Lost City

After a week of wanton destruction, is the legendary city of Timbuktu finally coming to an end?

For more images of Timbuktu's sacred shrines, click here.

Late in the afternoon of April 20, 1828, "just as the sun was touching the horizon," as he later described it, a young Frenchman, barely 29, walked into Timbuktu disguised as an Arab, wearing long robes and a turban. René Caillié had begun his journey two years earlier in Senegal, and when the elation of arrival wore off, he looked around him at the streets of Timbuktu, a historic town he knew for its "grandeur and wealth." The city had been part of the Mali Empire, which was known for its trade in gold, salt, and spices, much of which passed through Timbuktu on its way north across the Sahara. Malian emperors built grand mosques in the city, and the Arab traveler Ibn Battuta visited in 1353, confirming Timbuktu's importance to Mali and trans-Saharan trade. But Caillié was disappointed. "The sight before me did not answer my expectations," he wrote in his memoirs. "The city presented, at first view, nothing but a mass of ill-looking houses, built of earth. Nothing was to be seen in all directions but immense plains of quicksand of a yellowish white colour … all nature wore a dreary aspect."

Caillié had expected to sail to the city on a large wooden canoe, part of a flotilla he'd been traveling with for weeks down the Niger River. But he found that getting to Timbuktu was not like entering Paris on the River Seine: Once docked, he had to walk eight miles into the city from the riverbank. Caillié, without formal education or military training, was the second European to see Timbuktu, and the first to make it out alive. The British officer Maj. Alexander Gordon Laing had been there two years earlier, having crossed the Sahara from the north, but was murdered in the desert as he started his return journey home.

And so, with Caillié's damning words, began Timbuktu's long decline in the eyes of the Western world. For much of its long history, however, Timbuktu has been a city whose value seems to exist in stories of its former glory -- a glory that Muslim militant groups who now control northern Mali are trying to wipe out stone by stone. Once merely a seasonal camp for Tuareg herdsmen, Timbuktu evolved into a wealthy regional trading post. It gained renown when Malian emperor Mansa Musa visited on his way back from Mecca in 1324 and inspired by his hajj ordered the construction of the Djinguereber Mosque for the study of Islam. The city's reputation for the study of Muslim theology soon spread into Europe and the Muslim countries of Asia. Timbuktu became the cultural center of the Mali and Songhai empires, both of which were gone by the end of the 16th century.

Timbuktu, however, remained. The city survived the occupation of the Moorish army that defeated the Songhai Empire and the years of chaos that engulfed West Africa until the French conquered the region at the end of the 19th century. The French recognized the historic value of Timbuktu and established a military garrison there to protect the city and patrol the northern regions of the Niger River. But France's dream of enriching itself and its West African colonies off the mineral and agricultural wealth of the region never paid off. By the 1960s, just as modern Mali was getting its start as an independent country, Timbuktu had dwindled, as the British historian Basil Davidson wrote in his book Africa in History, to something "remote and humble."

Growing up in Colorado, I had little awareness of Africa, but like many American kids, I'd heard of Timbuktu because of its odd place in our lexicon. Timbuktu was that far removed place we never quite understood but somehow admired, that little town where we'd stopped once for gas in Utah on some family trip, or that road through the western Colorado sagebrush where my high school track team's bus broke down. "Here we are," someone would say, "stuck in Timbuktu." I loved the very sound of the word, Timbuktu, the way its syllables bounced expectantly off the tongue. And I desperately wanted to go there.

I finally got my wish in July 1986, while on vacation from my work as a Peace Corps English teacher in neighboring Niger. I traveled into the city of Timbuktu in a bush taxi, a barely functioning Peugeot 504 station wagon over the worst road I have ever traveled. Pulverized dust billowed like soap suds, hiding deep ruts that pinched and punctured three of the four tires. The 30-mile journey from where I'd picked up the taxi on the main north-south road became a two-day ordeal. When we drove into Timbuktu in late afternoon, I was exhausted and, I admit, disappointed. Low brown mud buildings defined the architecture, giving it a temporary feeling. Sand drifted along the foundations of buildings, which oddly reassured me. I'd definitely arrived at the Sahara. What surprised me most was when I drank water from a well in the city, not from a faucet, and it tasted clear and cool right from the desert itself.

