An April 2003 trip
to Timbuktu by Invicta73
Quote: The renowned efforts of many explorers to reach Timbuktu have given it a legendary reputation that nowadays draws travellers, and I felt that my stay in Mali would be incomplete without visiting. Although nowhere could possibly live up to such hype, the small city does actually have a distinctive charm.
Many of the attractions are located on the twisting sandy streets of the old quarter. At times it seems as though the district has not changed since the days of the intrepid past visitors whose former abodes still stand in the area today. Meanwhile, the Djingareiber Mosque is perhaps the most notable place of worship in Mali that is readily open to everyone.
Additionally, I would personally advise against the kind of rushed itinerary followed by many tourists, who often spend a little over a day on a flying visit to the area. This is because whilst such a course of action allows enough time to see the small range of obvious sights, it is only after a longer stay that the true character becomes apparent.
Meanwhile, taking an excursion into the Sahara is a popular activity. Camel rides are of course a good way to do this, and such a trip is easy to arrange with any of the many prospective local guides. However, another alternative is to go out to the desert on foot, as the distance involved is relatively short.
Physically, the small hotel is a rather ordinary example of the region's modern day architecture, whilst inside the décor and furnishings are based on local styles in a simple and by no means plush manner. Nevertheless, the average sized rooms are cosy, and each has its own bathroom, a television, and a quite old, but fairly effective, air-conditioning unit.
Although there is a lack of high-end facilities such as a pool, the restaurant and bar on the premises are rather good. On offer are very palatable set breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, whilst the usual selection of drinks is constantly available. However, it is the setting on the first floor roof terrace that is the real draw, because the scenes of everyday life occurring below on Rue Askia Mohammed, the main thoroughfare through the centre, rarely fail to be engaging. Finally, one other attractive feature is that the members of staff are genuinely friendly and always do their utmost to make the guests feel welcome.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on September 30, 2003
Hôtel la Colombe
Rue Askia Mohammed
+223 921 435
The Djingareiber Mosque may not compete in terms of aesthetics or level of preservation with the more famous structure in Djenné, but it certainly alludes to the former glories of the city. In 1325, the Andalusian architect and poet Es Sahéli received the instructions to commence building from the incredibly rich Malian emperor Kankan Moussa, who had just returned from his renowned pilgrimage to Mecca full of religious fervour. Although at first that may not seem too impressively ancient, the discovery that mud is the primary material used in the construction should change that perception.
Externally, solid buttresses rise from the surrounding sandy streets before giving way to the somewhat irregular walls that curve slightly inwards towards the turrets, behind which conical minarets rise. Directly inside the main entrance there is a large enclosed area that is dark, cool, and punctuated by nine rows of square columns, which is where around 2,000 men congregate to worship every Friday. There is little in the way of elaborate decoration, except for the wooden doors ornamented with metal, which are fine examples of the local style. The net effect is plain and unpretentious, which perhaps is the reason that there is an atmosphere that impressively manages to exude both great age and intimacy at the same time. Meanwhile, going up onto the flat roof, where René Caillié is said to have written some of his notes, is also worthwhile, as from the elevated location there are superb views over the city to the desert.
The cost of entering the mosque is around a couple of thousand francs, and it is reputedly sometimes easier to gain admission when accompanied by a guide. Remembering to dress conservatively and to remove shoes before going in is important, and because of the latter, I would recommend visiting in the morning before the sand in the open-air sections becomes uncomfortably hot.
Attraction | "Timbuktu Sights"
Perhaps the single greatest pleasure of spending time in the area is wandering around, and getting lost in, the old town's veritable maze of narrow streets and alleys that feature traditional mud-brick architecture and distinctive sights such as the communal bread ovens. In addition to being the most picturesque and atmospheric quarter, it is also home to the majority of the main attractions.
The district's three venerable mosques are a large part of the reason that Timbuktu is on UNESCO's World Heritage List, even though none are in particularly good repair or as beautiful as some counterparts elsewhere. The Djingareiber is the most antiquated and only one that is generally accessible by tourists. The relatively nearby Sidi Yéhia dates from the start of the 15th century and takes its name from one of the most important local saints. Aside from a fine decorative main door, it has very few points of interest, and although the best preserved of the trio, is probably also the least appealing. More attractive is the Sankoré, the newest at only 500 years old, which was apparently built to resemble the Ka'bah in Mecca, and was once among the leading Islamic seats of learning anywhere in the world.
