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Monday, 15 April, 2002, 15:07 GMT 16:07 UK
Timbuktu - city of legends
Camels in Timbuktu
Camel caravans used to carry gold across the Sahara

The fabled city of Timbuktu is not a myth - it does indeed exist - in northern Mali, on the edge of the Sahara desert.

These days, it pretty much lives up to its reputation as "the end of the world" but once upon a time, it was the centre of important trade routes.

Muslim merchants took gold north from West Africa to Europe and the Middle East and returned with salt and other goods.

This trade made the city enormously wealthy - legend has it that the lavish golden gifts dished out in 14th century Cairo by Kankan Moussa, Emperor of the ancient state of Mali, caused the price of gold to crash.

At the time, salt was worth as much as gold, pound for pound, in Timbuktu.

Tales of the city's riches were spread by the Muslim traders and European explorers who heard them dreamt of making their fortunes many times over.

But Timbuktu was also a great Islamic centre and non-Muslims - such as the explorers - were banned, adding greatly to the mystique which quickly grew up around the city - and which still exists to this day.

But during the 16th and 17th centuries, trade switched to the Atlantic Ocean and the so-called "City of 333 saints" began its long descent.

Sand dunes

Today, it is a desolate and impoverished town - renowned for its heat, isolation and sand dunes.

God may turn it all around again, and Timbuktu will once again find its rightful place

Chirfi Alpha Sane, historian

The governor of the region complains that the only roads to the north are treacherous sandy tracks, where banditry is common.

Despite a new airport in Timbuktu, flights regularly fail to materialise, stranding passengers for days.

Most trade is done with neighbouring Mauritania rather than southern Mali, and crowded riverboats from Mopti take days to reach the port on the River Niger that serves Timbuktu, 10km from the town itself.

Still, thousands of determined visitors from every continent do make their way to Timbuktu each year.


With precious few other employment opportunities, hundreds of teenage boys in Timbuktu have turned themselves into guides.

Boasting nicknames such as Ali Baba George Washington, the young guides offer tourists whatever they have come to look for in Timbuktu.

There is the standard tour of the historical landmarks of the ancient city, with fanciful tales of how former French presidents ensured their re-election by consulting with powerful saints and the holy men or "marabouts" who claim to represent them.

Ahmed Baba Centre in Timbuktu
Timbuktu hosts a collection of ancient Islamic manuscripts

And if the clients so wish, as the guides say they sometimes do, there can also be a discreet, romantic adventure under the desert sky on the sand dunes that surround the holy Islamic town.

And they wax lyrical - in smatterings of every language from Chinese to Swedish to gangster-rap English - about Timbuktu "the mysterious".

Even if the town has fallen on difficult times, Timbuktu still holds many mysteries and marvels for visitors and also for those who live there.

The Sankore University, whose 50,000 Muslim scholars helped spread Islam across West Africa, is still functioning, albeit with reduced numbers of just 15,000.


The impressive Jingereber mosque, built from mud in 1325 AD, is also still standing.

And there is the Ahmed Baba Centre, with its fantastic collection of manuscripts that capture more than a millennium of Islamic scholarship and scientific knowledge.

Timbuktu resident
Some say Timbuktu is Mali's melting pot

Local cultures - Songhrai, Tuareg, Arab and Moor - have intermingled, but retained their distinct traditions.

In the town's only cybercafe, young women wearing demure indigo veils hammer away on computers, using the internet to communicate with family members who have left for other continents.

Despite the recent years of fighting that pitted ethnic Songhrai against Tuaregs, Timbuktu still has an impressive population of philosophers and Islamic scholars who maintain the city is a symbol of peace.


Chirfi Alpha Sane, an archivist in the Ahmed Baba Centre in Timbuktu, says there are lessons for the entire world in the 20,000 ancient Arabic manuscripts in the centre - some of which date back to the second century.

"There is everything here.

"Islamic law with lessons for peace through dialogue, as well as science, astronomy, medicine.

Timbuktu is one of the richest cities in Africa

Ismael Diadie Haidara, philosopher

"In Timbuktu these scholars said that gold came from the south, salt came from the north, money came from the lands of the white men, but they believed that wisdom and the word of God were to be found only in Timbuktu.

"That wisdom is here, in these manuscripts."

Mr Sane is a member of the Action Committee for the North, an organisation that denounces the Malian Government's "neglect" of Timbuktu and the desert north.

But he is philosophical about the future of the ancient city:

"In the Middle Ages this was almost the centre of the world.

"Then one day God turned it all around and many people started viewing Timbuktu as the end of the world.

"One day God may turn it all around again, and Timbuktu will once again find its rightful place and regain its glory."


Timbuktu philosopher and historian, Ismael Diadie Haidara, points out that Timbuktu, which was inhabited by Muslims, Christians and Jews for hundreds of years, has always been a centre of religious and racial tolerance.

For many years, he has been struggling to raise funds to preserve 3,000 ancient manuscripts in his library that detail the co-existence in Timbuktu of Muslims, Jews and Christians.

He himself is directly descended from Spanish forefathers with Christian origins who converted to Islam and fled to the Niger Valley in 1468 and later intermarried with African Muslims and Hebrew merchants.

Timbuktu residents outside Sankore mosque
The ancient city and its people have fallen on hard times

Mr Haidara says he is one of 1,000 Malians today who can claim in his ancestry Christian, Muslim and Jewish blood:

"All three groups co-existed peacefully in Timbuktu up until the end of the 19th century.

"If today Timbuktu is one of the poorest cities in Mali, and Mali one of the poorest countries in Africa, it is also a city that shows the way of the future - tolerance and co-existence.

"In this way, I think Timbuktu is one of the richest cities in Africa."

See also:

22 Nov 00 | Africa
10 Jan 01 | Country profiles
25 Jul 01 | Africa
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