There are approximately 1,000 people with alleged Jewish roots in Timbuktu, Mali. They arrived in the 14th century fleeing persecution in Spain, and migrated south to the Timbuktu area, at that time part of the Songhai Empire. Among them was the Kehath (Ka’ti) family, descended from Ismael Jan Kot Al-yahudi of Scheida, Morocco. Sons of this prominent family founded three villages that still exist near Timbuktu—Kirshamba, Haybomo, and Kongougara.
In 1492, Askia Muhammed came to power in the previously tolerant region of Timbuktu and decreed that Jews must convert to Islam or leave; Judaism became illegal in Mali, as it did in Spain that same year.
The Kehath family came from Southern Morocco in 1492 and converted along with the rest of the non-Muslim population. Other prominent Jews from Mali include the Cohens, descended from the Moroccan Islamicized Jewish trader El-Hadj Abd-al-Salam al Kuhin, who arrived in the Timbuktu area in the 18th century, and the Abana family, who came even later, in the first half of the 19th century.
According to Prof. Michel Abitbol, at the Center for the Research of Moroccan Jewry in Israel, in the late 19th century Rabbi Mordoche Aby Serour traveled to Timbuktu several times as a not-too-successful trader in ostrich feathers and ivory. He nevertheless brought with him enough Jewish men to form a minyan, which requires a quorum of ten.
Ismael Diadie Haidara, a historian from Timbuktu, says he has found old Hebrew texts among the city’s historical records. He has also researched his own past and discovered that he is descended from the Moroccan Jewish traders of the Abana family. As he interviewed elders in the villages of his relatives, he discovered that knowledge of the family’s Jewish identity has been preserved in secret out of fear of persecution.
The king (Askia) is a declared enemy of the Jews. He will not allow any to live in the city. If he hears it said that a Berber merchant frequents them or does business with them, he confiscates his goods.
The existence of an ancient Jewish community in Mali was “officially” revealed in 1996 when the Malian newspaper, Le Republicain, dramatically “announced to the presidents of Mali and Israel, diplomatic missions in Mali, and Jewish communities throughout the world, the presence of some 1,000 ‘Jews’ in Timbuktu,” writes Shari Berke in an article appearing in the Washington Jewish Week. The article cites Haidara who also founded an organization called Zakhor, or the Timbuktu Association for Friendship with the Jewish World, in 1993, and said in his “manifesto” that “we are Jews because our ancestors were Jews, whose genes are found in all our families.”
The article in Le Republicain also said that the community’s “intention is not to return to Israel, but to assert their identity” and quoted a member of the community as saying, “It is God who made Timbuktu our land of refuge, and we are Muslims.”
Other Jewish references in Mali include the claim that Jews controlled the salt and gold trade between Morocco and Timbuktu for some 300 years beginning in the late 1500s (this, however, is unsubstantiated).
In 1996, Samantha Klein, a Peace Corps volunteer, traveled to Timbuktu to learn more about the claims of an historical Jewish presence in Mali dating back to the Inquisition. She reports that she was disappointed to learn that there “were no practicing Jews, only the Islamicized descendants of Jews, who had nonetheless maintained their identity over the centuries.”
She adds that Jews lived “mostly in villages scattered along on the Niger River, the border to where the Sahara begins. They were land-owning farmers, potters, dyers and mat weavers. Use of the Star of David as their symbol was also reported to us.” Klein conducted interviews in the village of Tangasane where it is said that the descendents of Al Kohani settled.
Karen Primack also visited Mali. In her report, on the Kulanu website, she writes that “Egyptian Jews may have settled in the northern part of Mali as early as biblical times, and it is known that in the late seventh century, when the Arabs invaded North Africa, one of the chiefs of the Berber warriors resisting that invasion was a heroic princess of Jewish origin known as Kahina (Doumya). In the eighth century, the Rhadamites (those multi-lingual Jewish traders who traversed the known world by land and sea, including crossing the Sahara) settled in Timbuktu and its environs.”
Primack lists some possible connections to Jewish practice: the families have continually given newborns Jewish names; some members sign their names with a Star of David; some Hebrew songs are still sung; and they only marry among themselves, not a custom in Islam.
A key contact for information about the Jewish community in Timbuktu is Richard Gold of the U.S. Agency for International Development. He was posted in Bamako, the capital of Mali, during the 1990s. He is now in the Philippines. Contact email@example.com.
Gold concurs that the community is not interested in converting to Judaism. “I haven’t heard any real desire to convert. Given their absence of even the most basic knowledge of Judaism, I couldn’t see anyone being ready to convert for many years. What is special about the Jews of Timbuktu is that they are taking pride in their Jewish heritage.