by Tim Dawe
The spindly arch that frames this dead-straight bitumen road cleaving the desert sands proclaims: “Ville de Tombouctou”. It’s a far cry from the “welcome” 40-odd crazy/brave European explorers received in their quest to reach the fabled city of Timbuktu.
Timbuktu! The name still resonates down the centuries, but what a difference today. I am speeding along in a fleet of glossy black SUVs like a VIP – or perhaps a UN agency worker. As multi-storey buildings emerge in the dust haze we come to an abrupt, and obligatory, tourist/tax stop. (Once most unwelcoming of foreigners, Timbuktu is turning a dollar trading on its Tombouctou la mysterieuse brand.) At this government office we purchase not only postage stamps but unofficial passport stamps. I buy a tee-shirt with the English-version logo stamped: “I’ve been to Timbuktu and back” (nudge-nudge). It appears to be made from recycled hospital bandages.
There is a photo-op at the town entrance, the circular Place de l’Indepéndance. Sand fills what would have been a grand gathering of important buildings and civic monuments. What survives is a crescent of sand and the colonial-style Government Offices, looking like a one-tooth smile. Opposite on a nondescript building a sign boasts Timbuktu’s 333 saints – regarded by hostile Islamists today as sacrilege. This stately space once trumpeted prestige and power centuries before Paris’s Étoile and Arc de Triomphe. It looks like a ghost town except for the people.
On central Boulevard Ashia Mohammed we arrive at a hotel – not to stay but to shower. It’s taken four days on a little boat to get here and nothing is so welcome – well, perhaps the cold beer. As the sun loses its bite an even grander reception awaits. On the northern outskirts of town I board another ship – this one in the form of a camel – for a pitching five-km ride to a Touareg camp in the shadow of classic sand dunes. Packaged tourism yes, but the routine is genuine, heart-felt and absorbing: a ritualised welcome on dismounting, tour of tented accommodation, pre-dinner drinks, talk on Touareg culture and history, dinner, and the women’s chorus and line dancing around a crackling campfire. Sensibly my wife and I pitch a light, modern tent well away from the traditional tent’s hot and heavy matting – and the snores. The lights of Timbuktu are no match for the sky’s stellar display. Our next morning return is devoted to a “city tour” like no other.
Nothing here makes sense without context. Timbuktu is Touareg country, although constantly contested. About a thousand years ago Timbuktu was a nomadic tribe’s seasonal camp. The caretaker was an old woman named Buktu. She guarded the valuable water well, called a tim, hence, “Timbuktu”. The well-site grew as a major north/south trading post for gold, ivory and slaves and, still today, salt. By the 14th century the Mali Empire was rich. Its flamboyant emperor, on his hajj to Mecca, made a name for himself by distributing gold he said was from Timbuktu. Thus started a legend that continued for centuries. But its riches were based on trade and its 16th century golden age was based on scientific and religious scholarship and Islamic culture.
It’s mid-morning when I step down from my camel and check into the comfortable Hotel Colombe. In rising heat our odd-looking group ambles slowly down wide streets and winding alleys. Some are lifeless. Many mud houses have melted in abandonment. Dyingerey Ber Mosque, built in the early 14th century, is one of the oldest in West Africa. Like its bigger brother 400km away in Djenné, its restored plastering and jutting timber supports are strikingly distinctive. It’s cool and dark inside with occasional cracks of sunlight. Building in mud means a forest of interior columns. Crisscrossing corridors leading to dark infinity allow for small devotional spaces, about the size of a prayer mat. At the back is a large palm-covered courtyard for the imam’s sermons. Timbuktu’s premier building is an impressive first stop, well worth a return with a lower sun.
We pass the closed Sidi Yahiya Mosque (1400) en route to visit the Ethnological Museum. It’s a small building with a shady backyard. The well-curated exhibits display ancient rock carvings, traditional artefacts and photographs of colonial times, in French only. But it’s the backyard that piques my interest. There in the sand is a tiny well and crude wooden frame. It’s Buktu’s well. After 1000 years, I believe…but it’s the story that’s important.
Next stop is Grande Marché, a large covered building with bags of fresh food – but from where? It is big and busy but far from grand. The Petit Marché confirms to me that Timbuktu comprises many villages. On a wooden beam, set on blocks, a butcher displays a side of camel and other cuts, and waits with the flies under his lean-to.
There is evidence of earlier town planning in street design. The bitumen road between airport and city limits is an externally funded intervention. These sandy streets follow a unconventional construction. Between each wave of Saharan sand Timbuktu residents lay down a layer of household rubbish, most notably plastic bags. It’s then compounded with a thousand footsteps leaving a tapestry with exposed plastic threads.
