Sankore Mosque rises above the eponymous surrounding neighborhood. Together they formed the famous "University of Sankore," which gave Timbuktu its reputation as a center of Islamic scholarship; it was not a formally incorporated university, but rather a collection of highly respected scholars who each held their own majlis. In the sixteenth century, the golden age of Islamic learning in Timbuktu, subjects ranged from Arabic grammar, literature, and poetry to mathematics, magic, medicine, history and law.

The 16th century Sankore Mosque rises above the eponymous surrounding neighborhood. Together they form the “University of Sankore,” which gave Timbuktu its reputation as a center of Islamic scholarship; it was not a formally incorporated university, but rather a collection of highly respected scholars who each held their own majlis.

Several years before I met Alexandra Huddleston she began her ten month research and photographic residency in Timbuktu, Mali.  The recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship, Huddleston created “333 Saints: a Life of Scholarship in Timbuktu,”  the story of a rich and beautiful African intellectual culture that remains largely unknown in the West. As all documentarians know, it is a rare talent to photograph as if one is a fly on the wall.  Perhaps her birthplace in the nearby country of Sierra Leone gives her a regional instinct.  Even so, I found it striking what a light footprint she wielded in her images of a community in love with books – scholars of all ages who seek knowledge and wisdom. Huddleston’s beautiful photographs and informative text reveal a city that has built its identity around a culture of scholarship.

With foreheads pressed against the outer wall of the great mosque of Djingarey-Ber, celebrants of Mawlid pray for their hopes in the coming year. Islam In Tibuktu is highly influenced by Sufism.

With foreheads pressed against the outer wall of the great mosque of Djingarey-Ber, celebrants of Mawlid pray for their hopes in the coming year. Islam In Tibuktu is highly influenced by Sufism. (c) Alexandra Huddleston

Huddleston writes of her experience “I gained a deep respect for the history and traditions of Timbuktu and a healthy skepticism for one of the most sinister truisms of the twentieth century: that tradition and social and economic development are incompatible. I saw that it was love and respect for one’s own culture that gave the greatest strength, adaptability, and creativity in the face of change.”

Two women study Arabic.

Two women study Arabic. (c) Alexandra Huddleston

Utilizing her new imprint The Kyouda Press, Alexandra Huddleston has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds needed to self-publish a book version of this extensive photographic series. The photographs in the book were taken several years before the turbulent current events that have transformed Mali’s political and cultural life. However, they show the culture of moderate Islam that has been under direct attack: a deeply rooted, ancient Islamic tradition of tolerance, erudition, and faith. Photographs from the body of work have been acquired by the US Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Museum of African Art.

Several of the 9,000 ancient manuscripts in the Mamma Haidera Library.

Several of the 9,000 ancient manuscripts found in the collection at Timbuktu’s Mamma Haidera Library. (c) Alexandra Huddleston

Alexandra Huddleston holds a BA from Stanford University and an MS in broadcast journalism from Columbia University.  Her work has been published in The New York Times, Zeit Magazine, National Geographic Explorer, and exhibited worldwide. To contribute to her book project:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1101472817/333-saints-a-life-of-scholarship-in-timbuktu-book

Alexandra Huddleston

Alexandra Huddleston

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