Object lesson No 49

16th February 2001 at 00:00
Travel agents need to wake up to Timbuktu - and soon. Tourism may not be the answer to everything, but Western wallets might help this legendary settlement keep its head above the desert sands. Some guides say it is already too late - that there isn't anything to the place these days except sand. But they are forgetting Timbuktu's status as the most distant of distant destinations. For tourists in search of thrills that must be worth something.

Timbuktu is actually in the not so remote west African republic of Mali, just south of the Sahara. Tales of the city inspired 19th-century European explorers who, tempted by stories of fabulous wealth, set out across the desert. Those who made it discovered they had missed the golden age by more than 250 years.

Timbuktu was founded in 1100 by Tuareg nomads. According to one story, the name means "mother with a large navel", after the old woman who was left in charge while the nomads did their roaming. Only a few miles from the Niger river, the city flourished as a trans-Saharan trading post. In the 14th century it became part of the Mali empire - one of the world's early great civilisations - and converted to Islam. The tales of its legendary weath were the result of emperor Musa's extravagant pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324. His Great Mosque still remains.

By 1450 Timbuktu was buzzing. Merchants from all over North Africa gathered to buy gold and slaves in exchange for salt, cloth and horses. More mosques and universities were built. The place was an intellectual powerhouse, with scholars making up a quarter of the 100,000 residents. (Today's population is just 30,000.) In 1591 disaster struck. Timbuktu - by then in the Songhai empire - was conquered by Morocco, and its scholars were arrested or killed. To add to its woes, desert trading routes were being replaced by sea-based ones; the inland city was marooned and abandoned. A reputation for enlightenment was replaced by one of obscurity.

In 1960, Timbuktu became part of the Republic of Mali. A little salt is still traded and a few aged Islamic scholars remain. The place has a small airport, though it is still easier to get there by camel or boat. In 1988 the United Nations made the city a world heritage site in recognition of it having three of the world's oldest mosques. There's not much else there really, apart from the sand - and the history.

Stephanie Northen

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