When turban-swathed Tuareg rebels swept into Timbuktu last Sunday to plant the flag of their northern Mali homeland, they found very few tourists in the bars, hotels, museums, mosques and libraries of the fabled and ancient Saharan trading town.
Local guides say numbers of foreign visitors had already fallen off after a Dutchman, a South African and a Swede were seized by gunmen in the historic Malian city in November. A German was killed in the abduction claimed by al-Qaeda.
With the rebels, including Islamist factions preaching sharia, now in control of Timbuktu’s streets, tourists may not return soon to the spot near the Niger river that for centuries was a symbol of remoteness, bewitching voyagers with tales of wealth, wisdom and life-giving water.
“Practically all hotels are empty and closed. Nothing is going on in the tourism sector,” tourist guide Oumar Ag Mohammed Hamaleck said from the city this week, contrasting this with the 80 tourists a day he hosted during past boom periods.
Just as Timbuktu with its exotic name is part of the lore of the Sahara, this same mystery cloaks the Tuaregs, those blue-robed desert marauders who have peopled adventure stories and Hollywood films for years, from PC Wren’s Beau Geste to the recent blockbuster Sahara, with Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz.
But there is nothing fictional about the rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) who charged into Timbuktu last Sunday to plant their flag in the city to claim it as part of a homeland covering an area of northern Mali the size of France.
These modern Saharan raiders have swapped their fleet horses and camels of old for powerful 4x4s and pickups, bristling with heavy machine guns and rocket launchers. AK-47s and RPG launchers are now the small arms of choice, instead of muskets and swords.
Besides the MNLA, Timbuktu’s occupants now also include rival Islamist rebels of the Ansar Dine (Defender of the Faith) movement under veteran Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghaly, who seek to impose Islamic law in Mali and are reported to have links with jihadist groups like al-Qaeda.
“The Islamists have said they are not OK with bars, so no bars have reopened since they took control,” said Timbuktu guide Hamaleck, although apart from this he had not heard of “anything to be worried about”.
The hydra-headed Tuareg-led revolt, energised by a military coup last month that toppled the government in the southern capital Bamako, has fuelled fears of turmoil in a vast lawless northern zone already identified by western experts as a haven for criminal gangs and al-Qaeda militants.
Before the occupation, Timbuktu, a Unesco World Heritage Site of ancient mosques and burial grounds, had become an obligatory stop for budget backpackers seeking the desert experience and scholars looking for historical wisdom from priceless Islamic manuscripts.
“People come to Timbuktu to ‘feel the mystery of Timbuktu’ as we say here… They also come for a camel ride at the gates of the desert, boat rides on the Niger river to spot hippos and witness the sunset. They also visit various famous tourist sites,” Hamaleck said.
Last Sunday’s rebel occupation prompted an appeal from Unesco director-general Irina Bokova for the warring parties to spare “Timbuktu’s outstanding earthen architectural wonders”. These include the Sankore, Sidi Yahia and Djingarei-ber mosques, the last Timbuktu’s oldest, built from mud bricks and wood in 1325.
The origins of Timbuktu – the name is believed to derive from the words Tin-Boctou (meaning the place or well of Boctou, a local woman) – date back to the 5th century.
The site on an old Saharan trading route that saw salt from the Arab north exchanged for gold and slaves from Africa to the south, blossomed in a 16th century Golden Age as an Islamic seat of learning, home to priests, scribes and jurists.
A 15th century Malian proverb proclaims: “Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom are only to be found in Timbuctoo.”
But it was rumours of gold that drove European explorers to cross the trackless, shifting sands of the Sahara to search for the legendary city, already known for centuries to local inhabitants who traversed the deserts on camelback and navigated the muddy brown waters of the Niger by canoes.
Some of these foreign explorers died of thirst in the desert or were robbed and slain by fierce Tuareg warriors, while Timbuktu’s mirage-like renown – no doubt enhanced by thirst-crazed, feverish imaginations – reached glittering proportions in the consciousness of 19th century Europe.
In his poem Timbuctoo, English poet Lord Alfred Tennyson addresses “Wide Afric” to ask: “… is the rumour of thy Timbuctoo, A dream as frail as that of ancient Time?”
Scottish explorer Gordon Laing was the first European to arrive in Timbuktu in 1826, but he did not live to tell the tale, perishing at the hands of desert robbers.
It was not until two years later that Frenchman Rene-Auguste Caillie became the first European to see Timbuktu and survive to recount what he saw.
“I have been to Timbuktu!” he is said to have breathlessly told the French consul in Tangier after he staggered back from his epic Saharan journey.
But after all his dreams of glittering minarets and palaces filled with gold, Caillie was disappointed to find in Timbuktu what it has largely remained for centuries: a dun-coloured town in a dun-coloured desert.
“I had a totally different idea of the grandeur and wealth of Timbuctoo,” he wrote. “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 quicksands of yellowish white colour.” This initial sense of disappointment for outsiders, the myth not matching reality, seems to have traversed the centuries.
Around a century and a half after Caillie, veteran Polish correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski wrote as he flew into Timbuktu by plane: “The town consists of clay houses built on sand. The clay and sand are the same colour, so the town looks like an organic part of the desert – a fragment of the Sahara shaped into rectangular blocks, and elevated. The heat curdles the blood, paralyses the body, stuns.”
And outspoken Irish rocker and anti-famine campaigner Bob Geldof is reported to have exclaimed, “Is that it?” when he first clapped eyes on Timbuktu on a visit in the 1980s.
But residents like Hamaleck the guide, echoing the 15th century proverb, know Timbuktu’s treasures are not immediately visible to the eye. “There is a mystery in Timbuktu, but it is something that you can only feel and not see,” he says.
Besides its architectural marvels, Timbuktu also boasts tens of thousands of ancient, brittle manuscripts, some from the 13th century, which academics say prove Africa had a written history at least as old as the European Renaissance.
Written in ornate calligraphy, this is a compendium of learning on everything from law, sciences and medicine to history and politics. Some experts compare it in importance to the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Some texts were stashed for generations under mud homes and in desert caves by proud Malian families who feared they would be stolen by Moroccan invaders, European explorers and then French colonialists.
In an effort to preserve the texts, the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project was set up and run by the University of Cape Town in a partnership with the South African government. As well as preserving the manuscripts, this project also aimed to improve access to the city’s public and private libraries.
Michael Covitt, founder of the Malian Manuscript Foundation and a US documentary film producer, says the ancient manuscripts contain doctrines of “peace, tolerance, cultural diversity and conflict resolution” that have served Mali for decades.
Many are hoping the Tuareg rebels and the coup leaders in Bamako will heed the message of Timbuktu’s manuscripts.