Two centuries after it was first “discovered” by Europeans, the once fabled city of Timbuktu, in present-day Mali, still carries an undeniable mystique.
Sadly, government advice to tourists today is to avoid all travel to the West African nation due to the threat of terrorism and banditry.
But going there was “an ultimate badge of honour for any ardent traveller” says regular Roamer contributor Mitchell Smyth who hailed from Ballycastle prior to his successful travel writing career based in Canada.
Mitchell went to Timbuktu a few years ago, when it was still safe to visit Mali.
The rest of today’s page is his account of an intriguing trip, and of a Tyrone man who was one of the first explorers to set out for ‘Tombouctou’, believing it was brimming with gold.
Slave traders operating on the west African coast of what is now Senegal and Gambia first brought back tales of the legendary inland city which they described as an African El Dorado, with riches beyond belief.
Timbuktu became the prize which all Europe desired, and the race to find it began.
Sitting on the roof near the minaret of the Djinquereber mosque, one of three in Timbuktu and the only one which non-Muslims may enter, I reflected on the life of explorer Daniel Houghton, born in Co Tyrone in 1740.
After a distinguished career as a Major in the British Army, he took up a diplomatic post on the island of Goree, off the coast of West Africa.
During his four-year stint there he learned Arabic.
The African Association in London – one of the first organisations set up to explore trade with Africa – asked the Tyrone man to lead an expedition to find the source of the Niger River and the fabled city of Timbuktu.
The association was impressed with his proud army record and ability to speak the native language.
His experience of Gambia’s coast gave Houghton a rough idea of Timbuktu’s whereabouts as he sailed up the Gambia River, mapping the territory along the way.
But things went wrong when he ran into a war between two kingdoms.
Then a fire destroyed much of the team’s equipment.
Other misfortunes followed and a lesser man would have aborted the mission but the daring Irishman pressed on!
By May 1791, when his last dispatch was sent to London, he was 500 miles from Timbuktu and the African Association noted: “He has now passed the former limits of European discovery.”
Later explorers pieced together the rest of the tale.
Houghton was apparently approached by a Moorish merchant called Madegammo, who offered to take him to Timbuktu. Along the way, Houghton found out that Madegammo was planning to kill him so he set off alone into the desert.
He didn’t make it to Timbuktu.
One story says he was murdered as he begged for water at a village, 200 miles short of the semi-mythical city.
Another account says that he died of starvation in the desert.
That was some time after July 1791 when Daniel Houghton was 51.
Successive sultans decreed “death to infidels” and several European explorers died attempting to get there before Major Gordon Laing of Edinburgh finally made it in 1825, only to be slain in the desert on the sultan’s orders five days after he left.
Finding Timbuktu must have been a monster anti-climax for Laing.
It was no city of gold. It was then, and still is, little more than a dusty market town in a remote corner of one of the poorest countries on earth, on the southern fringe of the Sahara.
On my second day there my guide Muhammed Ali (yes, that was his name) and I rented camels and rode out into the desert to a small Tuareg encampment.
(The Tuareg are the famed, blue-robed, nomadic men of the desert.)
A tribesman took Muhammed aside and they talked together for a while as I watched.
Muhammed later told me the tribesman has suggested that the two of them rob and kill me, but he had refused.
I still don’t know if he was kidding, but I thought of Maddegammo and Daniel Houghton!
In the 16th century Timbuktu was the seat of an empire. Its university held 2,500 Islamic scholars who carried their teachings to all corners of the Muslim world.
And tales of its riches fuelled the legends of an African El Dorado. It was indeed rich – but that was 500 years ago. Some 100,000 people lived there in the 16th century; today it’s something like 5,000.
Timbuktu is down, but not out…yet. The camel caravans still bring in the salt from the mines of Taoudenni to trade for goods brought down river on the Niger. That, and, until recently, some little tourism, keeps Timbuktu alive.
I climbed to the roof of the Djinquereber mosque to survey the city – narrow streets of hard sand, grey houses, grey shops, a grey bazaar, grey walls enclosing gardens of, yes, grey sand, and, on the outskirts, the grim, grey walls of the French Foreign Legion barracks, recalling when Mali was part of the French colonial empire.
By the time the French came, Timbuktu was long past its zenith. It had come into being in the 11th century as a crossroads of trade, an oasis where camel caravans crossing the desert with salt met merchants plying the Niger River with gold from the south.
Incredibly, salt traded pound for pound for gold.