The chaos of war has devastated Mali, that previously serene West African nation on the southern fringe of the Sahara, since a military coup overthrew her democratically elected president on March 21, 2012.
Though the coup instigators later stepped down and handed power to a civilian transitional government, normal life has not returned to Mali. Ethnic Tuareg rebels and brutal Islamist militants from outside the country have taken advantage of the confusion to seize control of northern Mali, including Timbuktu, the fabled, magnificent, and picturesque city so long considered by Malians to be the jewel of their nation.
Timbuktu has been an important destination for Islamic scholars for a millennium. Its libraries preserve centuries of records of Muslim culture in West Africa while demonstrating the unique ways in which African culture has reshaped Islam. More recently, Timbuktu has become an attraction for adventurous tourists from Europe and America, including talented preservationists like Alexandra Huddleston, the daughter of a former American ambassador in Bamako, Mali’s capital, who has filmed Timbuktu in an exquisite series of videos.
A small group of Islamist fanatics apparently regard Timbuktu’s Muslim shrines as idolatrous and therefore prohibited by Sharia law, an odd contradiction since Timbuktu’s world-famous mosques and its many libraries have been sanctioned as holy places by eminent Islamic scholars from Mecca to Cairo.
These fanatics especially target Sufi shrines, which they believe are sacrilegious. Sufism is a mystical dimension of Islam that is considered too funky and offbeat by Islamic fundamentalists, who condemn it. The Sufis, who brought Islam to much of sub-Saharan Africa, dance, pray and preach using drama and humor, and I have befriended many of them in my native Senegal as well as in Mali and Niger. Many will recall an analogue to this back in 2001, in which the whole world watched in horror while the Taliban destroyed ancient Buddhist relics in Afghanistan.
Timbuktu is the fabled “City of 333 Saints” and an ancient desert crossroads and historic seat of Islamic learning and faith. And it helped to write a fascinating chapter in the exploration of Africa by Europeans. Timbuktu’s history is becoming more mainstream now, perhaps one of the few positive results of the otherwise disastrous war in Mali. A number of talented writers have recently put forward fascinating and gripping accounts of Timbuktu’s thousand year history. They deserve out attention.
Timbuktu is a metaphor in the West for the end of the world, that place where the map ends, as far away from civilization (whatever one may mean by that word) as it is possible to get. It is all of these things, and yet in some sense it is also the center of another world. I love reading about Timbuktu. I am immersed in Timbuktu’s history in the hope that it is so long and so deep that this resilient place can weather even this new tempest and not only survive, but flourish once more, rising from the ashes of war to some happier and more peaceful future.
European contact with Timbuktu is perhaps the most compelling chapter of the Mali story, highlighted by bold and dangerous journeys by Englishmen in the 1820s through an Africa then virtually unknown to Europe, another world as foreign as the Americas had been two hundred years earlier.
Timbuktu made its first great impact on European consciousness when a pair of explorers, Alexander Gordon Laing and Hugh Clapperton, vied with one another to find the fabled city, which in 1820 had much same reputation in London and Paris as that of El Dorado had earlier in the New World — as a place where streets were paved with gold and gems were set in every doorknob.
The most appealing contender for winning the race to Timbuktu was Major Laing, a 30-something army officer who had briefly served in Sierra Leone. Handsome and self-confidant, Laing was convinced that rediscovery of Timbuktu was his destiny as well as his personal ticket to fame.
In July 1825, after a whirlwind romance with Emma Warrington, daughter of the British consul at Tripoli, Laing left the Mediterranean coast to cross the Sahara on foot. His 2,000-mile journey took on an added urgency when Hugh Clapperton, a more experienced explorer, set out to beat him. Apprised of each other’s mission by overseers in London who hoped the two would cooperate, Clapperton instead became Laing’s rival, spurring him on across a hostile wilderness.
The horrors and hazards the explorers faced were truly dreadful and echo the barbarism we see in Mali today. Then, it was the slave traders who inflicted barbaric acts upon a docile and largely agrarian nomadic population. Today the outrages against civilians are the work of Islamic fanatics who seem equally possessed of a terrible need to inflict pain on others, enslaving them with religion instead of chains. The slave traders were no more brutal than those who today threaten Timbuktu’s very existence.
Yet even while they suffered greatly on their long treks through the jungles and the deserts, both Laing and Clapperton were mesmerized by the beauty of the African landscape and the nobility and authenticity of so many of the Africans they encountered, who were willing to help them find their way, feed them, house them, and then guide them on their journeys.
Impressive also is the sheer number of ways there were to die in Africa. “The Dark Continent” was also known in those days as the “white man’s grave.” Dysentery, malaria, drowning, parasitic infections, heatstroke were only a few of the natural threats, but I was deeply struck by how these paled besides the likelihood of being killed by fellow travelers, slavers, bandits or capricious rulers. Does nothing ever change for the better on this continent?
What is also deeply fascinating about the Timbuktu of two centuries ago is the unbridgeable cultural and spiritual gap between 19th-century native Muslims and the Christian explorers, a gap that seems oddly mirrored in the intolerance one group of Muslims today shows for another group of Muslims.
In the end, neither Laing nor Clapperton lived to tell the stories of their search for the fabled City of Gold. Hugh Clapperton never reached Timbuktu. He died at Sokoto in the far northwest of what is today Nigeria. Alexander Gordon Laing succeeded in finding Timbuktu, where he was warmly welcomed by its people and spent four weeks studying texts in the city’s magnificent libraries. Rested, he headed back for what he thought was civilization and the fame and wealth his landmark account would bring him.
A few days into his hard trek through the dangerous war-torn territory that then, as today, surrounded Timbuktu, he was murdered by a rapacious religious fanatic who cut off his head and robbed him, ostensibly because he failed to convert to Islam, but more probably because the murderer simply didn’t want a living eyewitness to the theft.
In the end, neither Laing nor Clapperton got much credit for their important discoveries until decades after their deaths. The first European to visit Timbuktu and live to tell the tale was Renee Caille, a Frenchman, who reached Timbuktu in April, 1828, and spent two weeks there before returning to France and publishing a book about his experiences.
I will continue to be immersed in the history of Timbuktu until the situation in Mali changes. To study Timbuktu is to better understand the extraordinary confluence of people and events, the collision of Europe and Africa, that created the continent I have inherited. To study Timbuktu is to invest in Mali’s future, for it has never been more important for those who love Mali and her magnificent and mysterious City of Gold to understand clearly how much Timbuktu’s present is the product of its past.