May 2011


To Timbuktu and back

By Rodney Hall
The fifteenth-century Sankore Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali. © Alex/Morales/Bloomberg/Getty Images
The fifteenth-century Sankore Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali. © Alex/Morales/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Visiting a library in Mali

The greatest ancient library in the world is being unearthed and reassembled at Timbuktu – an astonishing archeological discovery – so I set out to see for myself, travelling with my daughter Cressida.

Mali is poor – very, very poor. Countless catastrophes have struck since Mansa Musa, Emperor of Mali, made his famous pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 attended by an army of 500 slaves loaded with gold offerings. Travelling through Timbuktu on this journey, the emperor made it part of his empire upon his return. Under his rule, Timbuktu became a cultural hub and centre of learning. But, once the gold supply had been seized upon by rapacious Europeans scrambling to bankroll the spectacular flowering of the Renaissance, it lasted no more than a couple of centuries.

Yet, in the last days of dwindling wealth – the year of Columbus, 1492 – Timbuktu enjoyed its finest hour. The Moors, expelled from Spain by Queen Isabella’s army, gathered up the precious libraries of Islamic manuscripts from Toledo and Cordoba and brought them for safekeeping to the University of Timbuktu.

Later, when the university itself declined and fell into ruin, the books were lodged with merchant families in parcels of 20,000 or 30,000 volumes apiece. The rest were crated up for burial just outside the city at the southern rim of the Sahara Desert. And the whole story remained unknown to the outside world for 500 years. Two Norwegian scholars, beavering away in Oslo in the late 1990s, tracked the library down.

Recovery is now well advanced. And this we must see. We fly from Paris to Bamako, Mali’s capital. Our plan is simple: travel to Timbuktu via the Dogon country (where there are remains of a lost civilisation) and the city of Djenné. In all other respects we intend to allow the journey to unfold at random, as opportunities – and possibly crises – dictate.

The unfolding promptly takes shape in the person of a loquacious young man, Boubacar Cisse, who offers to advise us. Despite our determination to avoid schedules and advance bookings, Bouba will tolerate no such nonsense. He will accompany us. He takes everything in hand and hires a driver with an old Peugeot. Next thing, we find ourselves setting out to the north-east on a two-day journey by road. To appreciate what this means, substitute for ‘road’ two parallel lines of rocks vanishing into the distance across the wilderness of the world’s largest sand desert with nothing ahead and nothing on either side.

We bucket along in a maelstrom of dust, clinging to our hopes that one of the world’s great cultural treasures really will be at the end of this. The air conditioner in the Peugeot packs in, so we make do with winding down the windows and swathing our faces against flying grit. It’s like travelling in a fan-forced oven. And that’s how things remain. Two days and seven military roadblocks later – one of them particularly hairy – we reach Dogon country.

The car stops; as we climb out the choking cyclone of dust catches up. Locals stand watching. Work is put on hold. Women resplendent in vivid robes, heads swathed in decorative turbans, politely suppress their amusement. We take refuge in admiring their flat-topped houses and little granaries with thatched hats, where millet is stored. It’s hot. A television dish pokes up above the roofs but, otherwise, life seems to have stood still since the great days of the overland camel trains and Mansa Musa passing through, loaded down with royal gifts.

In one village we have the honour of being introduced to an elderly griot. Griots are wandering minstrels who sing the history and mythology of West Africa. Mali’s world famous performers, such as Ali Farka Touré, arise from this tradition.

The dominant geological feature of the region is a great sandstone cliff that snakes across the desert for 100 kilometres. Abandoned beehive dwellings are tucked in, high up, along the horizontal seams of this cliff: relics left by the ancient Tellem people, who were rumoured to turn themselves into animals able to leap home, 40 or 50 metres above the desert. These little claypot dwellings – later used by the Dogon as bone houses for the dead – remain clearly visible by moonlight as we prepare for sleep on the roof of a hostelry at the foot of the cliff.

Nearby Djenné boasts a colossal mud building, a spectacular mosque towering over the town, massive as a fort. Ranks of protruding logs (the original timber frame) pierce the outer walls to cast shadows and create the illusion of a dozen floors of apertures. This unique building is crowned with humps and pinnacles that are actually functioning vents to maintain circulation and keep the mud structure dry.

The great market sprawls across the square below, a huggermugger of shade cloths and improvised roofs propped on poles sheltering vendors with baskets of beans and plaited ropes of garlic. Dried votive offerings and the magical talismans of animism – animal pelts, crocodile skins, beaks, teeth and feathers, dried monkeys’ heads and the skulls of birds of prey – are displayed among butchered goats and bicycle parts.

Incidentally, the food we’ve been offered so far has been grim: chunks of gristle served with imported French canned beans (the dreaded haricots verts). Even so, we are embarrassed by this privileged fare. The people who welcome us live on millet gruel and little else. Though poverty here is extreme, the Tuareg and Fulani desert tribes manage it with grace and good humour. This is clean country, spacious and sparse.

