* Tuareg insurgents now hold fabled Saharan trading town
* Al Qaeda kidnapping had already frightened off tourists
* "Mystic city" bewitched explorers, poets for centuries
* Hidden treasures in wisdom, learning of ancient texts
By Bate Felix and Pascal Fletcher
April 4 (Reuters) - When turban-swathed Tuareg rebels swept into Timbuktu on
Sunday to plant the flag of their northern Mali homeland, they found very
few tourists in the bars, hotels, museums, mosques and libraries of the
fabled and ancient Saharan trading town.
Local guides say numbers of foreign visitors had already fallen off after a
Dutchman, a South African and a Swede were seized by gunmen in the historic
Malian city in November. A German citizen was killed in the abduction
claimed by al Qaeda.
With the rebels, including Islamist factions preaching sharia, now in
control of Timbuktu's dusty streets, tourists may not be returning soon to
the spot near the Niger river that for centuries was a symbol of unreachable
remoteness, bewitching voyagers with tales of wealth, wisdom and life-giving
"Practically all hotels are empty and closed. Nothing is going on in the
tourism sector," tourist guide Oumar Ag Mohammed Hamaleck told Reuters from
the city this week, contrasting this with the 80 tourists a day he hosted
during past boom periods.
Just as Timbuktu with its exotic staccato name is part of the lore of the
Sahara, this same mystery cloaks the Tuaregs, those blue-robed desert
marauders who have peopled adventure stories and Hollywood films for years,
from P.C. Wren's Beau Geste to the more recent action blockbuster "Sahara",
with Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz.
But there is nothing fictional about the rebels of the National Movement for
the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) who charged into Timbuktu on Sunday to plant
their yellow, green, red and black flag in the city to claim it as part of a
homeland covering an area of northern Mali the size of France.
These modern-day Saharan raiders have swapped their fleet horses and camels
of old for powerful 4 x 4s and pickups, bristling with heavy machine guns
and rocket launchers. AK-47s and RPG launchers are now the small arms of
choice, instead of muskets and swords.
Besides the MNLA, Timbuktu's occupants now also include rival Islamist
rebels of the Ansar Dine (Defender of the Faith) movement under veteran
Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghaly, who seek to impose Islamic law in Mali and are
reported to have links with jihadist groups like al Qaeda.
"The Islamists have said they are not OK with bars, so no bars have reopened
since they took control," said Timbuktu guide Hamaleck, although apart from
this he had not heard of "anything to be worried about" for the local
The hydra-headed Tuareg-led revolt, energised by a military coup last month
that toppled the government in the southern capital Bamako, has fueled fears
of turmoil in a vast lawless northern zone already identified by western
experts as a haven for criminal gangs and al Qaeda militants.
Before the occupation, Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of ancient
mosques and burial grounds, had become an obligatory stop for budget
backpackers seeking the desert experience and scholars looking for
historical wisdom from priceless Islamic manuscripts.
"THE MYSTERY OF TIMBUKTU"
"People come to Timbuktu to 'feel the mystery of Timbuktu' as we say here
... They also come for a camel ride at the gates of the desert, boat rides
on the Niger river to spot hippos and witness the sunset. They also visit
various famous tourist sites," tourist guide Hamaleck said.
Sunday's rebel occupation prompted an appeal from UNESCO Director-General
Irina Bokova for the warring parties to spare "Timbuktu's outstanding
earthern architectural wonders". These include the Sankore, Sidi Yahia and
Djingarei-ber mosques, the last Timbuktu's oldest, built from mud bricks and
wood in 1325.
The origins of Timbuktu - the name is believed to derive from the words
Tin-Boctou (meaning the place or well of Boctou, a local woman) - date back
to the 5th century.
The site on an old Saharan trading route that saw salt from the Arab north
exchanged for gold and slaves from black Africa to the south, blossomed in a
16th century Golden Age as an Islamic seat of learning, home to priests,
scribes and jurists.
