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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.