Saturday, January 03, 2009

Time Out In Timbuktu

Timbuktu is a name that, like no other, evokes images of far-off, exotic landscapes, rare, pungent spices, wise mystics and veiled, alluring beauties. Most people in the West will have heard the name before and have such 1001 Nights images in their minds. However, ask those same people to place Timbuktu on a map and you'll be lucky if they get the right continent. The myth of Timbuktu has transcended its reality and made a home for itself in our collective psyche.

The reality is, of course, far more prosaic, but certainly not without intrigue. The town is situated only 10km from the Niger river but the riverine wetlands quickly give way to the sands of the Sahara and so the own is, quite literally, on the edge of the desert. In fact, all you have to do is walk an hour or so north from the edge of town and you will lose sight of almost all traces of humanity (apart from the ubiquitous, wind-blown plastic bags caughton the thorny bushes). It is precisely this strategic crossroads location that made the greatness and fame of Timbuktu. Great caravans carrying gold and ivory from the rich mines of Ghana and Mali travelled northwards to be traded in Morocco and the ports of the Barbary Coast, whilst Arab and European goods and salt travelled south. As the gatekeeper to this lucrative international trade Timbuktu grew immensely wealthy. Under the reign of the Malian emperor Kankan (Mansa) Moussa (in the 1320s-1330s) a great mosque and university were built there along with a library the size of which hadn't been seen in Africa since the Great Library of Alexandria was burnt down. As such Timbuktu became one of the preeminent centres of Muslim scholarship in the world.

As an aside it's worth spending a paragraph talking about Mansa Moussa. A pious Muslim he brought the heretofore unassuming Malian empire with a bang when he decided to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324. With an entourage numbering some 6000 individuals he was so liberal with his wealth that when he passed through Cairo he handed out so much gold that he caused the local currency to crash due to oversupply, and it would take 10 years for it to properly recover.

Of course the streets of Timbuktu are not paved with gold, sand with a trickle of effluent would be closer to the truth. However Mansa Moussa's mud mosques are still standing (although they're unfortunately off limits to non-Muslims again) as are many venerable old houses built of hardy mud bricks. The scholarly tradition also lives on with several venerable manuscript collections. It is also the main hub for the proud, nomadic Tuaregs, dressed in their long, flowing robes (usually blue or green) ad enveloping turbans, who live in the desert to come and sell their goods (mainly salt and handicrafts) and buy provisions.

As can be guessed the town is also staunchly conservative with a greater Arab influence than the rest of Mali - this can also be seen in the faces of the locals where the sharper Arab features and lighter skin are more common. I've therefore been making a good impression traipsing around in my keffiyeh and Pakistani shalwar kameez which is ideally airy for the desert climate. In fact I'm really happy to be able to wear my shalwar kameez as it's incredibly comfy and I love it, though unfortunately you don't really get the opportunity to wear it on the streets of London. Many locals have taken me for an Arab and it's allowed me to dust off my, admittedly very limited, language skills that I picked up in the Middle East two years ago. It's not much but it makes a good first impression and has got me invited to share some tea with a couple of Tuaregs. Tea in Mali, particularly amongst the Tuaregs, is a special ritual and follows a set pattern and involves a lot of pouring from pot to glass and back again. The pot and glasses are small. The quantities of tea and sugar, on the other hand, are anything but. The same leaves are used throughout and the same pot s used to make three servings. The first is fort comme la mort (strong as death), the second is doux comme la vie (mild as life) and the third is sucré comme l'amour (sweet as love).

Due to the shifting of trade from overland routes to seaborne ones and greater instability in the region Timbuktu saw its importance decline as it went from being at the cente of world trade to being an insignificant town on te edge of a backwater country. At least the influx of tourist money is helping to preserve the town from further degradation and restoring some of the old houses to their former glory.

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