Why Timbuktu Will Overcome Its Latest Fundamentalist Conquerors

Caravan routes

Many of today’s headlines about Islamic north-central Africa would look familiar to the explorer and scientist Heinrich Barth, who traveled 10,000 miles there for the British from 1850 to 1855. The caravan routes ridden by Barth are now roads, but the arid territories they cross are still a nexus of distinctive cultures that have mixed and chafed for centuries. Old frictions still flare up between Muslims and non-Muslims, black and brown, fundamentalists and moderates, central governments and local chiefs.

As in Barth’s day, bandits and fanatics keep the region in turmoil. The group Boko Haram (“Western education is forbidden”) has killed hundreds of people in places Barth visited in northeastern Nigeria, bombing government offices, schools, and Christian churches. The group’s violent quest to “purify” Islam is just the most recent of similar jihads reported by Barth. Other groups, now as then, use religion as a veneer to justify thuggery. The terrorists of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), for instance, seem motivated more by money than by Mohammed, kidnapping Western travelers whom they murder or ransom — behavior that Barth witnessed and survived.

For Barth, Boko Haram and AQIM would be familiar manifestations with historical precedents. So would the distress of today’s moderate Muslims who want to reclaim their religion’s traditions of tolerance and learning from gangsters and extremists.

Some current events are almost historical reenactments. In March of this year, after the Malian military staged a coup, several rebel groups took advantage of the political chaos to occupy Mali’s northern half, including the ancient desert towns of Timbuktu and Gao. The group that now controls Timbuktu is associated with AQIM and calls itself Ansar Dine (“Defenders of the Faith”). Like Boko Haram, the Ansar Dine are fundamentalists intent on imposing their version of a purer Islam. If history is a guide, they would have better luck pushing a camel through the eye of a needle.

Ibn Battuta

Since the time of Ibn Battuta (1352), visitors to Timbuktu have been impressed by the town’s scholars and amiable inhabitants, known for their love of singing, dancing, and smoking. The Ansar Dine have stopped the singing and the music, and are requiring women to veil their faces, atypical in Timbuktu. Tobacco and alcohol have been banned, places that sold them have been shuttered or destroyed, and possession of a cigarette brings a beating. Women have been whipped for immodest behavior such as walking alone or riding in a car with men. In a town near Timbuktu, an unmarried couple was stoned to death.

Ignorance, that frequent collaborator with fanaticism, has led the Ansar Dine to destroy at least half a dozen of Timbuktu’s historic tombs and monuments, including part of the fourteenth-century Djingereber mosque, on grounds of idolatry. Scholars fear that Timbuktu’s invaluable manuscript libraries might be looted, perhaps for the purpose of selling these volumes of old Islamic erudition to fund new Islamic intolerance.

Timbuktu has weathered it all before. Similar restrictions were in place when Barth spent seven months there under house arrest in 1853-54. Muslim jihadists from the newly-declared kingdom of Hamdallahi (“Praise to God”) had conquered Timbuktu in 1826. They attempted to impose harsh reforms: no tobacco, mandatory attendance at mosque, segregation of men and women. The sociable smoking dancers of Timbuktu considered these dictates preposterous. By the time of Barth’s visit, the fundamentalists had despaired of separating Timbuktu’s men and women, but Barth recounts how they raided homes to seize tobacco and levied fines for insufficient piety.

Today’s residents of Timbuktu, Gao, and nearby desert towns have begun staging protests and forming militias to resist Ansar Dine’s severe version of Islam. It seems likely that long after Ansar Dine has vanished into history like Hamdallahi, Timbuktu and its people will still be singing and smoking.

Barth blamed much of the region’s misery on its greedy, corrupt leaders, who devastated the region with constant warfare and slave raids. “Even the best of these mighty men,” he wrote, “cares more for the silver ornaments of his numerous wives than for the welfare of his people.” Today’s Nigerians ask why their government can’t protect them from Boko Haram, and why a country with some of the world’s richest oil deposits must import most of its gas and can’t light its largest cities. Greed and corruption, wrote Barth, inspired violent purifying jihads that imposed their own repressions. These criticisms still sound fresh.

As in Barth’s day, most Westerners know little about Islam or Africa, and distort them into simple monoliths. Barth carried some of his era’s assumptions, but he was willing to go where the evidence took him. He found ignorance and savagery in Africa — the prevailing European view of the continent — but also scholars and sophisticated systems of commerce and government.

