During the 8th century, the Rhadanites (Jewish African, mulit-lingual traders) began to settle in Timbuktu, Mali. There they established a trading center from which they set up a network of trading routes throughout the desert. More Jews began to arrive in the 14th and 15th centuries, fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. Then in 1492, the local King, Askia Muhammed, threatened the Jews with death if they did not convert to Islam. As the historian Leo Africanus wrote in 1526: "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." While some chose conversion, many fled from the country. In 1860, Rabbi Mordechai Abi Serour emigrated from Morocco with several Jews to trade in Timbuktu. Rabbi Serour had to negotiate with the local authorities to obtain “protected people” status. The newly arrived congregation established a synagogue and Jewish cemetery in the area. By the early 20th century no Jews remained in Mali.
In the mid-1990s, however, thousands of so called ‘Hidden Jews,’ began a Malian Jewish revival in Timbuktu, Mali; many reclaiming their Jewish heritage. In 1993, Ismael Diadie Haidara, a historian from Timbuktu, established an organization called Zakhor (Timbuktu Association for Friendship with the Jewish World). This organization is predominately composed of Malians, descendants of Jews. Over the years, much of the Malian Jewry’s history has been uncovered; it was once concealed to avoid persecution.
Sources: The Jews of Timbuktu” Kulanu.org;
The Washington Jewish Week, (December 30, 1999).