Editors' Choice

Beyond Timbuktu

By James Dorsey

A Western infidel journeys into the Muslim Sahara.

There are places whose names carry an instant association with the romantic and exotic, and for me the foremost has always been Timbuktu.

I am not sure when I first heard the name, but recall as a child that nothing could be “As far away as Timbuktu.” Until the turn of the 19th century, many people in the western world considered it a fable much like Shangri La or Atlantis.

For years it had been my siren call, but it would not be enough to just go there. I wanted to experience it through local eyes, and if possible to stay among the Berber nomads for whom Timbuktu is their southern base, but could I, a white Christian, enter such a private Muslim enclave, and if so, what would be the consequences?

My model for such a trip was the great English explorer, Sir Richard Burton, who a century prior, became the first white man to enter the holy city of Mecca, disguised as a wandering merchant. If he had been discovered, he would have forfeited his life. I had no illusions that my own trip would be so dangerous, but still, what I intended was far beyond the norm. It is one thing to visit Timbuktu as a tourist, and quite another to pass oneself off as a desert nomad.

My entre to this city was a Tuareg aristocrat by the name of Halis Al Moctar, who makes his living running a local tour operation out of a cyber cafe, taking tourists into the local desert by camel for day trips. When I told him of my desire to travel with Tuaregs he was overjoyed. Apparently I was the first interloper who wanted to "go" Tuareg. He assured me my ethnicity and religious beliefs would pose no obstacles and even provided me with his own robes and tagelmoust, the 30 yards of wound muslin that Tuaregs wrap around their heads.

Tuaregs are the only sect in Islam in which the men cover their heads, while the women do not, believing that evil spirits enter the body through various orifices, so they wrap the tagelmoust, covering everything but their eyes. The flowing blue under and outer robes fall almost to the ground, leaving only sandal-clad feet exposed. It was the perfect disguise for this white body in a brown world.

Timbuktu was founded in the 11th century by Tuareg nomads as a camp by the Niger river in Mali, West Africa, at the southern tip of the Sahara Desert, and quickly established itself as a rest stop for both north and south traveling camel caravans. The first written references to the Tuaregs came from the Greek Historian Herodotus, around 450 B.C. who believed them to have originated in either Egypt or Libya many centuries before Christ. He referred to them as Canaanites which translates roughly into "Purple people."

They are a Berber ethnic group whose numbers today approach one million, and they are widely spread throughout Niger, Mali, Algeria, Burkina Faso and Libya, with smaller numbers in Morocco. They are traditional nomads, who owe allegiance to no particular country, and consider the Sahara to be their true home. They have a different name for this desert in each of the countries it occupies, and consider it to be many separate deserts. Sahara is a term known only in the west.

For over two thousand years they have hauled gold, salt, and slaves across North Africa to the great port cities such as Mopti and Dakar. The term, “Tuareg” is derived from the area in their assumed ancestral home in Libya called Fezzan Targa, combined with a misinterpretation of the Arabic root TRQ, having a quiloquial meaning of “Abandoned by God,” a term they have applied to themselves after losing most of their traditional desert homelands over the centuries by foreign conquest. They refer to themselves most commonly as Kel Tamasheq or “Those who speak Tamasheq” their native tongue, and also Kel Tagelmoust, or “Wearers of the veil.” In Mali, the majority also speak Arabic and French.

Most people know them as the “Blue Men of the Sahara” because of their deep indigo turbans, called tagelmoust, and robes. The color is gleaned from sea urchins imported from the Mediterranean which the women dry in the sun and beat into a powder, after which, it is worked by hand into the fabric, giving it the deep, rich, color. Indigo is absorbed through the pores of the skin, and those who wear it often, eventually take on a permanent blue tint, thus their name.

Timbuktu has been the southern terminus of their range and was both a meeting and resting place for their caravans since before recorded history. It is surrounded by open desert, and when sandstorms blow, which is a daily occurrence, it can be inaccessible for days. By the mid 13th century it was part of the Mali Empire, ruled by Muslims, and the hub of a thriving economic conglomerate.

By the 15th century the Songhey Empire had taken over and began to build great mosques and universities, turning Timbuktu into a scholars haven for Islamic learning. Its libraries were equal to the famed depositories at Alexandria, Egypt. During the rule of the Songhey, Timbuktu was the epitome of culture and sophistication. To its inhabitants, it was the center of the world.

This golden age lasted until the 16th century when Morocco invaded and ended the Songey rule. At the same time Portugal commanded the seas and began establishing trade with the port cities all along the west coast of Africa, effectively negating the importance of the camel caravans. It was far quicker to sail goods to ports than to haul them for weeks on end through the desert. This combination began a gradual decline of the city that has continued to this day.

Now there are countless stories about the origin of the name Timbuktu.

In the Tamasheq language, tin means both place and well. Buktu was the name of a real woman who lived at the oasis before it bore her name. The Tuaregs, going into the desert, had no wish to part with their valuables at a bandit’s gunpoint along the trail, and it soon became known that Buktu was a person of trust with whom one could leave their belongings. From there it is a logical leap to the name Timbuktu meaning, the well or place of the lady Buktu. The “o” was added later as one of a half dozen different spellings, depending on who you are talking to at the moment. This is the most common of many stories, and at the Timbuktu Museum today, there is a well in the courtyard that is supposed to be Buktus’ original well, but after all this time, who can really know?