Timbuktu's only hotel at that time was full, so I spent two nights on a mat on the concrete patio of a local bar, a bordello really, and then I fled back the way I'd come. The heat was awful, and as Caillié wrote in his memoirs, there was no way to escape it day or night. I slept little and discarded my mosquito net at night for fear it would block the slightest breeze. I had enough energy to check out Caillié's living quarters, marked by a bronze plaque. In the end, though, I could not agree with his descriptions of Timbuktu. "Everything," he wrote, "had a dull appearance."

I found the city and desert beyond to be one of the most beautiful and haunting landscapes I've ever seen. At night, the desert sky was so bright and clear it seemed to rest right on the rooftops. During the day, the city and landscape blended into the blinding pale sky as if Timbuktu itself were floating on a cloud. I loved how the wind continuously rubbed the tops of dunes, blurring them into the horizon and forming ridges that looked as if they'd been pressed by a giant thumb and forefinger. This is part of the reason why I keep going back to the Sahel and the southern Sahara -- because the land is so big and so extreme. The other reason, and perhaps it's not all that surprising, is that the people who live there are so resilient.

Here is what I mean: In 1991, when it looked like the country was doomed to suffocate under military dictatorship and places like Timbuktu would fade away entirely, Mali cast off the military and ushered in an era of change. Mali's democracy, corrupt though it was, sped up the country's development -- building roads, schools, hospitals, hotels; organizing its national archives; and retooling the infrastructure of the capital, Bamako.

In 1988, the U.N. cultural organization UNESCO named three mosques and 16 mausoleums in Timbuktu to its World Heritage list, making the city the rock of Mali's tourism industry. Universities, international organizations, and philanthropists began pumping in millions of dollars to protect and catalog the artifacts and libraries of Timbuktu, including tombs of Muslim saints and warriors dating to the 15th century. There are, according to UNESCO, some 60 privately held libraries in Timbuktu and more than 700,000 ancient manuscripts, most of them connected to the Muslim heritage of much of West and North Africa, as well as Southern Europe. During the last 21 years, according to Cherif Keita, professor of African culture and literature at Carleton College in the United States, "Timbuktu has been undergoing something of a renaissance, really."

All of this, we now know, is being swept away by the Islamist rebel groups that have hijacked the Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali and taken its most important population centers, including Timbuktu, in a bid to impose sharia law on all of Mali. In the last few weeks, fighters from the group Ansar Dine, which is Arabic for "Defenders of the Faith," have begun methodically destroying ancient tombs and mosques in Timbuktu, which is said to have been the home at one time or another of 333 Muslim saints. Using rifle butts, picks, and shovels, they bashed in the entrance to the Sidi Yahia mosque, named for one of the first imams of Timbuktu. The long-sealed doorway, legend claimed, would not be opened until the last day of the world. In Gao, the city north of Timbuktu that was the former capital of the Songhai Empire, they have reportedly damaged the Tomb of Askia Muhammad, the most powerful of the Songhai emperors and a devout Muslim.

But the Taliban may have set the precedent for such attacks when they destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas, two mammoth sixth-century statues carved from a sandstone cliff in Afghanistan. Despite pleas from the international community, Taliban soldiers dynamited them in 2001. Over the ensuing decade, attacks on Muslim holy sites by Islamic militants have ensued with sad regularity in Iraq and even recently in Libya, where militants have taken advantage of the chaos following the fall of the regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi. In Mali, the destruction in Timbuktu marks a conflict within Islam itself. Hard-line Salafi Muslims, who make up groups like Ansar Dine and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, condemn the existence of icons they say worshippers may hold above god, while the local Sufi practice of Islam tolerates icons and the playing of music, though not as objects of worship.

