Kingdom of Songhai

Primary Source Documents

Leo Africanus, an Arab traveler visited Timbuktu in the Kingdom of Songhay early in the 1500s and left this description of that city.

Howbeit there is a most stately temple to be seene, the wals whereof are made of stone and lime; and a princely palace also built by a most excellent workeman of Granada. Here are many shops of artificers, and merchants, and especially of such as weaue linen and cotton cloth. And hither do the Barbarie merchants bring cloth of Europe. All the women of the region except maidservants go with their faces couered, and sell all necessarie victuals. The inhabitants, & especially strangers there residing, are exceeding rich, insomuch that the king that now is, maried both his daughters vnto two rich merchants. Here are many wels, containing most sweete water; and so often as the riuer Niger overfloweth, they conueigh the ater thereof by certaine sluces into the towne. Corne (sorghun), cattle, milke, and butter this region yeeldeth in great abundance: but salk it verie scarce heere; for it is brought hither by land from Tagaza, which is fiue humdred miles distant. When I myselfe was here, I saw one camel loade of salt sold for 80 ducates. The rich king of Tombuto (Timbuktu) hath many plates and scepters of gold, some of ehreof weigh 1300 poindes; … He hath alwaies three thousand horsemen, and a great number of footmen that shoot poysoned arrowes, attending upon him. …Here are great store of doctors, judges, priests and other learned men, that are bountifully maintained at the kings cost and charges. And hither are brought diuers manuscripts or written bookes out of Barbarie, which are sold for more money than any othe merchandize…


  1. What can you tell about Timbuktu from this description?
  2. What can you tell about the economic connections between Timbuktu and North Africa and Europe?

Selected by Dorian Bowman, Winsor School

Leo Africanus The History and Description of Africa pp. 824-825