Timbuktu has long been a mythical and compelling place, a punchline for many who never knew it really existed, and its recent problems are just the latest in a long line of ups and downs for the Malian city. Richard Trillo recounts the place's fascinating history and reflects on his own experiences there before asking what's next for this troubled and mesmerising spot.

“Is that it?” was Bob Geldof’s remark, after looking around one of Africa’s most fabled cities at the time of the Live Aid campaign in the 1980s. Mali’s Minister of Art and Culture, meanwhile, was suitably opaque when asked why the city was known as Timbuktu the Mysterious. “If I told you why it was mysterious then it would not be mysterious”, he told a mystified journalist.

It’s the town where young dudes really do sell T-shirts declaring “I have been to Timbuktu and back”. Or did, until violence and conflict caused the tiny expat community (a handful of NGOs and adventure-hoteliers married to Malians) to flee while even the most fearless of overland travellers struck it off their itineraries [and the FCO advised against all travel].

Mali's history

Tuareg camel herders founded Timbuktu in the eleventh century. For hundreds of years they controlled and taxed it, but rarely lived there. By 1330, when the city’s famous and beautiful mud-brick and wood Djinguereber Mosque was built, Timbuktu had become part of the Mali Empire, and a major seat of trade and Islamic scholarship. As the Mali Empire declined, Timbuktu came under the protection of the Songhai empire of Gao (the next city east along the river). But then the Moroccans invaded in 1591 with their firearms – and an army that included Spaniards, Scots and Irish – and Timbuktu was ransacked, its wealth caravanned north and its scholars executed or exiled. For more than 200 years “Timbuctoo” languished in the sands, and it was only in the nineteenth century that conclusive reports of the city’s continued existence emerged from the explorers’ tales of René Caillé, Gordon Laing and Heinrich Barth.

After Mali’s independence from France in 1960 (following seventy years of occupation), there was a trickle of tourism to Timbuktu as overland adventurers sought out its striking mosques, the old explorers’ houses, and one or two museums. The entire city has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1988. In the 1990s, with some foreign funding, the manuscript libraries were established. 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.

Modern Mali

When Mali first broke into the world’s news at the end of 2011, with the kidnap of three western tourists in the town centre, and the murder of a fourth by ransom-seekers claiming links with Al-Qaeda, the name Timbuktu was suddenly everywhere. As Tuaregs who had served in the Libyan armed forces returned, post-Gaddafi, with their weapons after years away from home, reports from Timbuktu were contradictory: the Tuareg were either planning a new rebellion in Mali (they had rebelled twice before, but had signed a comprehensive peace accord), or they were being given a – literally – disarming welcome and were reintegrating into their communities. Most commentators recognised that the majority of the Tuareg were religious moderates: others saw darker shadows moving among them.

In March 2012, Mali’s army, furious at being under-resourced by the capital city Bamako as a new rebellion did indeed start to brew, overthrew the government. The Tuareg militias in the northern half of the country took advantage of the power vacuum to declare independence – the long-stated aim of many of the Sahara’s Tuareg people, who were once half-promised their own country, Azawad, by the French.

Tuareg autonomy in the north in 2012 was brief. The Tuareg separatists were soon overrun by three different self-declared bands of religious zealot bandits (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa). Alliances shift quickly, but AQIM came to dominate, and clamped the moderate Muslims of the northern towns into a violent interpretation of sharia law, banning most forms of popular and traditional culture, whether Islamic or international in origin. Smoking: banned. Music: banned. Unveiled women: banned. There were amputations and stonings.

Timbuktu’s 333 saints were mocked and their graves and memorials desecrated. And Timbuktu’s old Arabic manuscripts, that had been gathered in the libraries and scholars’ houses of the city since it first became a university town in the fourteenth century and covering subjects as wide-ranging as mathematics, optometry and astronomy, were treated as deeply suspicious at best, and at worst as fit only for burning.

As Mali’s status tumbled from something of a bastion of liberty and democracy in the West African region to a shredded carcass of a country, it was the name of its most famous town that trended (well, a little) on Twitter. But for every terrorism geek sharing information about the different jihadist players around Timbuktu and claiming – or denying – the involvement of the Algerian security service in acts of “false flag terrorism”, there was another tweet saying something along the lines of: “Just found out Timbuktu’s for real!! No way. My gran’s always talking about going to Timbuktu LOL!”

The French came out of the blue in January, when it looked as if the jihadists might threaten towns close to Bamako and quickly expelled them from key urban centres, including Timbuktu. As I write, there have been suicide attacks and outbreaks of street fighting in Gao, but Timbuktu is calm, although most Tuareg and Arabic-speaking residents have fled, fearing reprisals. [The FCO still advises avoiding travel to the whole country.]

