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Trouble in Timbuktu

A lost jewel of the desert returns to the center of history

A Tuareg nomad stands near a 13th-century mosque in Timbuktu.Luc Gnago/REUTERS file

When headlines announced earlier this month that the city of Timbuktu had fallen to Tuareg rebels, readers might have wondered whether they were looking at a newspaper or a storybook. Few geographical names carry such an air of fantasy and romance, or conjure such visions of gold and ivory, conquering sultans, and empires long dead. Suddenly the news was bringing fresh reports from a place so remote that for centuries, if you tried to get there, the journey alone could easily kill you.

Timbuktu is a Saharan El Dorado or Shangri-La--with the important difference that unlike those others, Timbuktu is real. In large part because it is the last big outpost on trade routes leading north into the Sahara, it once stood as a cosmopolitan center of learning that rivaled--and in many cases surpassed--the European universities of the Middle Ages. Its libraries and Islamic schools attracted pupils from as far away as the Arabian Peninsula, and its markets made traders from West Africa and the Arab Maghreb rich.


One could think of Timbuktu as the farthest inland port city in the world, and of the Sahara as its ocean. By sitting at the fringe of many empires (black African, Arab), it became the place where all of them came to meet, trade, and turn their wealth into knowledge. And although it no longer holds the importance it once did, the city remains one of the most important guardians of Africa’s intellectual history, with thousands of centuries-old manuscripts stocked in its libraries even now.

Today the city is a palette of dusty browns, with sleepy dirt alleys and mud buildings. But the groups that built Timbuktu’s legacy remain there in force: In Timbuktu’s neighborhoods one finds an Arab Moorish quarter, historically linked with the salt trade; the Songhay, a traditionally sedentary black African people who make up the bulk of the city’s residents; and the pastoralist Tuareg, who are known for their striking indigo and cornflower-blue robes, and whose rebel movement now controls the city.


Timbuktu’s ability to draw in a mix of groups has been one of its blessings--the foundation of its romantic history and of its legacy as the Oxford or Cambridge of the desert. Now, though, that mix has taken on a more volatile cast. The Tuareg have declared independence for their ethnic state, called Azawad, with Timbuktu as a possible capital. And now, in a city that has historically accepted all comers, the Tuareg’s minority rule could be setting up the next big humanitarian crisis in Africa.


TIMBUKTU IS, ON first glance today, not a city that looks built to last. The oldest structures are constructed mostly of mud and straw, and bits of them will come off in your hand if you want a dirt souvenir. When their caretakers neglect their upkeep for a day or two, the sand blows in the doors in drifts, constantly threatening to reclaim the city for the dunes.

But for nearly a millennium, Timbuktu has defied the sand. Founded around 1100 by the Tuareg, a Berber people who moved on camels through the Sahara, it sits a few miles from the Niger River, just distant enough to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Because of its position on the river, it served as a conduit for trade not only for the desert oases around it, but also for the populations closer to the coast. Rice and cassava sped off into the desert to feed the traders, and soon other, more lucrative African commodities followed: gold, musk, ivory, even slaves.


With that trade came a cosmopolitanism unfamiliar in the region, and a multiplicity of people that allowed for both cross-pollination of knowledge, and more desire for learning and culture. Black traders from along the coast, as well as Arabs and Tuaregs, found their city flush with money. They invested it partly in education. “That commercial class, from West Africa and other places, is where the scholarship came from,” says Bruce Hall, a historian at Duke University. With this influx of money, Hall says, Timbuktu’s merchants “had the opportunity to buy manuscripts, to educate their children, and to become learned.”

Muslim scholarship in particular prospered. Scholars such as Ahmed Baba promoted a relatively tolerant and ecumenical view of Islam and, from bases in Timbuktu, they and their followers produced hundreds of thousands of manuscripts. Today, tens of thousands of these remain preserved at Timbuktu’s Ahmed Baba Institute.

To look more closely at the city’s mud buildings is to appreciate just how far the city’s influence and renown reached. The Sankore Mosque, built in 1324, became a nexus for Islamic scholars. The Sankore name, which is Songhay for “white masters,” reflected its emphasis on educating Arabs who hailed from North Africa. The Djinguereber Mosque, the city’s grandest, was built around the same time--during the golden age of the city--by Abu Ishaq Al Saheli, an architect from Granada, in what is now the south of Spain.