He likewise challenged the dominant European view of Islam as an evil dangerous opponent of Christian civilization, which still sounds familiar. Consider the recent Republican presidential primary, in which nearly every candidate expressed alarm about the nonexistent threat of Sharia law in the United States. Members of Congress are on record about “terrorist babies” and “stealth jihadis.” American towns have voted to ban mosques, and corporations tremble when fringe groups accuse them of being pro-Muslim.

Barth called Islam a great religion — not a popular view, then as now — but added that in some places it had been hijacked by brigands or fanatics who used it as an excuse to pillage or to subjugate. He pointed out that Islam wasn’t much different in these ways from Christianity, another great religion sometimes hijacked by the greedy or the self-righteous. All of this remains in the headlines.

Unlike most pundits about the continent, then as now, Barth formed his views from close observation of African reality. His news and perspective remain pertinent. As a scientist he believed that knowledge can dissolve ignorance and misunderstanding. Perhaps it still can, given the chance.

*This originally appeared on the History News Network on August 22, 2012.

Desert River

In the last post I mentioned that Timbuktu’s location near the Niger River made it the place “where the camel meets the canoe.” In Barth’s day those canoes landed at Kabara, a village on the Niger about eight miles from Timbuktu. Barth disembarked there after spending several days in a dugout, winding through the tributaries and channels that spill into the Niger from the south, upstream from the village. At Kabara he left the river and rode through the desert to Timbuktu. In those days thieves made a good living on the road that connected the two places.

Barth’s arrival in Timbuktu, from Travels and Discoveries

These days a traveler coming from Kabara passes an agricultural project run by an evangelical sect, a small modern airport, an encampment of Bela (formerly the black slaves of Tuaregs), then a spot where people dig clay for bricks. Closer to Timbuktu a traveler reaches the mega-compound of Muammar Qaddafi, the Libyan despot. Some years ago, to the bewilderment of the locals, Qaddafi developed a fondness for Timbuktu, built the compound, and visited infrequently. He also connected his palace to the Niger with a canal, which some residents blame for Timbuktu’s mosquitoes. Qaddafi is gone but the irritants he attracted remain, in small numbers.

I asked Shindouk if lions and other wildlife still roamed between Kabara and Timbuktu. He shook his head. “On the road to Kabara,” he said, “there’s not even a pigeon. Once there were ostriches and gazelles, but they’ve all been killed.”

Some things about the road haven’t changed. It’s still a sun-baked straight line from river to town. Alongside it, people still rest in slivers of shade cast by stunted trees. Donkeys and their keepers still move briskly between the Niger and Timbuktu. Heading towards the port, the donkeys carry nothing. Heading towards town, they nearly disappear beneath their wide loads of millet stalks or river grass, sold for fodder in the markets.

When Barth reached Kabara the rainy season had started and the port was bustling. Barth was posing as a Syrian sherif. The people in Kabara were split between curiosity and suspicion about him. He wasn’t sure how long his disguise would hold, or what would happen to him once he entered Timbuktu. He spent a few anxious days in the village while his guide, a devious rascal, tried to arrange protection in town.

When I visited Kabara, its harbor basin was somnolent and empty of vessels. The only action was four women washing clothes, as their kids loitered and fished nearby. My guide, a young Songhai named Mahamane Hameye, explained that Kabara used to be busy but its harbor began disappearing in the dry season, so boats couldn’t reach it. Now most river traffic prefers to land at Korioume, a couple of miles upstream.

Kabara harbor

Road to Korioume

Part of the road to Korioume was generously shaded by eucalyptus trees. Rice and vegetables grew alongside. All this green, so close to the desert, was visually jarring.

Korioume more closely resembled the scene Barth saw in Kabara. The Niger looked at least a mile wide, the “noble stream” of so many accounts of exploration.


Millet grew on islands far out in the river. Soldiers waiting for the ferry flirted with women doing laundry. Traders, trucks, cargo, and boats of various sizes crowded the waterfront—dugouts painted with geometric designs, fishing boats with big square nets, the big canopied boats called pinasses that carry cargo and passengers between Gao and Mopti, other port towns on the Niger. “Something comes and something goes,” said Mahamane. Today one of the things going was slabs of salt, probably from Taoudeni, lined up on the shore. In the dry season, when the river thinned, hippos came near here and sometimes threatened the smaller boats.

Salt slabs at Korioume

Within minutes of leaving Korioume, we were back in the sand and scrub of the Sahara, and the Niger was a fading green dream.