Timbuktu, that most rhythmical of African names, has for centuries been synonymous with Africa’s mysterious inaccessibility, with an end-of-the-earth allure that some travellers just have to reach. It’s also the name we all knew as kids, but never really knew where it was.
More than just a name, Timbuktu’s fame derived from its strategic location, at once on the edge of the Sahara and at the top of the ‘Niger bend’, from its role as the fabulously wealthy terminus of a camel-caravan route that has linked West Africa and the Mediterranean since medieval times, and from the vast universities of Islamic scholarship that flourished under the aegis of some of Africa’s richest empires.
Timbuktu is a shadow of its former self, existing as a sprawl of low, often shabby, flat-roofed buildings that only hint at former grandeur, while all the time the streets fill up with sand blown in from the desert. And yet, still the travellers come.