But Timbuktu has become so much more than its ancient history. The Timbuktu region is also the childhood home of the celebrated guitarist and singer, the late Ali Farka Toure, who grew up in a village near the city. He started a tradition of mixing African and Western musical styles that other musicians in the region have followed. Timbuktu itself has also become a center for West African music, drawing thousands in the cool month of January to the semiannual Festival in the Desert concert, which this year drew the singer Bono as its star event. The Tuareg rebellion that launched northern Mali's present troubles started only weeks later, and no plans have been announced for a future festival. It's a shame, as Mali seemed to be making real progress. The government had already paved most of the major north-south highway to Gao and was working on the road into Timbuktu, as well as a canal to bring the Niger River to the city's doorstep (which would have certainly pleased Caillié).

But the music and the construction have fallen silent now, replaced by the sharp blows of axes and the spitting of gunfire. And yet, across the spread of 1,000 years of history, this is nothing new in Timbuktu, which has been occupied and sacked by numerous armies, from the Tuaregs to the Songhai to the Arabs, from the Moors to the French. The last serious occupation, one that did real physical damage to the city according to Keita, was when the Moors invaded and toppled the Songhai Empire in 1591. But no one and no force of nature, not even the Sahara -- whose sands creep up the foundations of the city's homes -- has been able to wipe Timbuktu off the map. Somehow the city has survived, losing bits of its heritage here and there, but keeping most of it intact. And Keita, who descends from people who fled Timbuktu during the Moorish invasion, said that invaders over the centuries added their own touch to the fabled city. "You can still find Moorish-style windows in buildings throughout the town," he said. "Timbuktu has always had a genius for being able to absorb its invaders."

But the methodical aggression of groups like Ansar Dine don't bring with them architecture or history of their own. And there's much more than earthen tombs and mosques at risk. "The spirit of Islam goes back to the 10th century in this region," explains Keita. "They are killing the soul of Islam."


Democracy Lab

Moscow's Marines Head for Syria

The Russians have dispatched a naval task force to Syria. As if the place wasn't enough of a mess already.

The Russian defense ministry has dispatched a group of ships to the Mediterranean. Among their destinations is the Syrian port of Tartus. The vessels include at least three amphibious landing craft, capable of transporting armored vehicles and dozens of marines. If the force actually reaches Syria, it will represent a significant increase in Moscow's involvement there beyond delivering arms (whether new or refurbished) to the beleaguered Assad regime. The Kremlin clearly wants America and others to understand that maintaining its presence in Tartus is a very high priority for Moscow. But far from ensuring continued Russian influence in Syria and the region, this move may serve to undermine it instead.

It is not hard to understand why Moscow would want to retain this port, which its navy has been using since 1971. Russia cannot rapidly deploy its Black Sea fleet into the Mediterranean and beyond because of international agreements that limit the number and timing of naval vessels transiting the bottleneck of the Turkish Straits. Russia's other main ports -- in the Baltic, the Arctic Sea, and the Pacific -- are far away. Thus, for Moscow to be able to rapidly bring to bear its forces in the eastern Mediterranean and vicinity, it must be able to maintain a naval presence outside of the Black Sea. And to do that, it needs access to port facilities. Tartus is currently the only naval base that Russia has outside of the former Soviet Union. (Russia has reportedly taken steps to acquire naval access to Venezuela, but it is not clear whether Moscow can actually sustain one so far away from its own shores.) Hence the vital importance of Tartus to Moscow.

Had the Russian government been more evenhanded about the uprising against the Assad regime that broke out in early 2011, it might have had at least a chance of persuading a successor Syrian government to let it retain access to Tartus. A Syrian National Council official who participated in talks with the Russian government said that the SNC made this offer to Moscow last year. But because the Kremlin has so firmly backed the Assad regime in the latter's efforts to crush its opponents, it is highly likely that the regime coming to power after the downfall of Assad will expel the Russians from Tartus. While Moscow certainly has other motives for continuing to back Assad, one of the most important is the need to secure access to Tartus.

