Suitcase and World: At the crossroads. Timbuktu.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

At the crossroads. Timbuktu.

When I mentioned to several of my colleagues that I would be going to Mali, one of the first questions that they would ask me was, "Are you going to Timbuktu?". Hello?? Have we met? Anyone who knows me knows that I cannot go to Mali and NOT go to Timbuktu!

So, now that I'm determined to see Timbuktu, it's time to learn more about the place starting with both the spelling and the origin of its name.

In terms of spelling, I've always known is as Timbuktu but I've now seen it also spelled as Tomboctou which I believe is the French spelling.

As far as the etymology of the name goes, best I can tell, no one knows for certain how Timbuktu got its name.  One seemingly popular story is that sometime around 1100 AD, a Tuareg tribeswoman named Buktu settled alongside a well and was left here to guard the possessions of Tuareg shepherds in the oasis while their flocks grazed elsewhere.   The returning shepherds needed some phrase to refer to that place where they left their possessions and thus, the name Timbuktu which literally means "Buktu's well" in I'm guessing the language spoken by the Tuaregs. 

Another explanation is that the name is derived from the Zenaga (language of the Berbers) root b-k-t, meaning “to be distant” or “hidden”, and the feminine possessive particle "tin". The meaning “hidden” could point to the city's location in a slight hollow. This may also have translated itself into the popular catch phrase "from here to Timbuktu" which is intended to denote remoteness.

Whatever the origin of its name might be, Timbuktu was a place of mystery to me up until I started to read up for this trip and I still think of it as being a remote place.....not easily accessible.  It's most certainly not a place that many tourists commonly travel to and I think that for me, that in itself, holds some allure.  There is a high likelihood that there are no McDonald's or Starbucks least, I'm hoping not because I will be terribly disappointed if I see the Golden Arches displayed anywhere.

However, from what I have, read visitors to Timbuktu often express disappointment in what they find upon arrival.   This once great city has been reduced a squalid, forgotten outpost of mud and concrete buildings in the desert that is drowning in trash and sewage.  Does not sound like a pretty picture but I shall see for myself when I go.  There must be some beauty to be found, some remnant of its glorious past, hidden under the squalor.

4th century Catalan map showing Mansa Musa, king of Timbuktu, holding
a gold nugget which he is offering to a Muslim merchant who is approaching on camel.
Timbuktu was founded in 1080 AD and within 300 years had become one of the era's most important trading posts.  Situated at the strategic point where the Sahara touches on the River Niger, it was at the crossroads of the trans-Saharan caravan route - the gateway for African goods bound for the merchants of the Mediterranean, the courts of Europe and the larger Islamic world.   Muslim merchants took gold north from West Africa to Europe and the Middle East and returned with salt and other goods.

Commerce in gold, ivory, salt and slaves made the city fabulously wealthy from the 13th to the 16th centuries, and the city's leading families parlayed those profits into universities and libraries.  In no time, Timbuktu quickly grew to be an influential center for Islamic studies and culture. When the Renaissance was barely stirring in Europe, wandering scholars were drawn to Timbuktu's intellectual and religious manuscripts all the way from North Africa, Arabia and even Persia.  So, when much of Europe was struggling out of the Dark Ages, the emperor of Timbuktu was having stunning mosques built, and thousands of scholars from as far as Islamic India and Moorish Spain were  studying in the city.
But during the 16th and 17th centuries, the trade route started to switch to the Atlantic Ocean and Timbuktu began its long descent to the desolate and impoverished town that it sadly is today.

Even though Timbuktu has fallen on difficult times, much of its grand past has been preserved in its priceless collections of ancient Islamic manuscripts that capture more than a millennium of Islamic scholarship and scientific knowledge.  In its heyday, Timbuktu was a city famous for the education of important scholars and thus, one of its most famous and long lasting contribution to both Islamic and world civilization is its scholarship and the books manuscripts that were produced in Timbuktu.  I've been told that the Ahmed Baba Centre, in Timbuktu, holds some 20,000+ manuscripts some of which date back to the 2nd century.  I don't know if the general public is allowed to view any of these manuscripts but if they are, I would definitely would love to pay the Centre a visit.

In 1988, Timbuktu was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Apart from its famed collection of ancient Islamic manuscripts, it's also home to three great mosques - Sankoré, Djingareyber (also known as Djinguereber) and Sidi Yahya which collectively form the famous University of Timbuktu.

 Although continuously restored, these Sudanese style, mud brick monuments are under constant threat from desertification so it's time to see them before the sands of time erode them to dust.

It will be very interesting to see the mosques in Mali mainly because they don't look anything like the mosques that I'm used to seeing.  For one thing, they don't have minarets.  If non-Muslims are allowed inside, I'm definitely going in to check out the interiors.

From here to Timbuktu in just a few short weeks....can't wait to get there!!