The End of the Road in Timbuktu: City of Mud, Sand, Goats, Donkeys, Doors, Ancient Manuscripts & Invisibility

... or Timbuktu: city of 333 saints

Timbuktu 333

Until recent years I wasn't sure Timbuktu existed. Timbuktu represented the mythical—a metaphor for the most improbable or absurd place imaginable. And I don't think I was alone in this thinking. In a recent poll, 1/3 of Brits weren't aware of the existence of Timbuktu. The other 2/3 thought it was a made-up place or some lost city in South America. Well I have news. Timbuktu is for real. If you take my word for it.

The first inkling I had of Timbuktu's true existence was when we were in southern Morocco a couple of years ago & I saw a signpost on the edge of the Sahara that said Timbuktu (or more likely Tombouctou), followed by some improbable number of kilometers. If I remember correctly, it was some 50 days by camel from there. It was only fitting, now, that Timbuktu would cap off a whirlwind year of travel, mostly in East Africa, that has led us across the U.S., to Nairobi, eastern Kenya, Italy, western Kenya, Thailand, Zanzibar, Tanzania, Malawi, Tsavo, Ethiopia & now here in Mali.

You can only travel for so long before places to start to blend into one another. But you definitely know when you're in Mali. For starters, it's hot & dry & sandy. The art, music, architecture & blend of culture are completely unique. This is our last hoorah, after this I go back to Nairobi for a week & then I have a one-way flight back to America to meet up with Jess again, who is going ahead via Paris & Amsterdam. Air nomads are we. But this is the here & now. And here is Timbuktu.

Ben Okri Astonishes the Gods Even

Ben Okri's Astonishing the Gods plays off this idea of a mythical place, so on the plane to Timbuktu was an appropriate enough place to read it. It is a departure from his other books that I've read, elevating his status beyond that of a great African writer to just a great writer, up there with Borges & Calvino & Garcia Marquez & Tutuola & a hybrid of these. The book came at the right time in my own journey:

He travelled the seas, saying little, and when anyone asked him why he journeyed and what his destination was, he always gave two answers. One answer was for the ear of his questioner. The second answer was for his own heart. The first answer went like this: 'I don't know why I am travelling. I don't know where I am going.' And the second answer went like this: 'I am travelling to know why I am invisible. My quest is for the secret of visibility.'

The narrator is accompanied by a few "guides" that gives him vague sage advice, like "retain your bewilderment, your bewilderment will serve you well." Sometimes surreal, ethereal or mystical, though at other times bordering on preachy. The place in Astonishing the Gods deals is fictitious, a dystopian & otherworldly Xanadu or Timbuktu:

Soon he felt himself standing on the last remaining patch of earth in the whole world. Soon he felt himself on the last edge of a precipice. Soon he felt his senses falling under the beautiful seduction of the abyss. Out of its enigma he hard soft susurrations and gentle whispers, as of voices murmuring consolations to the last man on earth, who thought himself damned. But when he listened more attentively he though he could distinguish low songs, sweet tender choruses of the abyss calling him into the happy home of the world-effacing white wind.

Okri's city could be one of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, or Sean Thomas Dougherty's Blue City:

As if in a mist, he saw peoples rising from the depths of a great ocean, rising from the forgetful waters. Then, with a fixed and mystic gaze in their eyes, he saw them walking to an island of dreams. There they began building a great city of stone, and within it mighty pyramids and universities and churches and libraries and palaces and all the new unseen wonders of the world.

After a while though, the book starts to get repetitive & takes on a new-agey air. And nothing much happens, it's mostly descriptive with a lot of feel-good mumbo-jumbo... Okri perhaps loses his head in the clouds with this one.

He had never been so happy as he was in the great dreams. His joy was so intense that he became aware of himself in the air, invisible, a pure vibration of bliss, a bird of light. And he wondered how long he would exist in this beautification before he would find himself falling back towards the stones of a familiar reality.

Or maybe everything was too sub-real for me to relate & I couldn't rise to his airspace.

Timbuktu is Here

My original plan was to travel ahead by boat to meet Jess in Timbuktu, but yet again my heart of darkness boat trip scheme was foiled, this time because boats don't run during the dry season on the Niger. And traveling by road sounded like hell & not so safe. So I took the easy way out & flew with Jess & Rog from Bamako.

We seemed to mirror the course of the Niger, which is not always a continuous & defined snake of a river, but bifurcates & meanders & pinches off leaving amputated sections. Timbuktu lies on the northernmost bend of the Niger, as if the river started to head up into the Sahara, & then thought otherwise. 

The town itself has seen better days. It's more the idea of it that matters. You have to imagine it as the first place people would see (or still do) after 40+ days crossing the Sahara in a caravan of salt-laden camels. Imagine what it would be like to come across the Niger & the cornucopia of activity at such a crossroads. Here's some pictures & video I took around Timbuktu (youtube blocked audio, so here's the video on facebook with Ali Farka):


Niger from the air near Timbuktu

Niger bend


my trusty guide Abdullah a knockin

Abdullah knocking


donkey cart

Donkey Cart in Timbuktu


making mud bricks

mud bricks


Sankore mud mosque

Sankore Mosque


another door, another mosque

Timbuktu door


door to the ruling party of Mali, ADEMA-PASJ



bread oven

bread oven


goats coming from the market

Timbuktu main market


aerial view of market

Timbuktu market


spices & grains at the market

spice market


Tuareg antique hawker

hawker in the market place


inside the market

Timbuktu blur


girl showing off  a half-dead mouse

girl with mouse


kid & spoon

baby & spoon


goat & donkey

goat donkey


Tuareg tea on the edge of the Sahara

tea on the edge


the road to Essakane (location of infamous music festival that takes place in January)


Ahmed Baba Institute

Of course I made the pilgrimage to the Ahmed Baba Institute, which houses the largest collection Arabic & African texts in the world. There wasn't much to see, as far as what was on display, but the idea of it is worth the admission, not to mention the cause that it's going to.

Islamic texts on display

ancient arabic manuscripts


the new Ahmed Baba Institute currently under construction

Ahmed Baba Institute







(c) 2009 Derek White