Why Timbuktu as my blog title? I think the attraction is the mystery and history of the name: Timbuktu. The French spell the name as Tombouctou, making the name even more exotic. For centuries the name has been an indicator of a place that is really, really remote – a place that is truly in the middle of mythical Nowhere. And because it is so remote and un-reachable, it inevitably becomes a special place, a romantic place of myth and legend.
Where is Timbuktu? It is situated in northern Mali, on the Niger River, deep in the heart of West Africa. It was founded as a seasonal camp by Tuareg herders around the 11th Century, then grew into a rich trading city, a hub on the major trading route that began in North Africa, in Morocco, and wandered south over the Sahara, via the camel caravans laden with salt. The traders of Timbuktu bought the salt for gold, which in turn originated at the next big southern city on the Niger, Djenne.
The traditional camel caravans of the Sahara have all but vanished, superseded by fleets of massive diesel trucks or muscular 4×4 vehicles that can cope with the extreme temperatures and sandy conditions of the desert. Today there is even a hardtop road that runs North/South through the Sahara, passing through Timbuktu. So although the mud buildings, the dust, the heat, remain the same in Timbuktu and the nomads’ camels can still be seen in the streets of the city, the ancient camel caravan has become a thing of the past.
The first Western explorers who sought for the fabled Timbuktu were disappointed. Réné Caillié, the French explorer didn’t think much of it. When he finally arrived in the city in 1828 he dismissed it with the comment “a mass of ill-looking houses” and he also commented on “the profound silence”. In the mid 1800’s Western explorers were eagerly searching for the famous gold of Timbuktu, but over the centuries the golden hoard had trickled away Northwards and the primitive hand-hewn shallow mining holes and pits of earlier centuries no longer yielded more than a few tantalising specks of the metal.
But more interestingly, to my mind, is another treasure still to be found in Timbuktu. During the Songhai Empire, the city became a centre of Islamic learning, famed for its hundreds of scholars and rich store of manuscripts. But this ended in 1591when the Moroccan army looted the city, either killing or exiling the scholars to Morocco, and seizing the many of the manuscript collections.
Luckily, due to the extremely dry desert conditions it was the ideal place for the preservation of old documents and to this day, in Timbuktu, there are still family hoards of manuscripts, dating back centuries. Some families have collections of manuscripts, quietly crumbling away, being nibbled by termites, inside their mud-houses in Timbuktu. Other families have stashes of books buried in trunks and boxes out in the desert.
To see pictures of these leather-bound books, with their sagging spines, loose yellowing pages crumbling at the edges, the elegant Arabic script curling over page after page, is to get a sense of great antiquity. To see the past held in the sunburned hand of a blue turbaned Touareg, who explains that his great-great-back-ten-generations-grandfather was the custodian of this precious Koran, that books of spells, remedies and charms – what an experience! It is one thing to see museum exhibits of historical manuscripts, but to stand out in the desert, surrounded by nomads, and be able to personally handle these ancient books …. now that’s living history!
On a more prosaic note, there are current international attempts to restore and digitize Timbuktu’s manuscripts, and three new state of the art libraries have been built to carry out the task.