So you want to go to Timbuktu.
So you want to discover its secrets.
So, 200 years ago, did hundreds of young romantics. Scores of them set off: explorers, restless adventurers dressed in disguise, unknowns hungry for fame, officers eager for glory and wealth, aspiring to be the rock stars of their day. Eccentrics and fools went, too. There was even an unrequited lover, a wealthy Dutch woman who assembled a party and marched into the sea of sand.
They started off pluckily. They gathered information, recruited guides, many of them unreliable, some treacherous. Then they slogged into the Sahara’s inferno. They fought off thirst, trusted mirages, survived on unfamiliar food, trudged past the bones of failed caravans. They tore open the veil of mystery with which the desert clothes itself. And with only two or three exceptions, they were never seen again.
You’ll be better off than they were. You’ll survive.
But you will almost certainly not unlock the secrets of Timbuktu. Within a matter of hours, however, you’ll discover facts which decades of valiant effort failed to unlock. In a sense the main fact eluding detection was this: man’s enormous capacity for self-deception, for disregarding information contrary to what he wishes to believe.
Before the New World’s discovery, Africa was Europe’s prime supplier of gold. It came from somewhere in or beyond the Sahara. Most knowledgeable Europeans thought its source was a place called Timbuktu, an entrepot for the precious metal.
This was a city of fabulous wealth, a university town, a center of sophistication and Muslim culture, the hub of caravan traffic. A rush developed to find and bring back news of it – and its gold.
The most determined of its explorers was Major Gordon Laing, a Scot fired with ambition to be the first white man to enter Timbuktu. Major Laing had led some inland explorations while serving in Sierra Leone, and the idea of Timbuktu obsessed him. He persistently sought permission for the journey. He prepared himself for its rigors by sleeping on the floor and writing with his left hand. As things turned out, the latter exercise was not a bad idea.
In May, 1825, Major Laing arrived in Tripoli to undertake the Timbuktu mission. Unexpectedly he found romance. In early July he asked the British consul’s daughter to marry him. She accepted, but her father objected. Laing and the horrified consul broke off speaking relations; the suitor camped outside the city. Ultimately the consul granted the couple permission to marry. But since he doubted his authority to perform legal marriages, he insisted that the major pledge – in writing – that he would not consummate the marriage until he returned from Timbuktu. The major was ostensibly a fool; he agreed. Two days after the ceremony he marched into the desert.
Circling around a local civil war, Laing got to Ghadames. He spent days negotiating the onward journey with guides who demanded ever more money. He received inquisitive stares, doctored local inhabitants, suffered beggars, hungered for mail, and burned with love for his bride.
He pushed on, reaching an oasis called In Salah. There he was such a curiosity that he nailed up his door against visitors. He also feared for his life. Besides being a Christian among Muslims, he was thought to be the leader of an expedition that had shot and wounded a local resident.
After weeks at In Salah the Laing party joined a large caravan and re-entered the desert. News of the major’s presumed wealth preceded the caravan. It ventured nervously through country known for civil wars, feuds and marauders. Ultimately Tuareg bandits followed the expedition for five days. Before dawn on the sixth they attacked the explorer’s party. They inflicted multiple wounds on Laing, killed several of his subordinates. and stole virtually all his funds.
The caravan continued, leaving the wounded Laing to follow as best he could. Some 400 miles later he reached the village of Sidi el Muktar. There the village chief befriended the explorer, fed, and sheltered him. Due to local unrest he advised him not to enter Timbuktu.
But Laing was determined to push on. Before he could do so, a plague struck the village. It killed the chief and all surviving members of the Timbuktu mission except Laing himself.
Finally the chief’s son agreed to take the scarred and impoverished explorer to his destination – in exchange for all his possessions. The major entered the fabled city thirteen months after he left Tripoli. The only surviving account of his findings and impressions is a short letter – written with his left hand. It tells almost nothing.
Because of his personal danger, Laing is thought to have sent his journal back to Tripoli by messenger. It disappeared. Speculation exists that it fell into the hands of the French consul in Tripoli, who destroyed or suppressed it for reasons of nationalistic pride.
The major himself joined a small caravan headed for Morocco. Three nights out the caravan’s leader murdered him.
At the time of this treachery, an enterprising young Frenchman named René Caillié was preparing himself to enter Timbuktu – in disguise. He had lived among Arabs, had studied the Koran and their customs, and spoke some of their language. To bolster his disguise he concocted an improbable story: that he was an Arab carried away to France as an infant; he now wished to return to his home in Egypt.
In March, 1826, he converted his savings into gold, silk handkerchiefs, knives, beads, and tobacco and started inland – on foot – along the Rio Nunez in present-day Guinea.
At the end of thirteen months, five of them spent in a village recovering from illness, Caillié reached his destination.
“I looked around and found that the sight before me did not answer my expectations,” he wrote. “The city presented, at first view, nothing but a mass of ill-looking houses built of earth.”
Caillié stayed in Timbuktu for two weeks. He gathered information, then joined a caravan headed for Morocco. He was particularly anxious not to return west, fearing accusations that he had never reached “the city of gold.”
The journey across the desert took almost three months. Thirst and mirages tormented Caillié. Whirlwinds and spinning pillars of sand attacked the column of 1,400 camels. Suspecting he was a Christian, members of the caravan taunted and threw stones at him.