A different and less romantic version of the names origin comes from scholars who claim Buktu is a local Songai word meaning “Woman with a big navel” while a less kindly interpretation means “Woman with a big lump” And yet a third variation says it simply means a depression between sand dunes, which is what Timbuktu actually is. The reader can choose.

By the turn of the 18th century, western Europe had begun to hear stories of this place but mostly thought it to be a fable, which would have been news to the Tuaregs if they had known of the existence of western Europe, and so in 1788 a group of upper class English officers, probably in their cups late at night in a pub, established the “Association for the Discovery of Interior Portions of Africa.” They commissioned a colorful, and inebriated Scottish surgeon named Mungo Park, a self styled adventurer, to lead an expedition to determine if Timbuktu actually existed, and to fix its location on a map. Once he hit the road, he was probably sorry he ever started drinking with those chaps.

His expedition was plagued by disaster, most of his party were killed by bandits, he never reached the city, returned home, and drowned in the wilderness on his second attempt to penetrate the mysteries of central Africa.

In 1806 a French explorer with more guts than experience named Rene Callie claimed to have reached Timbuktu as part of the original offer that now included significant prize money to one proving its existence. He returned home via a camel caravan through Morocco and arrived back in Paris to great acclaim, but when he could not produce physical proof of his visit, he was discounted by the local press.

In 1826, a Scotsman named Gordon Laing, a Major in the British army, left his new bride of two days to pursue the trail to fame and fortune. We know he achieved his goal as several letters from the city actually reached his wife and told of the hostility of the Tuaregs towards him, thinking his presence signaled an onslaught of Europeans. Laing was lured into the desert after 38 days in Timbuktu, where he was ambushed and killed by Tuaregs, or so the story goes.

In 1990 Timbuktu was added to the UNESCO (the United Nations Economic, Scientific and Cultural Organization) list of World Heritage Sites, and declared “in danger” from the harsh environment, and as such it receives some funding for its restoration and conservation. Cursed by an ever shrinking population, Timbuktu continues to cling to life, refusing to die.

It is a low, brown city, mostly hidden under a layer of sand. But that is a disservice to the color brown. It is a brown filtered through blowing sand and baked by a relentless sun. It is a brown full of mountain purple and sunset yellow. If you stare at the city for a while, it will cover half the color spectrum but in the end you will say, it is brown. There are no tall buildings nor anything that remotely looks as though it were built before the start of the 19th century. There are no suburbs. The city just suddenly appears out of the haze, low, flat and compact, made exclusively of mud, as if it were a young island struggling to reach some sunlight. It is in danger of being swallowed by the harmattan, the dry wind that constantly blows from east to west, layering everything with a permanent coating that feels like sandpaper. It looks today as it probably did during the time of Marco Polo.

After a crash course in proper Tuareg fashion including tagelmoust wrapping, it was time to meet my demons. I stood in front of the mirror marveling at the apparition before me, swathed head to toe in blue, and had to admire the desert warrior Halis had constructed out of cloth.

There are no paved streets or sidewalks, only fine sand that claims ones feet up to the ankle with every step. The buildings are exactly as they have been made since Christ walked the earth, and besides the occasional moped imported from China, the only vehicles in sight have four legs and consume hay. I had stepped back a thousand years in time and was now a pilgrim in one of the most remote cities on earth.

Any apprehensions I had about my race or beliefs were instantly quashed as people began to call out, "Tuareg" or give a modest bow in our direction as we walked by. Tuaregs are the top of the social order here and at Halis's side, if anyone knew I was not his compatriot, they hid it well, but this was just a taste of our true journey.

The next day, Hali's cousin, Mahkmoud, drove us 100 miles north through trackless desert. There are no roads and few trees, only low scrub brush and moving dunes. Tuareg boys learn every star in the heavens and navigate by them, but when I asked Mahkmoud how he does this by day, he pointed to a tree and says, “That is where we ate spaghetti,” and at another saying, “That is where we camped with the Germans.” He knew every natural formation like I know my living room, for this is his. Ten hours later, we reached Arawan.

This ancient outpost had been a watering stop for thousands of years. The French Foreign Legion used it as an outpost until Mali gained its independence in 1960, and now it was home to Hali's family. Stepping out of the land rover in my blue robes I had no idea if I would be welcomed, or join Major Laing as an unwanted intruder.

Halis lead me into a squat mud building riddled with bullet holes, that I had to duck to enter, and we sat on the sand as there was no furniture.

One by one, tough, leathery men, who all looked like warriors from central casting began to file in. Most had their hand on a curved sword stuck through a waist sash and all carried short curved daggers. These were men who lived and died violently, settling their argument with cold steel, in one of the harshest environments on earth, come to pass judgment on me, and I had to ask myself why I had ever come on this trip.

