Lost City: After a week of wanton destruction, is the legendary city of Timbuktu finally coming to an end?
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.”
Share on twitter Twitter
Share on reddit Reddit
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.