Jul 05

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Timbuktu, It Really Does Exist

 A Continuation of our Survey of the World – the Cultural World


    “From here to Timbuktu” as your mom and dad used to say, but did they think that Timbuktu was an actual place?  Probably not.  Many people would agree with them.  A recent survey of Britons showed that a third of them did not believe the place was real either.  But yes, Timbuktu is a real place, a city to be exact, in the country of Mali.  And since we just read about the desert locust in Mali, let us linger here a while longer.  A short float down the Niger River and overland about 10 miles and we arrive at the ancient city of Timbuktu.

     Timbuktu today is a desert city with a population around 55,000.  It is the capital city of one of the eight regions within Mali.  Like so many other African localities which threw off the shackles of European colonialism decades ago, Timbuktu is challenged by a combination of economical, ecological, and social issues.  But the dull desert sands belie the lively image of ancient Timbuktu, the hidden land that fascinated Europeans long ago…

     The city of Timbuktu was firmly established by the twelfth century.  Like other cities at the time, it was a trade crossroads between Egypt and Arabia to the east and Morocco to the north.  Gold was the ever popular trade item, but so was salt, which, as a spice and a preservative, was just as important as precious metals.  Ivory, from unfortunate elephants and rhinos, and the very lives of unfortunate slaves were brought in from Africa’s interior.  From the 1300s until the 1900s, Timbuktu was controlled intermittently by the Malis, the Tuareg, the Songhay, the Moroccans, the Maasina, and the Tuareg once again.

     Europeans were first made aware of Timbuktu through the 16th century writings of Leo Africanus, a Muslim explorer and author.  Timbuktu was supposedly another “city of gold”, but any potential European visitors to the city would face a hard sea voyage followed by an extreme overland trek into an area that was largely unmapped.  Mungo Park was the first European explorer that made a serious attempt to find the city, twice making expeditions to the area in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.   (Before you laugh, know that “Mungo” was a perfectly respectable Scottish name back in the day.)  Some believe that Park may have been the first European to reach Timbuktu, but this is unconfirmed, because he drowned in the Niger River before reporting the findings of his expedition.

     Another Scot, Gordon Laing, reached the city in 1826, but was killed by Muslims there.  Two years later, the Frenchman Rene Caille wisely disguised himself as a Muslim and was able to explore the city and report his findings back to Europe.  Alas, the city was not made of gold and gems, but it still remained an important trading outpost.  The French certainly thought so, when they took control of this region of Africa in the 1890s.  During World War II, Timbuktu was controlled by French officials that sided with Germany.  As a result, a  number of British soldiers were held prisoner within the city during the War.

     Mali and Timbuktu won their independence from France in 1960, but the region’s further development has literally been stifled by encroachment of the Sahara Desert from the north.  Water levels in the Niger River have dropped and the canal connecting Timbuktu to the Niger has been buried by sand.  The city has also been the victim of recent civil strife.  In the spring of 2012, an Islamist group took control of the city and instituted sharia law, causing many of the Timbuktu’s Christians to leave.

Permanent link to this article: http://conversaving.com/2012/07/05/timbuktu-it-really-does-exist/

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