Personal reflections

I have a trivial connection with Timbuktu: it was where a friend and I were going in 1977 when we first used the hitchhiking techniques we had practised in Hampshire to explore the world. Our thumbs took us to Dover (“Where are you two off to then?”), through France and Spain, across the void of the Sahara with French truckers, and into a different world on the banks of the Niger. We tasted our first mangoes, sampled malaria, sweated it out with the dictator’s men in their foul police stations, and spent four days on a wooden pinasse, squatting among slabs of rock salt, poling up the Niger River towards our goal. It was 17 years after independence, and even longhairs like us were still being called “patron” (“boss”). Timbuktu was wretchedly poor; we found the city was miles north of the river; and we ate one meal a day at Chez Baba, a squalid restaurant run by a wizened old spider of a man who kept drinking water in a clay jar and threw rocks at the rats scuttling beneath his dining tables.

I returned 26 years later, with my ten-year old son. No more “patron”. Libraries had been built for Timbuktu’s manuscripts; the city was twinned with another bookish town, Hay-on-Wye; there was a choice of hotels; an annual music festival, like Womad in the desert; you could get cold beer, check emails in the cybercafé and watch Eurosport. Timbuktu was still very hard to get to, six hours in a Land Rover from the nearest road, but the buses along that road kept schedules, and sold tickets for seats. Mali had changed with democracy, and the barefoot, dust-faced poverty of the 1970s had been replaced by the anxiety of looking for work, the mobile call to the family in the village and the knowledge that Europeans coming for tourism and Tuareg music brought money.

In 2011, a month before the kidnaps, I went back again, in a group of journalists and travel agents. We were guided around the country by Mali’s Ministry of Tourism, to demonstrate how safe it was. From Bamako to Ségou, and from Mopti to Djenné, we were welcomed with delight by people fed up with terrorism warnings deterring tourists, their potential customers. We trekked along the cliffs of the bewitchingly beautiful Dogon country and we flew into Timbuktu, where our posse of 4x4s clunked through the city between the mosques and explorers’ houses and eventually out into the dunes for Tuareg dancing at sunset and a méchoui feast of roast mutton. That night, most of us went out again from our hotel to one of Timbuktu’s few nightclubs, and spent several hours knocking back beers and throwing a few dubious moves among a crowd of fashionably shrink-wrapped Tombouctiens – all to a soundtrack in Mali indistinguishable from the one we’d have heard in Malia.

Textbook rescue

In the days before the jihadists fled Timbuktu, they visited the libraries, intending to destroy their contents. They scattered what they found and burned hundreds of old volumes. The first journalists on the scene drew the obvious conclusion. Tucked behind the headlines, however, was an uplifting story that has probably already been optioned by Steven Spielberg: most of Timbuktu’s trove of manuscripts was saved. During the course of 2012, under the noses of the jihadist occupiers, several tens of thousands of priceless texts had been quietly spirited away, wrapped in old sacks, transported on donkey carts and mopeds down to Timbuktu’s port of Korioumé, and then ferried by dugouts and riverboats up the Niger to Bamako. Others were stashed in tin chests and distributed in private homes around the town. The ones left behind to be torched were decoys, mostly those manuscripts that had already been digitalised. Devotion, patience and technology had fought the jihadists and won.

Timbuktu's future

As in the sixteenth century, Timbuktu’s name is once again associated with destruction and bloodshed. Can it ever retrieve its status as the cool, mysterious, remote city on the edge of the Sahara, where people go to be entranced by desert  music, to gaze on the most beautiful colour combination in the world – mud brick against a blue sky – and to get that inimitable passport stamp from the tourist office? Well, quite possibly yes. Until the extremist threat shrinks, the city will always feel a little edgy and vulnerable, but the story of the manuscripts has unexpectedly put Timbuktu on the map in a way that its architectural treasures, in the shape of its mosques and madrassas, hasn’t been able to. A town this culturally important, and physically vulnerable, wouldn’t ever again be left out in the sands. Would it?

The hotels and guesthouses will reopen and the tourists will return – in time. Mali will consolidate and strengthen again, once the Tuareg and other northern peoples are assured they have a stake in the region. (Most of those fighting under “jihadist” banners – and their families – would happily turn in their weapons in exchange for a paying job and a place to live.) When the Festival au Désert – currently in exile in Burkina Faso – returns for its annual three days in January, Timbuktu will know that it’s back on track.



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