The first European explorer who reached Timbuktu in 1826 was Gordon Laing. He was ordered out of town and murdered in the desert on his way back home.
Major Alexander Gordon Laing (1793–1826) was a Scottish explorer who was instructed by secretaries of the colonies to make a journey to explore the hydrography of the Niger basin. Laing left England early 1825. From Tripoli in Libya he started his Sahara crossing in July. He was accompanied by a sheikh who was later accused of planning his murder.
First early 1826 he crossed the last part of the desert to reach Timbuktu. Letters written by him in 1826 tell about suffering from fever and plundering of his caravan by Tuareg en route. A letter dated in september 1826 told about his arrival in Timbuctu at the 18th of August 1826, but also about his insecurity due to the hostility of the chieftain ruling the city. Three days later he left the town after a stay of 38 days. He was murdered in the night of 26 September 1826.
You can visit the house where Alexander Gordon Laing stayed in 1826. In 1903 the French government placed a sign on the house with the name of Laing and the date of his visit (pictures 1 & 2). Nowadays Boubacar Sadeck, an art writer occupy this house, copying and transfering of 16th century manuscripts (pictures 3, 4 & 5).
Guides will for sure offer you a trip with Tuareg people in the desert... If you like to mingle with local people I would recommend it although it stays a bit 'touristic'...
You can choose to go for one day only or to sleep 1 or more nights in the desert.
Beware: although you are in the desert, it gets cold in the night .. !
Heinrich Barth (1821–1865) was a German explorer, who arrived in Timbuktu in September 1853, where he stayed for 7 months. Barth was different from the earlier explorers, because he was interested in the history and culture of Africa and not on the possibilities of exploitation or colonisation.
As explorer and historian he documented his observations very well. He wrote a famous publication about his travels and discoveries in North and Central Africa concerning life and politics in Sahelian West Africa in the mid 19th century. This included a well researched account of his 7 months stay in Timbuctu.
Barth could read Arabic and knew some African languages. He established close relations with some African scholars and rulers. In Timbuktu he became friend with Ahmad al-Bakkay al-Kunti. He could stay in his house and was protected by him. Nowadays this house is a museum.
In the mid 15th century Timbuktu had become a major centre of Islamic literature and scholarship. Scholars from all over West Afica and the Middle East came to Timbuktu to learn law, litterature and sciences.
Nowadays Timbuktu is home to the highest concentration of manuscript collections, public and privat, in West Africa. There are about 60 private libraries in the city, where the manuscripts during many centuries and generations have survived despite climatic influences and political turbulence. It is supposed that about 1.000.000 manuscripts in the region may have survived.
Families are now reassembling their collections, building libraries for their collections or put them in hands of expert caretakers. Many of the private libraries and collections still exist because of the strict adherence to family heritage and transmission through the generations.
When you walk in the old town of Timbuktu you can discover some of the libraries. The first library I saw, was opposite the Grand Mosque, called the Bibliothèque de manuscripts Al Imam Essayoute (picture 2 & 3). Here you have also an internetcafé.
The next one our guide Baba showed us, is the Al Wangari library, being problably one of the oldest libraries in Timbuktu. It is the legacy of Muhammad Baghayogho al-Wangari from the 16th century. At this moment more than thousand manuscripts have been identified as part of his collection. His descendant, Moctar Sidi Yahia Al Wangari has taken the initiative to reassemble the collection from various family members and reconstruct the Al-Wangari library on the site of Baghayogho's former house (picture 1 & 4) with assistance of the Ford Foundation .
In 1970 UNESCO took the initiative to found the Ahmed Baba Institute as a national repository and conservation centre for the manusscripts of the region. Today about 30.000 manuscripts are in the process of being conserved, catalogued and studied by a trained team of national and international experts. In the future the new building opposite the Sankoré mosque can house 300.000 manuscripts.
It's amazing to realise which treasures are hidden in this dusty town. The revealing of these literary treasures will show the rich literary heritage of subsaharan Africa. And this can make that the history of Africa will be rewritten from a continent of music and dance into a continent of rich litterature.
In 2008 an interesting book is published, called 'The hidden treasures of Timbuktu, Historic City of Islamic Africa'.
The Djingereber or Great Mosque is the oldest mosque of the three major mosques of Timbuktu. The mosque is built in1327 by Mansa Musa. The architect Al-Saheli came from Andalusia. Musa met him in Cairo on his way to Mekka.
This mosque is a good example of the Sudanic architecture style. The building is made of mud, stray and wood. Every year the mosque must be repaired.
Most mosques in Mali are a no-go area for not muslims, but this one you can visit also as not muslim. The interior must be interesting with 100 pillars. You can also can climb the roof.
In the 16th century the Sankoré mosque and its surrouding buildings was one of the largest Islamic universities in the Islamic world. You can hardly imagine there were about 25.000 students in those times.
Each year after the rainy season the mosques of Timbuktu have to be restored. The external walls are replastered with fresh mud. The wooden sticks are used as scaffolding to reach the upper parts of the mosque.
The Sidi Yahya mosque is with the Djinguereber and Sankore mosque one of the three important mosques in Timbuktu. The construction of the Sidi Yahya mosque has started in 1400 by Sheikh El-Mokhtar Hamalla in expectation of a holy person. First after 40 years in 1440 the predicted saint in the person of sharif Sidi Yahya came to Timbuktu. In 1441 the city-governor of Timbuktu appointed Sidi Yahya as first imam of the mosque and the madrassa. The complex became a great centre of learning for the region.
The original shape of the mosque was altered in 1939 to reduce its appearance as a military fortress. The original minaret still exists. The doors of the mosque and madrassa are abundently ornated showing Moroccan influence.
