Timbuktu, the ancient crossroads of Africa

Timbuktu. The name is redolent with history; a name which evokes the extraordinary kingdoms and cultures of ancient Africa, and has been synonymous with the concept of distance and isolation for over one thousand and six hundred years. Its a long way to Timbuktu, after all. Even today, the name conjures images of adventure and daring-do with a backdrop of towering sand dunes populated by turbaned Tuareg.

Timbuktu, teetering on the edge of the Sahara Desert, has almost mythical status. Situated at the crossroads between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, it is where great trade routes converged. Gold, salt, ivory, cattle, grain and slaves passed through Timbuktu in great camel caravans, making this improbable city very wealthy. Much more importantly, this is a city where ideas were exchanged and a unique culture flourished.

Djinguereber Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Djinguereber Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Djinguereber Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Djinguereber Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Djinguereber Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Djinguereber Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Timbuktu became a centre of Islamic learning. At its peak, there were one hundred and eighty Koranic schools with more than 25,000 students in the city. It was the hub for the dissemination of Islamic scholarship throughout Africa, a fact born witness today by the 700,000 ancient manuscripts which are housed in the library of the Ahmed Baba Institute. Some of these documents are over eight hundred years old and are slowly, methodically being restored and saved digitally.

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

In the 5th century Timbuktu was little more than a village, but it’s ‘golden age’ came in the 15th and 16th centuries with the construction of several beautiful mosques. In the 15th century it was home to 100,000 people. In 1500, Timbuktu had a similar population size to London; Rome, the centre of Christian learning, had a population of only 38,000. Although, European populations were still rebounding after the Black Death.

Camels in the street, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Camels in the street, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Despite its size and status, by the 17th century Timbuktu was in decline. European traders were sailing down the coast of Africa making overland trade routes through the Sahara largely obsolete; as trade shifted, Timbuktu became less-and-less important. For centuries it largely fell off the map, but its legendary status as the ‘city of gold’ continued to act as a magnet for adventurers. European explorers were desperate to be the first see and report on the splendours of the fabled city.

Market, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Market, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Buckets in the market, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Buckets in the market, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

House, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

House, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

The problem with reaching Timbuktu was that the Tuareg tribes were hostile to outsiders, particularly non-Muslims in search of riches. Death awaited anyone foolhardy enough to try to cross the desert to reach it. Yet the fabled wealth of Timbuktu proved a powerful motivator for Europeans. Even into the 19th century, Timbuktu remained a byword for the mysterious and the inaccessibility of the African interior. It wasn’t until 1826 that the first European set foot in the city, and only after travelling for a year across the desert.

Major Alexander Gordon Laing was a British Army Officer and a Scottish explorer who, in an attempt to beat the French to Timbuktu, set out across the Sahara Desert in 1825 with the support of the British Government. He had a torrid time; his caravan was attacked by Tuareg and he was wounded several times, losing a hand at one point. Despite this, he made it to Timbuktu and became the first European to see Africa’s El Dorado. He stayed in Timbuktu for thirty eight days, but, was murdered when trying to leave the city.

Plaque commemorating Major Alexander Gordon Laing, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Plaque commemorating Major Alexander Gordon Laing, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Two years after Laing’s death, the Frenchman, René Caillié, became the first European to reach Timbuktu and return alive. His reward was a prize of 10,000 Francs. Unlike Laing, who had written letters claiming Timbuktu was a city of great wealth, Caillié told the bitter truth. By 1827, Timbuktu was a dusty and unimportant backwater, retaining none of its former wealth or glory.

Timbuktu remains a dusty backwater today, although its legend as a mystical ancient city still lures people from around the world. Reaching Timbuktu after a week of travel, I felt some the disappointment René Caillié experienced when he reached the city – his journey took a year, but he was so disappointed by what he found he only stayed for two weeks. Today, Timbuktu is home to 20,000 people; its mud-walled buildings and dusty streets feel somewhat desolate and anticlimactic. The famous mosques are still there, but the town seems in danger of being consumed by the sands of the Sahara.

