Thursday, June 13, 2013


Now you're probably thinking, "Sima Dave, if you want to become the next Grand Historian, you shouldn't be writing about make-believe places like Timbuktu!" Well, my naïve child, I'm here to tell you that Timbuktu is a real city, despite its reputation as a magical faraway place! It's actually a city in Africa (Mali, to be precise), but we shouldn't hold that against it. Back in the day, Timbuktu was a major Medieval trading post, and people from all over Saharan Africa and the Middle East came to buy precious commodities like salt, gold, ivory, slaves, and rare 8-tracks. Europeans ate up descriptions of the city, and even offered rewards to those who could infiltrate society there and make it out alive, much like the girls' locker room. Of course looking at the town now, it looks like just any other third-world, war-torn, desertifying North African Hooverville, so how could this place really have once been the land of wealth, culture, and absolutely delicious falafels?

Fig.1: The original inhabitants of Timbuktu.
Timbuktu was most likely settled in the twelfth century by nomadic pastorialists who wanted a nice place to chill along the Niger River. Timbuktu would pale in comparison to Gao, another city along the Niger two hundred miles to the southeast, for a couple hundred years. But then trade routes began to shift, and Timbuktu became the major city in the region by 1375; this of course caused the people already living in Timbuktu to brag that they were there before it was cool, and thus the hipster movement was born (fig.1). Timbuktu's rise to prominence can be attributed to its incorporation into the Mali Empire around 1324 (fig.2). The ruler of Mali, happily/alliteratively named Mansa Musa, peacefully annexed the city, which opened the door to supplying merchants with rare items of wealth from all over the empire. Manua Musa also solidified Islam as the dominant religion of the land, which is a great thing, since Islam is an infallible religion and nothing bad or funny can be said of it. please don't issue a fatwa on me.

Fig.2: In its heyday in the 14th century, the Mali Empire spanned from Senegal and The Gambia to Mali, Burkina Faso, and the far western reaches of Niger, which would be useful information if most people knew where those places actually were...
The Mali Empire gave way to the Songhai Empire in the mid-fifteenth century; despite the fact that Gao was made the capital, Timbuktu continued to flourish. This was especially true under the rule of Askia the Great, who made Timbuktu a great center of learning, which is always nice to have, until armies that don't care very much about books come strolling through. This is exactly what happened in 1591 when mercenaries from Morocco conquered much of the Songhai Empire for the Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur, bringing an abrupt decline to Timbuktu's fortunes. The Sultan had many of Timbuktu's prominent scholars and statesmen killed or exiled, and sold much of the population into the slave trade, which is enough to make any city as depressing as Cleveland. After that, Timbuktu was passed around to various empires and kingdoms and warlords like a germ-infested children's library book all the way until the last nineteenth century, never to regain its status as the gem of West Africa.

Fig.3: This is the main mosque of the city, 
and it looks like it has the structural 
integrity of a sandcastle!
Nonetheless, Timbuktu never lost its allure to curious Europeans, who imagined the city as a desert oasis where milk and honey rain from the sky and beautiful women dance down streets paved with gold, wearing hats made of ripened fruit ready to be picked. This impression became prevalent with the writings of a man known as Leo Africanus, a Spanish-born Muslim who traveled throughout North Africa during his youth, and eventually came under the employ of the Pope in the 1520s. While the majority of Leo Africanus' work focused on mundane stuff, like local politics and the cheap materials buildings were made from (fig.3), Europeans typically skimmed through that boring stuff like teenage boys reading a romance novel in order to get to the juicy parts, such as, "The inhabitants are very rich, especially the strangers who have settled in the country..." and, "The rich king of Timbuktu hath many plates and sceptres of gold, some whereof weigh 1300 pounds." Now that's the materialistic kind of stuff a man can get into!

Many Europeans wanted to take the journey to the richy-rich land of Timbuktu, but the area was becoming increasingly hostile to non-Muslims, which is always scary for pale, awkward Europeans. Several explorers claimed they successfully made the journey, but their descriptions of the city were dubious since they included various items such as unicorns, money trees, and beer that actually tasted great and was not too filling. The first confirmed visit to Timbuktu by a European was a Scotsman named Gordon Laing in 1826, but he either was caught to be an outsider or insulted somebody's momma, and was killed on the return trip. In 1828, a Frenchman by the name of René Caillié lived in Senegal for eight months to learn regional customs, spent two weeks in Timbuktu disguised as a Muslim, and made it back to France. As such, he was rewarded 10,000 francs by the French Geographic Society for his vital information, which was wastefully spent going back to Timbuktu and buying a ton of tacky souvenirs.

Fig.4: The most exciting thing to happen in Timbuktu
in over four hundred years.
The charm of Timbuktu diminished a little bit when the French took it over in 1893, and renamed it "Tombouctou" to make it more French sounding (the proper pronunciation for it should always be followed with a "Hon hon hon!"). In 1960, it found itself within the newly-independent Republic of Mali, which has sure done wonders for it. Timbuktu is now cutoff from industrial center of the country, with hardly any road access between it and the capital, Bamako. The Sahara desert has slowly moved southward into the city, killing any hope for agriculture or irrigation. The historic landmarks, despite being protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, have been constantly damaged due to failed engineering projects and an ongoing internal conflict. Worst of all, there's nowhere to get a decent kabob for hundreds of miles! It is literally the worst place on Earth!

However, Timbuktuians can look back at their illustrious history and know that they were once the Athens of West Africa, a great center of trade, learning, and all-around awesomeness. Maybe one day Timbuktu will rise from the ashes and regain its former glory...probably the same day Chernobyl will again become inhabitable and Atlantis will float up to the surface.  Until then, many people will continue to use colloquial phrases like, "From here to Timbuktu," and believe that it's a moon of Saturn or something stupid like that. Honestly, it might be better off if it was...

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