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."