August 31, 1997

Timbuktu Has Timeless Mystique

Remer Tyson Knight-Ridder

The very name evokes mystery, riches, faraway places and unknown lands.

Timbuktu - the forbidden city in the heart of Africa.

It was founded in 1080. And within 300 years, it had already become one of the era’s most important trading points, an influential Islamic intellectual center, a cosmopolitan multicultural city of commerce and learning and the second-largest imperial court in the world.

When much of Europe was still struggling out from under the Dark Ages, the emperor of Timbuktu was having stunning mosques built, and thousands of scholars studied in the city, coming from as far as Islamic India and Moorish Spain.

At one time, it was a city of 100,000 and so rich that even the slaves decorated themselves with gold.

Its history is quite wondrous considering the city was named after a freshwater well guarded by a slave woman with an overgrown belly button.

In the language of Timbuktu’s founders, the word for a well is “tim.” Buctu was the name of the slave woman who guarded the well. Her name means oversized belly button. So the nomadic Tuaregs who created the city called the spot “Buctu’s well.”

Eventually it came to be known as Timbuktu in English, or Tombouctou in French.

In some ways, Timbuktu today remains what it always has been - a city of intriguing mud brick mosques and houses isolated on the white-hot southern rim of Africa’s vast Sahara, the world’s largest desert. The one noticeable difference today is that a few television satellite dishes break the low, flat-roofed skyline.

Its side streets are narrow, exuding an Arabic flavor. But the main streets are wide, graceful boulevards, at least by regional standards. All of Timbuktu’s streets are made of white desert sand. The area has only one asphalt road. That one leads from the airport to the city of 25,000.

Long gone are Timbuktu’s enormous wealth and its role as a major goods exchange - sort of a Wall Street of the Sahara. But Timbuktu retains its timeless mystique, a tribute to having risen to greatness at one of the most unlikely spots on the planet.

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