The desert outside Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

The desert outside Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Monument to a ceasefire between Tuareg and Malian troops, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Monument to a ceasefire between Tuareg and Malian troops, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Yet, in the week before and after the Festival au Désert, it springs into life as musicians from all over Africa, and tourists from all over the globe, converge on the city. Hotels and bars have live music almost every night, and the market place has a buzz of activity as people stock up on provisions for several days in the desert. Most importantly, I was able to get a shower for the first time in four days. It was worth coming to Timbuktu just for that.

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Children in the street, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Children in the street, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

 

In 2012, Timbuktu was captured by Islamic fundamentalists, who brought terror and instituted Sharia Law. Although now liberated by a combination of French and Malian troops, many of those who fled the city have yet to return. The Islamists banned music, punished people for minor infractions with public beatings and beheadings, and destroyed the shrines of Muslim saints because they belong to the Sufi traditions of Sunni Islam. It will be a long time before the city returns to normal, many of the Tuareg refugees fear the Malian army as much as the fundamentalists.

Sunset, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Sunset, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Slow boat to Timbuktu (Part 3)

As the chugging of our boat’s engine pushed us ever closer to Timbuktu, I found myself thinking that it would be nice just to keep floating down the river to see where it took us. Some day perhaps, but for the time-being we had to offload at Kabara, the nearest river port to Timbuktu. A couple of four wheel drive vehicles would be waiting to whisk us the 8km from the port into Timbuktu. For anyone familiar with the history and legend of Timbuktu, arriving in this ancient desert city has to be one of the most thrilling moments ever.

Sail boat on the Niger River near Tonka, Mali, Africa

Sail boat on the Niger River near Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

We still had some distance to go before we reached Kabara, but it was obvious from the landscape that we were entering a different geographic region of the country. Everything was getting sandier, and we even slept on a sand dune on a island in the middle of the river one night. This is the region where the Niger River cuts across the bottom of the Sahara Desert, and where the nomadic Tuareg and Berber tribes of Mali form the dominant culture. A culture that has more in common with North Africa than sub-Saharan Africa, and cause of much unrest in post-colonial Mali.

We had one last stop to make before we finally arrived at Timbuktu. Our boat pulled into the packed and chaotic port of Tonka, on the left bank of the Niger River. There was a frenzy of activity, noise and colour, so-much-so, it was difficult to know where to look first. There were also more river boats here than we’d seen since Mopti, a sure sign this is a major trading port.

I was thinking about the scenes and the people from that day recently; I read in Le Monde about the tragedy that befell Tonka when it was overrun by Islamic fundamentalists, and placed under Sharia Law, in 2012.

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

When the fundamentalists took control of Tonka, they outlawed everyday things: music, smoking, certain types of clothes, certain types of haircut, not wearing a veil and dozens of other things Malian’s took for granted. Le Monde told the story of a hairdresser who was arrested, imprisoned and subjected to vicious beatings and public flogging just for cutting hair in a style the Islamists labelled the ‘Satan cut’. People were daily terrorised for the smallest infractions of Sharia Law, and young boys and girls were kidnapped and recruited to the Islamist ranks.

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

Mali’s population is predominantly Sunni Muslim. Sunni’s in Mali are known for their mystical Sufi traditions, which allow individuals to define their own spiritual experience, including through music and poetry. In practice, Malian Islam is tolerant and open-minded. The story of the hairdresser from Tonka, instantly sums up the fear and terror which must have existed when the fundamentalists controlled the region. Now they have been driven out by French military intervention, things will hopefully return to normal, although it may take a long time.

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

The Niger River port of Tonka, Mali, Africa

Leaving Tonka behind, we boarded our boat again and set off on the last leg of our journey to Timbuktu…not even I was expecting to be welcomed to one of Africa’s most ancient cities by those peddler’s of sugary drinks, Coca Cola. They are shameless in their co-opting of other people’s cultures just to sell fizzy drinks!

Welcome to Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Welcome to Timbuktu, Mali, Africa