The contrast with Mopti, the key port on the Niger River, could hardly be greater. A blanket of toxic fumes hangs suffocatingly over this town. The inescapable stench of burning plastic permeates everything. The pollution is staggering. Shredded plastic bags by the million lie embedded in the mud bank where boats pull in and tie up. Crowds of working families survive in indescribable, heartbreaking poverty. Children swarm in the squalor, engrossed in the work of carrying bundles and selling bits and bobs of whatever they can lay their hands on, from phone cards (costing the equivalent of one Australian cent) to pebbles of rock salt.

With relief we set off at dawn in a slender boat with a basketwork canopy as protection from the sun and a plywood sentry box at the back for a toilet. Soon out on the broad, shallow river, the last leg of our journey to the fabled city of Timbuktu begins. This is not the river I expected (jungle-fringed and crocodile-patrolled like Conrad’s Congo in The Heart of Darkness) but it may well be like that a couple of thousand kilometres downstream; instead, it’s all desert sand, with a lone goatherd silhouetted against the sky. He observes our approach, wind wrapping his long blue robe round his ankles.

All through the day barges sweep this way and that, their huge tattered sails billowing in the wind, sky visible through rips and ragged holes. Among the flat-bottomed craft making slow progress are the floating homes of river nomads, loaded to the gunwales with basketwork fish traps, up-ended chairs, coils of rope and rolled mats. Children perched on top greet us joyously. These are the Bozo people.

Daybreak, the second day: already drifting with the current, we come upon a magical sight. The mist rises to reveal thousands of anchored boats clustered together and linked with wooden walkways. Gentle sounds of stirring life carry across the expanse of water; smoke from cooking fires faintly spices the air. The floating city of Lake Débo glides by, silent as a dream, and the Sahara on either side closes it away.

After three tranquil days by boat, camping at night on the dunes like the shepherds, we are primed for the promised climax.

Very few places enter the language to become words in their own right, and almost mythological. Timbuktu is one of these – synonymous with exotic, inaccessible remoteness. But the reality is about as down-to-earth and low-key as a city can be. From the landing stage we are driven inland toward an agglomeration of mud-brick walls assembling themselves as the outskirts of settlement. Camels sit in groups surveying our arrival with lofty condescension. Along narrow streets – mere channels of sand – motor scooters putt-putt on soundless tyres between two-storey houses. Through open doorways we catch glimpses of goods being bought and sold. There are no signboards or advertisements of any kind. Things have been like this for a long time. We cross the only brick road (it encircles the town centre) and dip back down among buildings erected directly on the dunes. Even indoors the floors are deep sand.

We check in at a little concrete hotel. To our surprise there is a garden out the back and – amazing! – a large swimming pool. Cool water, foliage and grass impress us as irresistible luxuries. After dinner Cressida and I walk out into this unique city. Night has fallen. Occasionally an open window shows some room luminous with the blue light of a television, a little generator puttering away around the back. A handful of wavering electric lamps are dotted about but throughout most of the streets ghostly people find their way in the dark, looming suddenly and swiftly disappearing.

There is no need to ask what impact the rediscovery of the great library is having here. Excitement is palpable, the whole place reborn. Busy and cheerful by day, people work at restoring mud mosques, building houses and constructing a new central library. The materials and techniques are traditional but the tools are modern. Youths chat on their mobiles (the French telco Orange provides an incredibly cheap network). Opinion, like hope, is in the air.

As for the ancient archive and its treasures, the scale is staggering. More than half-a-million handwritten books and manuscripts have been assembled so far. The collection spans a thousand years of thought – from the eighth to the eighteenth century – as large as the legendary library at Alexandria, burned in 642 by Caliph Umar.

The massive project of cataloguing and housing these fragile, precious texts is well underway, mainly with funds from the Ford Foundation, the United States and South African governments. The manuscripts are of all kinds, from lavishly illuminated Qur’ans to frail pamphlets with scholarly annotations cramming the margins. They are in many languages, sometimes in Arabic, but most frequently in the languages of the Sahara with their exquisite calligraphy. Nearly all are on paper, surprisingly, and not vellum. Though paper is fragile the best preserved volumes amaze us, they are so crisp and fresh.

With scarcely another tourist to be seen we are welcomed and shown five family libraries – notably the Ahmed Baba Centre and the Al-Imam Essayouti Library. The collections cover a vast range of subjects including medicine, poetry, astronomy, religion and civil governance. There is even a seventeenth-century Arabic tract on slavery and freedom.

The Muslim world is especially excited and perhaps a little apprehensive – who knows what might be found? Some of these books are possibly the only surviving copies in existence. And, whatever else they may or may not reveal, they seem certain to redefine the boundaries and history of Islamic thought. Experts are already flying in from around the world. Though small and remote, Timbuktu is back at the centre.

Rodney Hall
Rodney Hall is a novelist, poet and non-fiction writer. He has won the Miles Franklin Award for Just Relations and The Grisly Wife, and the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal for The Second Bridegroom and The Day We Had Hitler Home.

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