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Africa’s ‘mysterious’ city and its visitors

By Vikas Datta,

A realm of unimaginable riches or knowledge, or where time stands still and aging stops… mankind always had a penchant for dreaming up places like Atlantis, El Dorado, Shangri-La, Iram of the Pillars and the like and then making huge efforts to find them. Conversely, some actual places achieved fabled status due to hazy information – like this African city, once an unparalleled hub of knowledge and trade but now a forgotten and impoverished backwater, though ending up in the English language as a synonym for any mysterious but outlandish place.

And Timbuktu (or Timbuctoo) has been an irresistible goal for explorers/travellers, ensuring it figures prominently in some celebrated travelogues, has inspired some fiction, as well as at least four films (including in Hollywood) and a Broadway play!

On the southern edge of the vast Sahara desert in landlocked Mali, it became a permanent settlement in the 12th century and benefited from caravans carrying salt, gold, ivory, textiles, slaves – and books – passing through it. A golden age followed – accounting for its near-mystic reputation. This was succeeded by a long decline and French colonial rule and it never regained its glory. The only reason it figured in news recently was as a new haunt for Al Qaeda affiliates before they were chased out with help from the former colonial ruler.

Timbuktu (no consensus on its meaning) was not always the proverbial distant town – it was visited by that peripatetic scholar Ibn Battuta in 1353 (though he did not linger long or think too much of it) and figured on a Spanish map of 1375. Over a century later, Al Hasan Al Wazzan Al Fasi or Leo Africanus, a captured and enslaved Moroccan diplomat employed by Pope Leo X (1513-21), brought the tantalisingly inaccessible city to attention of Europe – which focussed more on tales of its wealth!

His 18th century compatriot, trader El Hage Abd Salam Shabeeny, or Shabeni (who had lived in Timbuktu for a decade and in 1789 ended up in Britain by a unique set of circumstances), inspired the African Association to send Scottish adventurer Mungo Park on his two expeditions (1795, 1805) to find the city. Park may have been the first European to reach Timbuktu, but died in what is now Nigeria in 1806 without reporting his findings.

In his 1816 account, American sailor Robert Adams, held as a slave for several years in northern Africa, claimed to have visited the city in 1812. Modern scholars debunk his claims, but Anglo-Afghan Indian author Tahir Shah (1966-) used his story as the basis for his novel “Timbuctoo” (2012), showing him as the first recorded Westerner there.

Taking up the Paris-based Societe de Geographie’s 1824 prize of 10,000 francs to the first non-Muslim to reach Timbuktu and return with information about it, another Scotsman managed to get there in 1826 but was murdered by his guides on his way back. His story can be read in Frank T. Kryza’s “The Race for Timbuktu: The Story of Gordon Laing and the Race” (2011).

Frenchman Rene Caillie won the prize – though there were some sceptics. After a perilous, painful journey, Caillie, disguised as a Muslim pilgrim, reached there in 1828. In “Journal d’un voyage à Temboctou et à Jenné, dans l’Afrique centrale”(1830), he reported the city was now an impoverished village with no hint of its glorious past. A fictionalised account of his travails is “The Unveiling of Timbuctoo” (1993) by Galbraith Welch.

The French arrived in the 1890s and an account of their consolidation in 1894 (after an earlier force was depleted by Tuareg tribesmen) is the formal and dry “My March on Timbuctoo” (1915) by Marshal Joseph Jacques Césaire Joffre, who was the French commander-in-chief when World War I broke out.

Modern travellers include Theodore Dalrymple’s (pen-name of British psychiatrist Anthony Daniels) “Zanzibar to Timbuktu”, 1988, Peter Biddlecombe’s “French Lessons in Africa: Travels with My Briefcase Through French Africa” (1995), the irrepressible Michael Palin’s “Sahara”, 2002, and above all American journalist Nina Sovich’s debut book “To the Moon and Timbuktu: A Trek Through the Heart of Africa” (2013) – which deserves a separate entry by itself.

On the fiction side is “Gone to Timbuctoo” (1962), the debut novel of British author John Pearson – known for his James Bond and Biggles “biographies” – a suspenseful but atmospheric account of some bizarre characters making their way up the River Niger and remotest West Africa to the city at the eve of its freedom.

Time for Timbuktu to shed its perceived meaning?

(29.03.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])