Timbuktu: A journey afar.

In my request for members to enliven our website while we could no longer meet, Janet S. took up the challenge and sent me some photos from Timbuktu, which until recently had a famous library. You must read on, lest we take libraries for granted. Timbuktu represents (or used to?) the most remote location on Planet Earth, wherever you live. Of course, our Janet S. has been there, with pictures to prove it. Two photos show the Timbuktu Library door. (Janet H.)

I visited Timbuktu in 2009, on my way to the Tuareg Festival in the Desert. Touring the dusty town, I was fascinated to hear of the history of this fabled city. It was once a rich trading centre, a crossroads in the trade of salt, gold and slaves, and the site of the first university in the Muslim world, established in 1140. It became famous for the study of sciences such as astronomy and medicine, as well as for literature and religion. I was shown the library, which held the handwritten manuscripts dating back to the establishment of the university. Many of the manuscripts remained in private hands. It was explained to me that many of the families who had passed them down through the generations were uncomfortable having all the precious manuscripts kept in one place. They felt that it was their duty to protect these ancient records of the past.

Their instincts were very good, as I was there at a very uncertain time. The private army of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi had just disbanded, and taking their weapons with them, they were making incursions into Mali. The people of Timbuktu were worried as to what the future would hold for them as they were Sufi Muslims and the fanatic Sharia jihadist Muslims from Qaddafi’s army were on the move south. The governments of all 8 of us in the tour group, Canadian, Australian, British and American sent warnings to us in Timbuktu that we should get out. We were all certain that we would be safe until after the festival. Luckily that was the case, and then we left rapidly. The Festival in the Desert went off well, carrying on the melodic traditions of the Tuaregs that stretched back at least to the times of the founding of Timbuktu. Many tribesmen had travelled hundreds of miles across the Sahara by camel to attend. I found out later that it was at this time that two Canadian diplomats had been kidnapped in Niger, and it turned out later that they were being kept in Mali, about 250 kilometres from where we were. About 2 months after, a tour group was attacked near Timbuktu and a British man and a German lady were killed. However, it was not until three years later that the jihadists burned the library of Timbuktu and destroyed the forty-two tombs of the prophets that were a feature of Timbuktu. Luckily, those manuscripts in private hands were smuggled out of the area.

Janet S.