Timbuktu’s blend of Arab and African influences, and Tuareg and Songhay ones, was never easy or stable. The region’s groups jostled for power, and control shifted back and forth, sometimes jarringly, as powers waxed and waned in the surrounding regions. The Songhay, though dominant in numbers, sought protection from the Tuareg and submitted to rule by Mansa Musa, the Malian king in the early 14th century. After two centuries of Malian and Songhay rule, the sultan of Marrakesh conquered Timbuktu in 1591, ending its golden age. The city has changed hands repeatedly since then, most recently at the end of the French colonial era after the Second World War, when it became part of an independent Mali. But Timbuktu has never fully recovered, and for four centuries it has slid slowly into the sands of history.

Tuareg separatist rebels near their vehicle in Timbuktu last week.AP

The age of long caravans through desert oases has passed. But Timbuktu’s present is no less shaped by far-off places than it was when it connected the Gulf of Guinea to the shores of Tripoli. For the last several decades, Tuareg fighters served in the Libyan armed forces, fighting for Moammar Khadafy. And when he was executed at the end of last year, Tuareg nationalists looted that country’s armories and came home. They saw their moment: “It’s now or never,” declared Ahmeyede Ag Ilkamassene, a Tuareg activist, in December. He wrote that when the Tuareg had risen up against the Malian state before, they had failed because their few weapons were rusty and useless. “For the first time, if there will be rebellion or war, the Tuaregs won’t start out with an insurmountable imbalance of arms.” In March, Mali’s government fell in a coup, leaving disarray in the capital hundreds of miles to the southwest. The rebels seized their chance and moved on Timbuktu. The Malian army, fragile at the best of times, collapsed.



IT WAS A REBELLION that had begun abortively at least twice since independence. The French had considered giving the Tuareg people a state, but never figured out a way to carve out a new land with fair access to the waters of the Niger River. What’s more, the state would necessarily contain many non-Tuaregs--indeed, many cities would be majority non-Tuareg. And the Tuareg had a history of looking down on others, particularly the “blacks” from the south, as a servile class.

So when the blue-robed rebels rolled up in 4x4 pick-ups with rockets and mounted 14.5mm machine guns, Timbuktu’s Arab and Songhay populations understood the historical undercurrent for the rebellion, and they worried about living in the proclaimed capital of “Azawad,” the new Tuareg state.

“This is what is shocking to those of us who have lived there,” says Hall, the historian. “The Tuaregs are not in a majority. They’re not even close. So it’s going to be extremely difficult for them to hold [Timbuktu]. There is a history of racialized ethnic violence and it’s very easy to imagine how that can be stirred up again.”

Perhaps the more alarming reports, for policy observers in the West, relate to the Tuareg Islamists now present in the city. The fabled libraries are the physical record of the tolerant, cosmopolitan, Ahmed Baba strain of Islam that Timbuktu has claimed as its heritage for centuries. But Ansar Dine, a group linked to Al Qaeda, now flies its flag proudly in Timbuktu and has reportedly begun enforcing a hardline interpretation of sharia. (The Malian government in Bamako is particularly quick to point out the Islamist links.) “What we see now is totally divorced from Timbuktu’s history,” says Jean-Pierre Filiu, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris.

How the Tuareg rebel movement will handle both these situations isn’t clear. The rebels--officially, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA)--declared independence from Mali for the areas with large non-Tuareg populations. The governance problem it faces is staggering--thousands of square miles of disconnected space that multiple armed, squabbling groups all consider home. The Islamist group Ansar Dine, meanwhile, doesn’t want independence, just sharia for all. MNLA spokesmen have spoken out against another group, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and vowed to “get rid of them,” in part because they know Azawad will score points with the West if it crushes terrorism.

The Tuareg leaders envision Timbuktu rising from its desert obscurity as the capital of a new nation, a homeland for wanderers who have spent centuries as a minority everywhere they go. But it’s far from clear if anyone else will share that vision. A rebellion begun by henchmen of Khadafy will require close scrutiny before any outsider will be willing to endorse it. And to reconceive Timbuktu as an ethnically defined state means going against a thousand years of the cosmopolitanism that made Timbuktu great in the first place.

“They know precisely that this is where their project is going to break down, because there is a lot of mistrust,” Hall says. The next step for this remarkable oasis of knowledge could be civil war, or a civilian crisis, or a stalemate--anything but a storybook ending.

Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic.