Timbuktu: Sages, camel trains and sand dunes

The desert city of Timbuktu, where French President Jacques Chirac arrives on Friday during a visit to West Africa, has been a synonym for romance and exoticism for generations.

The 17th-century chronicler and historian Abderahman Saadi called the oasis on the edge of the Sahara desert “exquisite, pure, delicious, illustrious, a blessed city, fertile and lovely.”

Timbuktu’s glory days are behind it, but during the 15th and 16th centuries “the city of 333 saints” drew the great intellectuals of the Islamic world, educating as many as 25 000 students at a time at 180 Koranic schools.

“Timbuktu means something to everyone, even to those who couldn’t find Mali on a map,” Mali’s former culture and tourism minister Aminata Traore once told a Unesco magazine.

During the golden age of the city, which was designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 1988, it boasted three great mosques.

The oldest and biggest was that of Djingareyber, built in the 14th century by the emperor of Mali, Kankou Moussa, on his return from a pilgrimage to Mecca.

That of Sankore was built by a wealthy believer, and that of Sidi Yahia by a soothsayer who predicted the arrival of an imam (religious leader) and spent the next 40 years waiting.

Timbuktu was also an important trading crossroads where bankers and merchants from the desert, the grasslands and the jungle rubbed shoulders. Camel trains loaded with salt, spices, silk and copper arrived from the north while the south sent gold, ivory—and slaves.

The city was founded between the 11th and 12th centuries, records say, by Tuaregs, a community of nomads scattered over the immense stretches of the Sahara which also forms part of neighbouring Niger, Algeria and Mauritania.

The visitor is beguiled by richly ornamented doorways, houses with finely worked facades and an architecture of a distinctively Sudanese style.

But since 1990 Timbuktu has been on another Unesco list, that of World Heritage in danger because drifting sand from the Sahara is threatening the three great mosques.

Normally baked by a suffocating heat, with shade temperatures exceeding 50 degrees Celsius in the hot season, it was struck last winter by torrential rains.

Life is hard in a city which now numbers no more than 30 000 inhabitants and where tourists are rare and obtaining transport, food, electricity and news of the outside world all make for a perpetual battle. - AFP

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