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The Tomes of Timbuktu

There was treasure buried beneath the sands of the Sahara, and now it shines again

By Alan Huffman
Sunday, February 27, 2005; Page W12

A dusty haze mutes the horizon in Timbuktu during the dry season, so on this mid-December evening the sun simply fades away without setting. Dusk settles upon the wide, sandy streets and mud-bricked alleys, and the city, without streetlights, descends into the darkness of the desert. Silhouettes drift past lamp-lit windows, and the fires of street-side clay ovens send shadows dancing up the walls. Children materialize from the darkness, run up and clasp the hands of strangers, then disappear. The sky is soon dense with stars, and meteorites streak by so often and seemingly so close that I actually swing my head when one appears to shoot like a bottle rocket toward the street below.

My friends and I are sprawled on the steps of our hotel, watching the apparitions and shooting stars and the occasional bouncing headlight of an unexpected moped go by, when a young man steps into the arc of dim light falling from the building's doors. "Do you remember me?" he asks, repeating a refrain we have heard countless times from people on the street here, usually from young men dressed in too-neat Tuareg outfits who want to be our guide or to sell crafts. We do remember this guy, a lean Malian whose robe actually looks worn. He approached us a few days before, and, like so many people in Timbuktu over the last millennium and almost everyone of a certain age today, he wanted to sell something -- in his case T-shirts. His name is Ali Baba Ahdoudoye. Tonight he wants only to talk. He asks how we like the place, then casually throws out his most tantalizing tidbit of local color. "My family, we have important manuscripts," he says, taking a seat on the steps. This time there is no salesman's pitch in his voice.

Arabic manuscript
Arabic manuscript
This Arabic manuscript dates to the 14th century. (Xavier Ross - Gamma)

His family library is more than 400 years old, Ahdoudoye says, and, like most that survive from the series of crucibles that destroyed the former Mali Empire, its manuscripts were long ago hidden to prevent them from being looted during successive foreign occupations. I am generally familiar with such manuscripts, most of which were written from the 13th to the 16th centuries, when Timbuktu was a citadel of learning known across Africa. There is a push to preserve the texts before it is too late. Most that were not looted or destroyed hundreds of years ago now languish in rotting boxes, and they are deteriorating into dust.

Ahdoudoye says he is translating his family's books from Arabic and has so far learned from them how to make medicine from tree sap "for use in the treatment of surgery wounds," how to find water in the desert and how to find your way by closely observing a camel's behavior. His mother told him the texts had been handed down from generation to generation, always with the admonition that the family must never let them go. "I have love for the old books," he says, his face suddenly animated.

At this point it occurs to me: Only in Timbuktu would you likely meet a T-shirt salesman who spends his evenings deciphering ancient texts. What is even more amazing is that, in Timbuktu, this is not extraordinary.

FOR MANY TRAVELERS, the chief reason for visiting Timbuktu is to say they did, to check the place off the intrepid world-travel list. That is why you occasionally meet hawkers selling T-shirts that proclaim, "I've been to Timbuktu and back!" The name instantly conjures a location that is remote and inaccessible, and with good reason. By the mid-19th century, only four Europeans had made it here, and not all of them made it back alive. From Morocco, on the north side of the Sahara Desert, the traditional camel trek took more than 50 days. Today, by four-wheel-drive, reaching the city requires an arduous, dusty, 20-hour drive from Mali's capital, Bamako, 135 miles of which is off-road.

Visitors often express disappointment in what they find upon arrival, and the city does appear to be little more than a squalid, forgotten outpost of mud and concrete buildings in the desert, whose shimmering sand dunes and rocky escarpments stretch for more than 1,000 miles to the north and 3,000 miles east to west. Even the guidebooks typically note that Timbuktu has little to show for its storied past. The city appears listless and hopelessly poor, with little infrastructure. Impressive drifts of discarded plastic bags accumulate everywhere -- against buildings, in the dunes, in the branches of the few stunted trees. Rivulets of sewage flow down the middle of the streets, soaking into the sand.

But there is something transcendent, and instantly engaging, about the mix of people on those streets, which offers the first clue that Timbuktu is more than a stranded, down-and-out way station in the desert. Each day an eclectic parade of humanity passes in front of our hotel: camel-mounted nomads in indigo robes and turbans; rakish Arab merchants selling silver jewelry and carved ebony; families of indeterminate ethnicity piled atop overloaded donkey carts; mothers in colorful African gowns with bowls on their heads and babies on their backs; Muslim women clothed from head to toe; a few gangsta wannabes; and pretty girls in J. Lo T-shirts riding smoking mopeds. It looks like a casting call for a bizarre movie that I cannot begin to imagine -- part "Lawrence of Arabia," part "The Road Warrior." The question comes to mind: What are these people doing together here, in the middle of nowhere?

During three days in Timbuktu, I pose the question to anyone I think might have an answer, or who seems willing to give it a shot. The consensus is that before colonization, the city was a point of convergence for caravans from the Mediterranean, via the Sahara, and from West Africa, via the nearby Niger River. Though dark-skinned Africans -- whom their northern counterparts sometimes refer to as "Africa Africans" -- had long made use of the local well, the city itself was founded in about 1100 by desert nomads. So the cultural melange was initially about water, and then about trade.

This is where the story of Timbuktu gets interesting. 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, now known by their French name, bibliothèques, which attracted students from throughout Africa and the Middle East. Publishing and the manufacture, copying and trade of books and manuscripts became Timbuktu's leading industry at a time when the Renaissance was just beginning in Europe.


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