Trouble in Timbuktu: A lost jewel of the desert returns to the center of history
When headlines announced earlier this month that the city of Timbuktu had fallen to Tuareg rebels, readers might have wondered whether they were looking at a newspaper or a storybook. Few geographical names carry such an air of fantasy and romance, or conjure such visions of gold and ivory, conquering sultans, and empires long dead. Suddenly the news was bringing fresh reports from a place so remote that for centuries, if you tried to get there, the journey alone could easily kill you.
Timbuktu is a Saharan El Dorado or Shangri-La—with the important difference that unlike those others, Timbuktu is real. In large part because it is the last big outpost on trade routes leading north into the Sahara, it once stood as a cosmopolitan center of learning that rivaled—and in many cases surpassed—the European universities of the Middle Ages. Its libraries and Islamic schools attracted pupils from as far away as the Arabian Peninsula, and its markets made traders from West Africa and the Arab Maghreb rich.
One could think of Timbuktu as the farthest inland port city in the world, and of the Sahara as its ocean. By sitting at the fringe of many empires (black African, Arab), it became the place where all of them came to meet, trade, and turn their wealth into knowledge. And although it no longer holds the importance it once did, the city remains one of the most important guardians of Africa’s intellectual history, with thousands of centuries-old manuscripts stocked in its libraries even now.
Today the city is a palette of dusty browns, with sleepy dirt alleys and mud buildings. But the groups that built Timbuktu’s legacy remain there in force: In Timbuktu’s neighborhoods one finds an Arab Moorish quarter, historically linked with the salt trade; the Songhay, a traditionally sedentary black African people who make up the bulk of the city’s residents; and the pastoralist Tuareg, who are known for their striking indigo and cornflower-blue robes, and whose rebel movement now controls the city.
Timbuktu’s ability to draw in a mix of groups has been one of its blessings—the foundation of its romantic history and of its legacy as the Oxford or Cambridge of the desert. Now, though, that mix has taken on a more volatile cast. The Tuareg have declared independence for their ethnic state, called Azawad, with Timbuktu as a possible capital. And now, in a city that has historically accepted all comers, the Tuareg’s minority rule could be setting up the next big humanitarian crisis in Africa.