We tourists are taken to the Maison des Artisans to shop. It’s a significant building with many serviceable goods, made and being made, but I only want to buy Touareg jewellery. I start to wilt but am saved by the shade of Sankoré Mosque (1500). It’s astounding to learn this was a university of world-class scholars in the 16th century, the largest in the Islamic world with 25,000 students. The imaginings this brings and cool rest are restorative.
Touring the houses of successful European explorers is central to Timbuktu’s tourism. For centuries Europeans (non-Muslims) sought the allure of wealthy Timbuktu. That they were never seen again only added to the mythology of this fabled, mysterious city. A cash prize to prove its existence by a detailed personal account prompted a 19th century rush.
Mungo Park was the first European to see the Niger River. In 1806 on his second, and ultimately lethal, African exploration he was repulsed by “the natives” on the river at Timbuktu. Twenty years later, arriving from the north, fellow Scot Gordon Laing became the first European to arrive in Timbuktu. Neither man survived. Survival required planning, stealth and cunning; enter René Caillié. He studied Arabic and Islam and disguised himself as an Arab. Despite being attacked by tribesmen he was accepted by Timbuktu residents. Disappointed with what he saw he departed after two weeks, reporting later that he sketched details in a notebook secreted inside the Koran. Heinrich Barth wins my prize for his five-year journey from Tripoli, his year-long residency in 1853 and his lucky survival. Later explorers were Oscar Lenz and American BW Berky.
Gordon Laing’s temporary residence is a modest two-storied house otherwise distinguished by its prominent plaque. Despite neglect and the harmatten winds it has weathered well through injections of UN funds (Timbuktu is a UNESCO World Heritage site) and, apparently, sound management. The house is for rent, ostensibly mitigating degradation. Nearby are the former homes of René Caillié and Heinrich Barth, restoration in full flight with mud-brick builders perched precariously on wooden scaffolds. Oscar Lenz’s house of mud ice blocks has melted beyond hope.
Whether that’s it for the tour, it is enough for the tourists under a scorching midday sun. The hotel promises a cool respite and even cooler beer, lunch (spaghetti Bolognese) and a well-earned rest. It’s a free afternoon.
At 3pm it’s still stingingly hot yet there is more to experience. Could I tell any future grandchildren I couldn’t be bothered to explore Timbuktu? No way! My wife and I set out to wander purposelessly. Although at times a medieval village, it’s intriguing to walk wide boulevards opening into spacious plazas and to observe fine mansions, faded now but once the equal of Paris and London.
Drifting south to the only road out of here (except the camel train), we find Ahmed Baba Centre. It is extraordinary to discover that this place at the end of the earth, failing its death struggle against mountainous dunes, has a world class collection of more than 20,000 religious, historic and scientific manuscripts from all over the pre-eminent Arabic-speaking world. These leather-bound, yellowing papers in various stages of decay are centuries old; the oldest dates from 1204. Some stop-gap conservation has started on a colossal task. Modern examination shows that Timbuktu scholars in philosophy, medicine, mathematics and astronomy were an integral part of the then world’s store of knowledge. There are many more manuscripts in private hands, including the imam’s extensive collection, all in dire need of proper management and study. But for the super-dry climate even fewer would exist.
A stop for tea provides us with the unusual chance for a chat with 13-year-old Mahmoud. He seems far from typical; he is curious, engaging and speaks fluent English. We speak about his life here and his schooling – one suspects for the gifted. And we find out where the internet café is.
Tomorrow is our last day and we have a farewell dinner for our guide of 14 days, Yaya Keita. The restaurant, near a recently dried-up river, is part of the Hotel Azalaï complex and opens to a sandy, pergola-covered courtyard. We are served spaghetti Bolognese…again? Some mysteries are never solved. It is a pleasant, even emotional, dinner but at exactly 8pm all the lights go out. Most of Timbuktu disappears into the desert. It’s not uncommon, and it punctuates a memorable candle-lit event.
Rising early next morning means I can photograph in softer light. From the hotel’s flat roof, beyond a sea of flat roofs, the outskirts could be any town in outback Australia. From this vantage I discretely poke my lens behind the high-walled compounds of residences seen from the street only as elaborately studded doors. Typically the dwelling abuts one wall leaving sufficient space for livestock tethered to a tree or satellite aerial and an outhouse or traditional tent, signs that relatives are giving up the nomadic life.
Later at the surprisingly modern airport (for UNESCO workers?) we board an ancient, turbo-prop Kyrgyzstani plane for a hilarious two-hour trip back to Bamako – another story in itself. Like the explorers before me, high on anticipation, I discover decrepit and disappearing Timbuktu has a lot less wealth, power and grandeur than fuelled its fabled past. But it really is special to be able to say: “I’ve been to Timbuktu”.