Hazy and dusty. Everything is a blinding shade of beige.
That was my first impression of Timbuktu, the fabled desert town about 1,000 km north-east of Bamako, Mali’s capital and my home away from home.
What can I say? I was thrilled to visit Timbuktu for a weekend – traveling there on Friday, 13 April and all… Back then I didn’t waste many thoughts on it, but the excitement was there, and I really hoped I would have time to visit the city and the mosques.
A year has passed since that first visit and I have been back in Timbuktu Region many times since then. But that visit, exactly one year ago, was my first real trip into the regions, my first trip to Timbuktu, and my only trip to Timbuktu town. It turned into a memorable weekend, but for different reasons. So memorable, that I felt I could not write about those April days in Timbuktu for the longest time.
When I told my international friends and family that I would be travelling to Timbuktu, the first reaction usually was a weird combination of laughter and a questioning look that seemed to say – are you serious?
The name TIMBUKTU conjures up images of camel caravans under the vast and clear desert sky, doggedly trekking through the soft and blistering sands of the Sahara. Cue movie soundtrack.
In reality, the desert sands next to habitation and infrastructure are covered with plastic trash just like in the Bamako area. The flight of a single black plastic bag being pushed and driven by the winds in an elegant and almost eternal dance is kind of poetic, but…
Well, what is so exciting about traveling to Timbuktu? Over the centuries, the remote trading outpost that linked black Africa on the southern edge of the Sahara with Berber and Islamic traders throughout north Africa became a myth.
Timbuktu’s remoteness was so legendary that the ancient city is a byword for the end of the earth to this day.
When reports about the capture of Timbuktu reached the international community in 2012, some tweeters actually expressed their surprise on finding out that Timbuktu does exist and isn’t some fabled country like Narnia or a quirky utterance of their grandmas’!
I was amazed to find out that in 1824, during the era of the great explorations, the French Société de Géographie even announced a prize of 10,000 Francs to anyone who returned with a firsthand account of Timbuktu. The prize was ultimately claimed by René Caillié, who travelled to Timbuktu alone and in disguise – a mistake most previous adventurers made, was traveling with large and obvious groups. Most were killed on the way to Timbuktu or right after leaving – I noticed that people up in the North seem rather more reserved and don’t like to have their photo taken… but I made it out alive despite these snapshots.
Caillié became the first European to see Timbuktu and live to recount his tale, but that tale was rather disappointing – he described Timbuktu as just another provincial town with “nothing but a mass of ill-looking houses, built of earth”. Wikitravel states that “Today, Timbuktu is an impoverished town, although its reputation makes it a tourist attraction, and it has an airport.” and I have to confess when I first clapped eyes on the city, I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed… until I understood that it’s about more than beautiful or spectacular buildings.
Timbuktu still has an airport – although it looks somewhat different since 14 April 2018 – but it hasn’t really become easier to reach Timbuktu.
After Mali’s independence from France in 1960, there was a trickle of tourism to Timbuktu as adventurers in SUVs sought out its striking mosques, the old explorers’ houses, and some little museums. Timbuktu was still very hard to get to – six hours in a Land Rover from the nearest road.
My favorite taxi driver in Bamako, Suleiman Coulibaly, still remembers those times. Before things went so totally wrong in Mali, he used to drive tourists through Mali in SUVs. He loves to recite the towns he visited on his routes through his native country, while artfully navigating crazy Bamako traffic in his rickety Mercedes 190D.
Located just north of the River Niger, Timbuktu is around 1,000 years old. Many famous writers have contributed to its mythical status, but more recently the ongoing conflict in Mali has thrust it into the spotlight. In June/July 2012, Timbuktu was captured by Islamist rebel groups, who imposed sharia law and called for the destruction of all of the city’s shrines and libraries.
A UNESCO world heritage site since 1988, Timbuktu continued to live on the myth of a city of gold that was probably started by the fabled Malian King Mansa Musa, who left behind so much gold on his pilgrimage that he caused economic crises in Cairo, Mecca, and Medina. This got the myth of the streets of Timbuktu being covered in gold started. Walking the streets of Timbuktu, you see a lot of houses ornamented with beautiful wooden doors with metal decorations, giving the city a special charm and hinting at hidden spaces in the otherwise unadorned, light beige mud houses. Wouldn’t I love to be invited in!
Another theory sees the mythical riches of Timbuktu and its fame based in its academic tradition. In its heyday in the 16th century, up to 25,000 students were said to study Koran in Timbuktu’s three large mosques.
The knowledge was compiled in a vast collection of books, which were mainly kept in private homes. In the 1990s, with some foreign funding, the manuscript libraries were established.
Check out The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu, to learn more about how the smart people of Timbuktu managed to save thousands of manuscript treasures!
The Timbuktu of old must have been a sight to behold – visitors approaching the city on camel-back after a month-long desert crossing, were greeted by mango trees bearing yellow-golden fruit. A network of canals freshened the air. Manuscripts from the 16th century describe a magical peninsula where Arabs and Africans exchanged salt for gold. A combination of awe and wealth built fabulous mosques and intellectual vibrancy.
Water scarcity dried out the canals and made agriculture in this progressive desertification harder and harder. It is a harsh world up there in the North, with average temperatures around 40 °C at ten percent humidity and less during dry season. Haboobs, severe sand and dust storms, suck out all the moisture and leave their crunchy traces everywhere – I coined this colorful phenomenon on my feet “Timbuktu Tan”.
During rainy season, torrential rainfalls wash away the fragile top soil and turn the streets and places into muddy traps. Both seasons are tough on humans and animals alike, the challenging nature is not accommodating or forgiving and more and more people move south, deserting their family homes and lands.
Before “the crisis”, There was a brief heyday over the turn of the century when the Festival au Désert was founded, Tuareg music reached international ears and thousands of visitors came to the city to walk its dusty streets and bargain in the crafts markets. It went not the right direction so to say.
Everything changed in 2012 and nowadays traveling in Mali is not only hard but still extremely dangerous. Reaching Timbuktu has yet again become a challenge.
These days, when people hear the name TIMBUKTU, they probably know it is a real city and that there is a problem. Some of my friends are reminded of this hilarious joke and crack up every time the city comes up.
When I think of Timbuktu, it’s of sand and heat and dust and thirst and danger, it’s of testing and trying times. But it’s also of wonderful people, who stand together defending this mythic place, where I learned a lot about humanity and ultimately about myself. Being among wonderful people definitely helped my nervous system become unstuck again.