He survived the crossing only to find that a Frenchman disguised as a Muslim could expect little help – even from his country’s diplomats.
The French consul in Rabat, a Jewish merchant, offered him no help. Caillié begged for food and slept in a cemetery. The consul in Tangier repeatedly refused to allow him to enter the consulate. On one occasion he shouted: “Turn out this dog of a beggar!” Ultimately, however, he relented and arranged passage for Caillié to France. There he was greeted as a hero.
Twenty-five years later Timbuktu received a six-month visit from Heinrich Barth, a German who spent five years exploring the central Sudan. Inquisitive, imperturbable, somewhat humorless, a scholar, an Arabist, an authority on the desert, and a physical fitness buff, Barth was eminently qualified to explore of the Sahara.
In Timbuktu he located the Tarikh es Sudan, a 17th-century history of the Songhai people. He quoted extensively from it in his five-volume report on his explorations.
Barth learned that Timbuktu had once truly been a city of gold. In 1324, five centuries before Laing, Caillié, and Barth himself, Mansa Musa, emperor of Mali, travelled from Timbuktu to Cairo mounted on horseback. Five hundred slaves preceded him, each carrying a staff of gold. He left behind eighty to one hundred camel loads of gold, each weighing about 300 pounds. The extravagance of Mansa Musa and his Sudanese put so much gold into circulation in Cairo that its market value fell sharply for a number of years.
In the Tarikh Barth learned that the sultan of Morocco, also tempted by gold, sent an expeditionary force – 5,000 cavalry and 2,000 infantry – across the desert to conquer Timbuktu. The major cause of the city’s decline since the height of the Songhai Empire had been the Moroccan conquest of 1591. These troops made a four-month trek across the desert, defeated the Songhai warriors, who had never seen firearms, and permanently disrupted trade. Many of them stayed in the desert. Thus, 200 years after the invasion Timbuktu was no longer the golden city of European legends.
One of the more unexpected happenings of the twenty-first century has been the world’s discovery that throughout Timbuktu and its hinterlands wealthy families have been storing priceless Arabic manuscripts from the city’s heyday as one of the great seats of sixteenth century learning. The manuscripts were hidden and kept secret from the time of the Moroccan invasion until the last twenty years when the town was overrun by jihadi terrorists. At that time the manuscripts were secretly removed for safer keeping in Bamako, Mali’s capital. So even today Timbuktu is tending its secrets.
The town is still there for you to visit. You needn’t slog across desert wastes to reach it. You won’t suffer the explorers’ hardships when you get there. And the jihadis are gone.
You’ll find it a dusty, baked-yellow town on the edge of the desert, a small place of broad vistas and narrow alleyways, a place that clings to its secrets, a place that is both the end of the world and the center of one. To reach it you’ll have flown over enormous sand-hued plains, an endless wasteland through which the broad, flat Niger inches slowly, like an unmotivated snake about to stop moving and nap in the sun.
That sun will shine relentlessly. With seeming hammer blows it will chisel your dark shadow into the ground. Heat will thicken the air; you will move through it as if through endless layers of invisible curtain. They will part for you reluctantly.
You’ll find the hotel rude or luxurious, depending on your expectations, your experience of Africa and where you’ve been before. Your room will be dark, the heat even thicker than outside, the walls of a rough-finished mud-cement. Your bed will be hard. Your pillow and towels will smell of spices; the scents may enthrall you or make you retch. With luck you will happen to get the electric fan. Its cord may still lack a plug. A little ingenuity will solve that problem, enabling you to sleep in a warm wind.
The bathroom through the open archway will be basic, but private. The toilet may need a seat. The shower will offer water at a single temperature: available. Best not to drink it.
When thirst hits, you’ll sit out on the terrace, under a sagging and ripped stretch of canvas and to try to slake the longing with whatever liquid is available. You quaff it in utter stillness. Your eyes will fall on the green oasis to the left, on the water hole to the right. Tuaregs will bring their camels to drink there, then shed their clothes and bathe.
At night a dark, diminished heat will surround you. You will dine on the terrace. Naked light bulbs will attract insects; these in turn will lure frogs up out of the oasis to feed. They will croak as music squeaks from a phonograph and, miraculously, the waiters will not step on them.
Your bread will taste of sand, your couscous will taste of sand, your pudding will taste of sand, your tea will taste of sand. You will never forgive yourself if you left your toothbrush behind.
Children will pester you for sweets, for coins, and attention. You will photograph them and notice that some are light-skinned and well-clothed, perhaps descendants of the Moroccan invaders, while their playmates are black and naked. You will also remark that some people live in well-built houses of stone while others live in tents, that dark-skinned men trudge back and forth with animal skins full of water while light-skinned men talk business in the twilight.
You will wonder how these people relate to each other, ask yourself if slavery still exists here. You will see that Timbuktu really is a world of subtle, highly structured, and hidden relationships. And you will suspect correctly that it will not yield up its secrets to a transient like you.
Even so, a certain moment will come. There will be no sound. Colors will sparkle with absolute clarity. The air will lay cool on your skin. Your nostrils will carry a memory of spices. In that moment you will watch some silent, age-old movement: women carrying water, Tuaregs leading camels, children playing. And in that moment Timbuktu will put its hold on you.
You will wonder: Was it worth the effort to come? Laing asked himself that. So did Caillié and Barth.
You will know how to answer only when you’ve been there.