Though its name signifies an impossibly remote Never Never Land of camels and caravans, Timbuktu is not big on first impressions. So underwhelmed was 19th century French explorer René-Auguste Caillié that he described this legendary city as "a mass of ill-looking houses, built of earth." At first glance, it appears that not much has changed since the first European adventurers had their romantic notions dashed against the city's mud brick walls. It's difficult to believe that this unassuming city was once the site of the world's most important university.
At first wander, Timbuktu's charms are not immediately apparent.
First impression: Arcghhhh (clearing a throatcoat of sand).
Second impression: Brown. More brown. Still more brown. An entire city the color of that not-quite-right Lancome freebie eyeshadow that's somehow lost at the bottom of your bag and covered with bits of Kleenex and hair.
Third impression: Gchaaaach (tongue almost completely shriveled and in search of water). Ahhh...what is that? A mirage? Could it be...
"May I have a Coke please?" I ask in my super formal textbook French.
I continue. "A Coke...to drink?" (You know, just in case there is confusion with my shitty French.)
"Il n'ya pas de Coca." There is no Coke. No Coke at the Depot of Drinks, the Cabine de Coca. I wander on, dazed and confused. It's white hot and blindingly bright. A man outside hands me a thimble of strong Tuareg tea, and I drain it with gratitude, pausing to watch a gaggle of children chase a dusty lamb straight into a moped. A narrow escape for all involved, quickly recovered with a sharp word and a quick smile.
I wend my way down quiet side streets, where women bake bread in communal mud brick ovens. Few people are about - the sun is high and everyone seems to be heading home for the main meal.
The doors are astoundingly beautiful - elaborately carved, adorned with thin cutouts of tin. Behind them are internal courtyards for cooking, and dark, cool, thick-walled rooms for sleeping.
The muezzin calls for prayer from the mud brick mosque where scholars have studied and prayed since the thirteenth century. Outside, men perform their ablutions, washing hands, feet, faces, noses, ears, and teeth, a ritual unchanged with time.
I am in search of the 700,000 Medieval religious and scientific manuscripts that are now housed in Timbuktu's libraries. The Ahmed Baba Institute is closed for prayer, so I wait on the roof, enjoying an impromptu tabla performance until the Iman scolds us from below.
The manuscripts are bountiful and badly in need of restoration. Every month, more manuscripts turn up from families who have kept them for generations.
They speak of astronomy, law, the sayings of the prophet - the combined intellectual property of countless early African scholars.
Some of the more beautiful pages are on display, while others are catalogued, digitalized, and stored for safekeeping. The restoration work is painstaking, underfunded, and sisyphean. I dream of joining the Tombouctou Manuscript Project and taking part in the preservation of early African history.
A few blocks away, an indoor market is packed with merchants and artisans selling Tuareg silver, diaphanous lengths of brightly colored fabric, huge slabs of sea salt carried across the Sahara in caravans. A silversmith stokes a fire with a goatskin bellows and hammers a curve into a fine bracelet. With a few small alterations, it could be a scene from the golden age of Mali, when Timbuktu was the center of trade and scholarship in Africa.
I feel lost in time.
Next up: Are we there yet? The final installment of the Mali Megillah. Read the rest of it here.