Recently, the mysterious town of Timbuktu has made headlines for all the wrong reasons: political trouble in Mali, rebellion, shooting, deaths and the occupation of the town by the veiled and blue-turbaned Touaregs . I was surprised, when I read a report in the BBC News online service, that it stated how many people had tweeted and FBooked, amazed that Timbuktu is a city which actually exists. They thought it was just a mystery, a synonym for an exotic, distant and out of reach place of fiction.
Let’s put the record straight and learn a bit about this city with a long and distinguished history which has fallen in decline and is quite poor today.
The nearest I ever came to Timbuktu is the well known sign on the Kasbah in Zagora/Morocco: 52 days to Timbuktu… by camel that is. Located in the southern Sahara and 9 miles from the River Niger, Timuktu belongs to Mali. I should have grabbed the nearest camel and just kept going, because in today’s situation, a visit is impossible.
Timbuktu became a permanent settlement in the 12th century and flourished on the trade in salt, gold, ivory and slaves. The city was extremely rich and over the centuries, stories about her wealth as well as the great difficulty to reach her spread to Europe and thus created the association with Timbuktu as a far flung place which only existed in the imagination.
Together with the trade in the commodities, Timbuktu also became the most important center of Islamic learning and books. Many manuscripts have survived and so has the mud built Sankore mosque. The famous Timbuktu library contains Islamic works on medicine, philosophy, astrology, and science, all in camel skin bound manuscripts.
The most explicit account of Timbuktu came from Leo Africanus, a Granada born Muslim diplomat who visited in the early 16th century. Subsequently, Timbuktu fell briefly under Touareg rule, became part of Morocco, was a French territory and, since the independence in 1960, a city in Mali.
Surrounded by sand dunes and streets covered in dust, it languished during most of the year under very hot temperatures. A highlight in January was an international rock festival, attended, among others, by Bono. Otherwise, tourism is the most important source of income, but… the future will show what happens next to the emblematic city which is also a UNESCO World heritage site.
Photograph of the mosque by Senani P under Creative Commons attribution licence.