The village chieftain towered over me. His face was uncovered and had a long scar running diagonally across this nose. His beard was white and neatly trimmed. He was the sort of man the room took notice of upon entry. He began to speak in Tamasheq, through Halis. Mostly what he said was that I did his people honor by wishing to live among them, and was free to travel with them as a Tuareg. I felt like a death row inmate who had just been granted a pardon. The deal was sealed with several cups of tea, or I should say cups of sugar that had a little tea in them as Tuaregs consume more sweet tea than the Chinese and Canadians combined.

There is an unspoken law in the desert that all visitors, either friend or foe are offered tea. If you are offered a second cup you are considered a friend; but if you are offered a third cup, then you are family and your hosts would die for you. That day I drank enough tea to ruin my teeth forever, but I was now officially a Tuareg. That night and thereafter, we unrolled cheap fiber mats made in China and laid on the ground, wrapped only in our robes, under a blanket of stars, and I slept the sleep of the dead.

At first light, I was awakened by a camel snorting in my face which Halis had already loaded. After downing three quick cups of sugar tea we mounted up and headed west, leaving cosmopolitan Arawan for the open sahel and the nomad camps I had so long wished to see.

For those who have never traveled by camel, they can be mean and ornery creatures. Mine bit me twice and peed on me once over the course of a week. I rode barefoot, as pressure on either side of the animals neck controls their movement rather than the reigns do a horse.

Most of the days were monotonous, with a never changing landscape of sand and low brush, but I could not have enjoyed it more. One entire day was spent with a caravan hauling salt from the mines at Tademmi on the border with Mauritania. They were on their way to Timbuktu where salt is like money. I do not have sufficient words to describe three hundred camels, all laden with large flat slabs of salt, paddling along two by two, with their weird, lumbering, sideways gait. I had time traveled back to biblical days.

Finding the camps proved no problem as we usually passed through at least two a day. The Sahara was far more populated than I had ever dreamed. We were always welcomed, given sugar tea, and after the obligatory pleasantries of inquiring into the health of one's family through several generations, the head man would always trot out his eldest daughter just in case I might be in need of an additional wife. I always managed to politely decline such offers.

Other than these young women being offered for marriage, I rarely saw a mature woman. They would serve our dinner, usually seared goat with rice, with their eyes downcast, then quickly retreat to their own quarters where they waited to eat whatever the men left unconsumed.

As Muslims, I never saw any Tuareg stop to pray, and never questioned them as to why, but at night we had great discussions about God, and the world in general, which to them was rather limited. I found myself in much agreement with them about spiritual matters, but as few of them had ventured farther than Timbuktu, conversations about deeper subjects usually met with a blank stare. One day an old biplane flew overhead, probably surveying for oil companies who covet this open land, and I watched in amazement as all my companions cowered beneath their robes, hunched in a ball until the "Evil spirit" flew away, reminding me just how unworldly and superstitious these people are.

We visited six camps and I was always accepted as a brother, even finding myself speaking enough Tamasheq to barter for a knife and leather pillow. Our journey from Arawan took us in a wide arc covering over 100 miles and leading back eventually to Timbuktu.

On the final day, the three of us, Halis, Mahkmoud, and myself, approached the city, winding our way through the Fulani, (Nomad beggars) camps that circle it, with Halis telling me to watch my back. On our camels, we were a scene out of the bible, and I noticed a man standing on a wall, obviously a tourist, as he was dressed like an ad for REI and had two cameras around his neck. He raised his camera at our approach and without thinking I held up my hand and yelled, "No photo! Cadou! Cadou!" meaning you must pay if you want my photo. Halis was already giggling at my antics and I truly have no idea what made me do such a thing. It really was spontaneous.

The man approached and handed me a paper bill. I held it up to the sun, snapped it a couple times, and made a great show of examining it before tucking it inside my robe, striking a noble pose and saying, "OK, Take photo!"

As we rode into Timbuktu, Halis was openly laughing so loud I was afraid he would give us away, and the poor photographer who thought he had just taken that National Geographic shot of a lord of the desert will never know what he has is a photo of a white guy from Los Angeles.


James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, author, and photographer who has traveled extensively in 43 countries. His journeys are usually far off the beaten path to record the cultures of indigenous peoples, particularly in Africa and Asia.

His first book was entitled "Tears, Fear and Adventure". He is a frequent contributor to the Christian Science Monitor and The Los Angeles Times. He is a regular contributor as both writer and photographer to WEND, Sea Kayaker, Ocean, WorldAndI, and Wavelength magazines. His articles and photos have appeared in Natural History, BBC Wildlife, California Wild, Northwest, and the Travelers' Tales book series, plus Wild Moments, The Seattle Times, Orlando Sentinel, and L.A. Weekly newspapers. He is a 2008 and 2010 Solas category award winner for Best Travel Writing.

His was a principal photographer for England's, Seventh Wave magazine, and his work has been used by the National Wildlife Federation, Ocean Conservancy, International Cetacean Society, California Gray Whale Coalition, and the International Whaling Commission. His work has twice been chosen as Kodak Internationals "Photo of the Day." He has appeared on National Public Radio's "Weekend America" program and is a Fellow of the Explorers Club and former director of the Adventurers Club. WEBSITE: www.jamesdorsey.com




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