Yes, it's real. There is a place called Timbuktu and it is not just an imaginary figment at the end of an exclamatory statement. What child has not muttered at some time that he, or she, was “going all the way to Timbuktu!" What adult has not dismissed it as “some far away place, " not knowing quite sure where it actually was, if it did exist at all.
It does exist and grown up people do go there and an occasional child with them. Situated between the southern edge of the Sahara Desert and the great bend of the Niger River, Timbuktu is the best known and the most remote city in Mali, the crown jewel of West Africa. Nine centuries old, it abounds with legends of wealth and power, culture and learning, conquest and intrigue.
Due to the writings of Leo Africanus, a sixteenth century African who had been there and who spoke of the plentitude of gold, wealth and learning, Europeans pictured it as Eldorado and Eden enveloped in a mysterious dust cloud in the desert. Rewards were offered to adventurers who could find their way there and back alive. The first European to do so was in 1828 and he found Timbuktu deep in decline. There's no gold in those dunes, he reported when returning home, and you can get there from here, but it's damn hard to do so. Disbelief was his reward. The European had believed in the legend of Timbuktu for so long that he and she refused to believe this disappointing news. The legend of the far away place of wealth and gold persisted, then gradually dissolved in time, to just far away Timbuktu.
It is far away and it's still damn hard to get there and other than charter aircraft there is no reliable, direct route for pilgrims to take to Timbuktu. There are ways more interesting than others; one such is through Ouagadougou, entry port to Burkino Faso, and trekking northward for four days into Mali and the Dogon lowlands in Bandiagiara. The Dogon, a tribal nation of 250,000 people, are rich in history, tradition and mystery, with a culture of ancestor worship, animist cosmology with astrological inclusions and unique architectural skills. They also have talents in both the decorative and abstract arts, the latter reportedly an inspiration to Picasso.
Dogon villages are perched on a broad expanse of cliff and escarpment and this interested pilgrim and a few companions, undertook a three-hour climb upward. The reward was a myriad assortment of villages with cone shaped buildings with whimsically constructed thatched roofs, pillared dwellings carved in the hillside, an insane asylum in one of those pillared dwellings replete with animal skins and religious sculpture and a circumcision cave festooned with graphically illustrated symbols. Decorative carvings, prized today by western art collectors, are everywhere. The pilgrims were fortunate enough to enter a village during the completion of a mourning period when the Dogon mask dance occurred. The Awa, the mask cult of several dozen adult males adorned with masks, some fifteen feet high, of animals, religious symbols and elements of nature, wove its way through the village to a pounding syncopation of drums in celebration of both death and life.
After spending five days with the Dogon, then returning to sea level and moving westward to Mopti, a commercial town on the River Niger, the pilgrims boarded a pinasse, a forty foot, thatched- roof canoe powered by a forty horse-power outboard motor and began a three day journey to Korioume, the gate city to Timbuktu, twelve miles distant.
The river, Africa's third greatest, teems with the great fish capitain. Here and there, a hippo peers from the water and on the banks, Bozo and Songhai villages, white and clay buildings centered by the ubiquitous mosque, (for this is a largely Muslim country), are alive with activity, and children and overseeing mothers swarm to the river's edge when the pinasse pulls ashore for a visit.
It is a curious time for the adults and a happy one for the children as they take the pilgrims’ hands and scratch the white skin with their little black fingers and laugh hysterically when the white doesn't come off.
Nighttime, the pilgrims sleep as guests in one of the villages, then move on, Timbuktu always ahead. Then one morning it is there.
The wind governs Timbuktu as it does the Sahara. Sand is everywhere. Pilgrims entering from the south see Timbuktu as the end of the world. The desolation of the desert is ever present in the sand-strewn streets, and the ever-decomposing clay buildings. But it is a town that has lived with the desert and survived and even thrived in spite of it and because of it.
But some of its past still lives. It is still a terminus of a camel caravan route across the Sahara that brings salt from the mines of Taoudenni four hundred miles in the desert and Tuaregs, the sword and knife-wielding romanticized nomads of the desert, still swagger through the area wielding sword and knife. The culture of the past lives as well at the Ahmed Baba center for Historical Research, a repository of seventeen thousand ancient books and documents undergoing translation from Arabic to French, the national language of Mali, to English, for placement on the internet. Yes, the past is moving into the future for there is now one computer in Timbuktu.
North of the city lies the Sahara, an area larger than the contiguous United States and through it come visitors from the north: cameleers with their caravans from Taoudenni, nomads from their wanderings, pilgrims on their explorations.
In January, Harmattan, the hot dry wind of the winter months has its way with them. The pilgrims returning to Timbuktu see a horizon of three hundred and sixty degrees, a vast ring of desolation in which Harmattan hurls sand and dust upward, the perimeters becoming a circular translucent veil of grayish purple rising toward the pale blue sky. Overhead the noontime sun is ablaze. By two o'clock it is a lunarlike globe having slipped behind the veil leaving the pilgrims in a land of total desolation.
To the pilgrims returning from the desert, Timbuktu is the beginning of the world. The greenery of trees and shrubs, the strain of a flute, the smiles and talk of people, the movement of a car or truck greets them with the color and music and life of civilization.
It is a long way to Timbuktu from any direction, but if one is not a cameleer in the salt business or a native of Timbuktu why would one go there? The question put to one pilgrim brought him to a pause, “Well, when I was a kid, I used to say that when I grew up, I was going to go all the way to Timbuktu. Well, here I am. “
Don Bracken is Senior Editor of History Publishing Company, LLC and is the co-editor of the Civil War Historyscope Series, which has been hailed by educators and Civil War experts and can be seen on http://historyscope.com . He is also the author of the forthcoming book Times of the Civil War dealing with the coverage of that war by the New York Times and the Charleston Mercury. Don Bracken traveled to Timbuctu in 2002 with four other individuals as part of an adventure travel team.