihrab, referred to in paragraph 6, is a niche or part of the wall of a mosque that indicates the direction of Mecca.)
  • Go to Sankore Mosque available through EDSITEment-reviewed resource African Studies WWW . How was the “university” at Sankore organized? How did it differ from a European university of the time? What was an imam? What was the primary focus of teaching at Sankore? Now visit Sankore. Who was Ahmed Baba? Why did the challenger to the throne of Songhai give up his pursuit of power?

Many manuscripts were written in the schools in Timbuktu, while others were imported from cities in Morocco and Egypt.

  • Access Manuscripts. Where were most of the books produced? What subjects did the local scholars write about? How important were the private libraries? How many collections remain in the city (in the 21st century)? You can view photographs of some of the manuscripts at Manuscripts and Sacred Text.


Write an essay comparing and contrasting the curriculum of the university at Sankore with that of your own school.

The Basics

Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Africa
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Anthropology
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Architecture
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Ancient World (3500 BCE-500 CE)
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Asia
  • Art and Culture
  • Critical thinking
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Map Skills
  • Visual analysis
  • Suzanne Art (AL)