René Caillié (1799–1838), a French explorer, was the first European who visited Tmbuktu and returned alive back home. In Europe people believed Timbuktu must be a rich and wonderful city. So the Société de Géographie in Paris offered a 10.000 franc reward to the first European to visit see and return alive from Timbuktu.
René Caillié accepted this challenge. He spent years to learn Arabic and to study the customs and Islamic religion. He travelled and lived as the natives did. After he visited Senegal and Sierra Leone he joined a Mandingo caravan going inland. He was dressed as a Muslim, telling he was an Arab from Egypt. In January 1828 he reached the city of Djenné, from where he went by boat to Timbuktu. He spent only two weeks in Timbuktu ( from 20 April till 4 May 1828) in Timbuktu. From Timbuktu he headed north joining a caravan crossing the Sahara to Morocco from where he returned safely to France.
You can see the house where René Caillié stayed in Timbuktu.
When are strolling around in the old town of Timbuktu you will see many lovely wooden doors. The doors are richily ornamented with knockers (picture 2), panels and studs (picture 3 & 4)of metal. Baba gave us an explanation about the doors (picture 1).
Some people purchased these old authentic doors to ship them home. You can also buy a new one at the carpenter shop (picture 5) around the corner and leave the old ones where they belong.
Strolling around in Timbuctu you can find some remains and houses of the first explorers who visited Timbuctu. Ibn Battuta from Tangier in Morocco visited between 1325 and 1353 most of the Islam world in Asia and Africa. His last journey of 11 months was to West Africa. He stayed 6 months with Mansa Sulayman, the ruler of the Malian empire and visited. Timbuctu.
He is most likely the first explorer who wrote about Timbuctu in his Rihla or 'Journey'. After the publication of this Rihla there is little known about Ibn Battuta’s life. For centuries his book was forgotten even within the Muslim world, In the 1800s, it was rediscovered and translated into several European languages. Ibn Battuta has grown in fame and is seen now as a well-known traveller and author.
In the old town of Timbuctu you can find a plaque commemorating the visit of Ibn Battuta to Timbuktu in 1353.
In the 15th century Timbuktu was a major centre of Islamic literature and scholarship. Nowadays Timbuktu is home to the highest concentration of manuscript collections, public and privat, in West Africa. In the about 60 private libraries the manuscripts have survived during many centuries and generations. It is supposed that about 1.000.000 manuscripts in the region may have survived.
Now families are reassembling their collections, building libraries or put the mansucripts in hands of expert caretakers. In 1970 UNESCO founded the Ahmed Baba Institute as a national repository and conservation centre for the manuscripts of the region. Today about 30.000 manuscripts are being conserved, catalogued and studied by a trained team of national and international experts. In the future the new building opposite the Sankoré mosque can house 300.000 manuscripts.
Many of the manuscripts are related to the islam, like parts of the koran, sufi writings, islamic sciences of astronomy and mathematics. But there are also historical chronicles, poetry, contracts, correspondences and notes on several subjects. The manuscripts range from books to small fragments of paper.
Unfortunately I had too less time in Timbuktu to visit libraries, but I was surprised to find some old manuscripts from several areas in the gallery in the house where former ecxplorer Gordon Laing has stayed.
About the mansucripts of Timbuktu an interesting book is published in 2008, called 'The hidden treasures of Timbuktu, Historic City of Islamic Africa'.
One of the most popular activities from Timbuktu is to go on a 2 days tour and sleep in the desert with the touaregs. The whole thing is a little tourist trap, to be honest, but as the area is not so touristic overall, it is yet a charming experience.
For about 20 euros you leave Timbuktu in the afternoon (about 15:00) riding a camel for 2 hours till you arrive in a touareg campement (just a tent and 2 camels around). There you have "welcome tea" and wait for dinner (lamb with rice). Then all the touaregs come and try to sell you jewelery and things under a lamp torch. This goes on for about 1 hour. Then you are left outside on a carpet and sleep there under the stars. The next morning you ride back the camel after a simple dates breakfast.
I didn't visit the museum. I passed it on my way from the Sidi Yahiya Mosque to the explorer house of Heinrich Barth and couldn't find the time later to come back.
At the innercourt of the museum is the well of Bouctou. You can still see the well. This is the place where Timbuktu was founded and got its name. Tombouctou comes from the two Songhay words Tom and Bouctou. Tom means 'water well', and Bouctou means ' belly button' and was the name of the lady who owned the well. The wells was the meeting point for the tradesmen travelling across the Sahara to subsaharan Africa.
The travelguide writes there are photographs, clothes, music instruments an jewellary dsiplayed in the museum. Not that spectacular that I regret I missed it.
The Grand Marché of Timbuktu is a two storey building in the centre of the old town. There is all kind of stuff for sale like spices, clothes, kitchen utensiles. Not very spectacular, but I always like to visit local markets to see what's going on and what's for sale to get a imagination of the daily life and goods.
We could walk around in a relaxed way. It was not very crowded during our visit. You can take ste stairs up to go to the rooftop for a view at the city or a drink or snack in one of the bars of restaurants at the roof.
You can visit the rooftop of the Grand Marché in the centre of the old town. Form here you will have a 360 degree view of the city. Not very spectacular, but it gives anyway an imgae how the old city looks like with the mudbrick houses.
You can get a glimpse of the Sankoré mosque (picture 3) and have a relaxed view at what's going on n th streets below with all kind of business in the shops and streetstalls (picture 1 & 2). And I am always intrigued by the world of wires (picture 5). If you are lucky there is a little breeze and you can enjoy a drink at the covered terrace.