Also scattered around the historic core are the former houses of European explorers who succeeded in getting to the mysterious city during the 1800s. Each is marked with a wall plaque, and most are now simply residences, although Rene Caillié’s erstwhile residence is ramshackle, whilst that of Heinrich Barth contains a small amount of pertinent exhibits.
Meanwhile, there is a small ethnographic museum in the same vicinity, which exhibits various antique artefacts, including jewellery and furniture. Perhaps more interesting is the collection of colonial era black and white photographs, and also the Well of Bouctou in the courtyard, which is said to be where the name of the city derives from.
Elsewhere, there are several markets, two of which cater to locals, selling foodstuffs, cloths, utensils and so on. However, the relatively new covered artisans' establishment is primarily for tourists, with souvenirs such as swords and silverwork of variable quality on offer. It is also possible to watch craftsmen at work at the Diem Tendé workshop, which has an impressive reputation, and has purportedly been in continuous operation for very many generations.
Another recent addition to the landscape is the Flame of Peace, which is located on the boundary between the desert and the settlement. Commemorating the end of the Tuareg uprising in the mid 1990s, a mock fire sits atop its concrete arches, symbolising the burning of decommissioned weapons, some of which are set in the pedestal.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on September 30, 2003
Timbuktu Sights & Attractions
Fortunately, doing so is not actually difficult, because the sandy streets soon give way to dunes. In fact, taking a walk out is very pleasant, particularly because finding a lovely, calming feeling of solitude amidst attractive scenery is really fairly easy. It is probably best to go later in the day, when the intense heat has subsided and the visibility of the settled area's lights make finding the way back simple.
However, a much better way to experience the terrain is on the back of a camel, even if, as is sometimes said, the area is not as spectacular as parts of North Africa. There are generally guides in and around the Hôtel le Bouctou, with whom arranging journeys of various distances and durations is possible. It is possible to take a short ride to the so-called Gateway to the Desert, or spend a longer period out. Excursions that stretch into the evening are popular, not only due to the cooler temperatures, but also because there are quite differing visions of beauty during the day, at sunset and by moonlight. Overnight stays can be included, and usually food and tourist orientated entertainments, such as acted sword fights, traditional music and dance are part of the deal. To give a rough idea of cost, the latter kind of package should be somewhere in the region of 25,000 francs. Caution is definitely required when negotiating, as the initially requested fee will probably be too high, whilst one traveller that I met insisted on a low price, and much to her disappointment, got what she paid for, which was very little indeed!
Meanwhile, another thing to be wary of when making plans is the danger that the itinerary will revolve around a visit to a camp that is seemingly home only to determined souvenir sellers. However, there are some cameleers that have an excellent reputation, and they are well worth seeking out in order to avoid any problems, particularly Jiddou ag Almoustapha, who is commonly nicknamed Sandy.
Personally, I was fortunate enough to organise a trip with the friendly and informative Tuareg called Mohammed ag Ahmed, which involved riding out to his small camp, spending the night with the family and returning in the morning. At first, the combination of the camel's rocking gait and the hard saddle made me feel terribly uncomfortable and unsteady. For a while, my hands held the reins tightly, and it was a struggle to make the most of the available views, although a stop at a particularly picturesque spot was scheduled and very much enjoyed. Eventually, after night had fallen, we reached our destination, and once the animals had been unloaded, we settled down to the first of many cups of tea. Spending time sitting with my host and his kin around the fire and enjoying a simple but enjoyable meal proved to be a wonderfully relaxing experience. Although less obviously exciting than the alternative staged activities found elsewhere, it provided a much more insightful glimpse into the basic but dignified way of life of the Blue Men of the Desert, as they are known. Having slept under the stars, we returned to the city in the morning following breakfast, via a larger encampment. Surprisingly, by the time that the return leg was underway, I had relaxed, loosening the grip and going more with the motion, and consequently was much more at ease.
London, United Kingdom