A 15th century Malian proverb proclaims: "Salt comes from the north, gold
from the south, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom are only to
be found in Timbuctoo."
But it was rumours of gold that drove European explorers to cross the
trackless, shifting sands of the Sahara to search for the legendary city,
already known for centuries to local inhabitants who traversed the deserts
on camelback and navigated the muddy brown waters of the Niger by canoes.
Some of these foreign explorers died of thirst in the desert or were robbed
and slain by fierce Tuareg warriors, while Timbuktu's mirage-like renown -
no doubt enhanced by thirst-crazed, feverish imaginations - reached
glittering proportions in the consciousness of 19th century Europe.
In his poem "Timbuctoo", English poet Lord Alfred Tennyson addresses "Wide
Afric" to ask: "... is the rumour of thy Timbuctoo, A dream as frail as that
of ancient Time?"
Scottish explorer Gordon Laing was the first European to arrive in Timbuktu
in 1826, but he did not live to tell the tale, perishing at the hands of
It was not until two years later that Frenchman Rene-Auguste Caillie became
the first European to see Timbuktu and survive to recount what he saw. "I
have been to Timbuktu!" he is said to have breathlessly told the French
consul in Tangier after he staggered back from his epic Saharan journey.
But after all his dreams of glittering minarets and palaces filled with
gold, Caillie was disappointed to find in Timbuktu what it has largely
remained for centuries: a dun-coloured town in a dun-coloured desert.
"I had a totally different idea of the grandeur and wealth of Timbuctoo," he
wrote. "The city presented, at first view, nothing but a mass of ill-looking
houses, built of earth. Nothing was to be seen in all directions, but
immense quicksands of yellowish white colour," he added.
"IS THAT IT?"
This initial sense of disappointment for outsiders, the myth not matching
reality, seems to have traversed the centuries.
Around a century and a half after Caillie, veteran Polish correspondent
Ryszard Kapuscinski was to write as he flew into Timbuktu by plane: "The
town consists of clay houses built on sand. The clay and sand are the same
colour, so the town looks like an organic part of the desert - a fragment of
the Sahara shaped into rectangular blocks, and elevated. The heat curdles
the blood, paralyzes the body, stuns."
And outspoken Irish rocker and anti-famine campaigner Bob Geldof is reported
to have exclaimed "Is that it?" when he first clapped eyes on Timbuktu on a
visit in the 1980s.
But residents like Hamaleck the guide, echoing the 15th century proverb,
know Timbuktu's treasures are not immediately visible to the eye. "There is
a mystery in Timbuktu, but it is something that you can only feel and not
see," he says.
Besides its architectural marvels, Timbuktu also boasts tens of thousands of
ancient, brittle manuscripts, some from the 13th century, which academics
say prove Africa had a written history at least as old as the European
Written in ornate calligraphy, this is a compendium of learning on
everything from law, sciences and medicine to history and politics. Some
experts compare it in importance to the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Some texts were stashed for generations under mud homes and in desert caves
by proud Malian families who feared they would be stolen by Moroccan
invaders, European explorers and then French colonialists. Some believe the
texts collected so far are just a fraction of what lies hidden under
centuries of dust behind the ornate wooden doors of Timbuktu's mud-brick
Michael Covitt, Founder of the Malian Manuscript Foundation and a U.S.
documentary film producer, says the ancient manuscripts contain doctrines of
"peace, tolerance, cultural diversity and conflict resolution" that have
served Mali for decades. The mainly Muslim country was viewed as one of the
West Africa's most stable democracies before last month's coup.
Many are hoping the Tuareg rebels and the coup leaders in Bamako will heed
the message of Timbuktu's manuscripts.
(For a factbox on the city ) (Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Giles
C Thomson Reuters 2012 All rights reserved
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Received on Wed Apr 04 2012 - 10:36:38 EDT