In conversation, Russian international affairs specialists say that they see Washington's objections to Russian support for the Assad regime as yet another example of the U.S. applying one standard to Russia and another to itself. While the U.S. acquiesced to (or more actively worked for) the downfall of longstanding authoritarian rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, Russian observers note that Washington did nothing to prevent Saudi forces from crushing the Shia majority opposition movement calling for the reform (and not the downfall) of the Sunni minority regime in Bahrain, where the U.S. 5th Fleet is based.

Moscow, of course, saw tacit American support for the crushing of the democratic opposition movement in Bahrain as motivated by Washington's desire to retain its naval base there. Nor did Moscow object to this. Washington, then, should reciprocate by not objecting to Russian support (which Moscow claims is limited) for the crushing of the Syrian opposition movement (which Moscow insists is less than democratic) so that Russia can retain its naval base in Syria. The fact that Washington isn't doing this suggests to Moscow that while the U.S. seeks to preserve its naval presence in the Middle East, it also seeks to eliminate Russia's.

Whether Moscow accurately understands American intentions is a matter of debate. Of more immediate importance to Western and Middle Eastern observers is the question of what Moscow might hope to achieve by deploying Russian marines to Tartus. Last month, when sources in the Russian navy told the Russian Interfax news service that a deployment to the Eastern Mediterannean might be in the offing, the aim of the mission was to protect Russians in Syria and, if necessary, to remove equipment from the port. Moscow might also hope that deploying its marines there will bolster the Assad regime's efforts to crush its opponents or preserve Russian access to Tartus if these efforts fail.

Whether Moscow can achieve these broader goals, though, is highly uncertain. If the Assad regime falls, the presence of a few hundred marines will not enable Moscow to retain access to Tartus if the new Syrian regime insists that the Russians leave. It is far more likely, of course, that the Assad regime will remain in power -- at least in the near term. But this could result in a problem for Moscow that is also far more likely to occur.

Even if the Kremlin's deployment of marines to Tartus has the limited aim of protecting Russian citizens and evacuating Russian equipment, Syrian opposition groups are likely to see this as a sign of increasing Russian support for the Assad regime's efforts to crush them. It would not be surprising, then, if they responded by attacking these marines as well as other Russian personnel in Syria. Such a move would certainly be popular in Syria and the Arab world as a whole, where there is growing resentment toward Russia over its support to the Assad regime. If the Syrian opposition were more unified, its leadership might well conclude that it has an interest in good working relations with Moscow should it achieve power, and thus would not condone such attacks. But given that Syrian opposition forces are divided and that the power struggle among them may well increase if the Assad regime falls (or appears likely to fall), one or more of these groups may well see attacking Russian forces in Syria as an excellent means of bolstering their popularity and legitimacy vis-à-vis the others.

Such an outcome is far from certain. But if Russian personnel in Tartus are attacked, Moscow will face a dilemma. Does it respond by withdrawing the marines, and thus risk not only appearing weak but also undermining the Assad regime by demonstrating how limited Russian support for it is? Or does Moscow respond by sending even more forces to protect the ones already there, and thus risk providing the Syrian opposition with even more targets as well as getting Russian forces bogged down in Syria? Either choice could prove extremely damaging to Putin's standing both internationally and domestically.

If Syrian opposition forces wanted to attack Russian targets in Syria, they would not need to wait for the arrival of these marines in Tartus. There are plenty of Russians present in Syria even now -- including those already at the naval base. Up to now, though, the Syrian opposition has not focused on them. However, the arrival of armed Russian marines -- who can, and will, be portrayed as there to help Assad continue to oppress the Syrian people -- may well prove too tempting a target for the Syrian opposition to resist. If so, Putin's decision to send them to Tartus may not serve to protect Russian naval access to this port as he undoubtedly intends. It could, instead, end up creating more problems for Moscow in Syria than he can afford.