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In this issue
“He could be in Timbuctoo for all I know.”
Have you ever given such an answer when asked about the whereabouts of a long-lost friend? It’s simply an old and accepted shorthand for any remote and mysterious place. Yet Timbuktu (to give it its modern spelling) is one of the least likely places on earth where the missing pal might be.
Why is this so, and what might the real Timbuktu be like? Fed up with thinking about British politics, I decided that these questions offered me a chance to explore something more exotic for this month’s newsletter.
Situated 12 miles north of the Niger River in what is now the Republic of Mali, Timbuktu was once an ancient African centre of Islamic scholarship. Founded in the 12th century by Tuareg nomads, it boasted one of the world’s oldest universities, established shortly after the city itself.
It was also a city of immense riches, a thriving hub of African-Arab trade – salt and gold, ivory and slaves – on the southern edge of the Sahara desert. This legendary wealth, coupled with its inaccessibility, enhanced its appeal as an exotic and mysterious destination. No European visited Timbuktu before Alexander Gordon Laing in 1826.
19th-century European explorers approached via a two-month long camel ride through the Sahara; many of them died en route. Small wonder that surveys show the vast majority of Britons either think Timbuktu’s a legendary lost city or don’t believe it was ever a real place at all.
Even now there are still no tarred roads to Timbuktu, but in modern times this ancient city has lost its mythical appeal and lustre. It has become an impoverished and dangerous place. Encroaching desert and disappearing water supplies have turned the city of gold and learning into a town of dust. Underdevelopment and corruption have speeded up the process of desertification.
But Timbuktu’s fall from grace is not just a result of global warming and greed. War and terrorism have played a significant role. In 2012 Tuareg rebels sought to establish a breakaway state, Azawad, in Northern Mali, with the help of Ansar Dine, an Islamist group with links to Al-Qaeda. Although the Malian armed forces had largely restored control with the help of the French within a year, and despite a peace accord in 2015, kidnapping and murder by Ansar Dine still occur from time to time.
Certainly the British government advises against all travel to Tombouctou (the French name for the city) province and all non-essential travel to Bamako, Mali’s capital, as do most western governments. A nationwide state of emergency in place since November 2015 has been extended several times, most recently in October 2018 by one year until 31 October 2019. At the height of the crisis in 2014, there were 1,200 UN peacekeepers for a population estimated at 15,000. The situation has improved a little since, with a 2019 estimate of just over 32,000 – but there’s still a long way to go before Timbuktu regains its pre-crisis size of nearly 55,000.
Despite the physical obstacles, such as lack of roads, the practical considerations eg the difficulty of arranging travel insurance, and the dangers of terrorist attacks, a few intrepid travellers do still go there. Even so, the odds are stacked high against anyone’s missing friend choosing Timbuktu to turn up in.
Our latest Pic of the Week is, appropriately, an engraving of some 19th-century travellers arriving in Timbuktu, published in the Paris-based Le Tour du Monde in 1860.
And this month’s Quick Quiz is a bit exotic, too. We’ve based it on a theme of words beginning with “b*mb”. See how many you can get right!
Are you ever flummoxed by fancy foodie words, mystified by menus, or confused by culinary terms? Then head on over to Scoffopedia.com and become enlightened by our quirky A-Z of food. And it’s got cartoons in it! Don’t forget to tell all your friends about it too.
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