Street Life Timbuktu: City built on sands of time

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The Independent Online
COMFORTABLE IN a flowing indigo boubou, Ould El Hadj Salem conducts a tour around a display of some of the world's most important Arabic texts.

Among the leather-bound volumes set in glass-topped cases is a treatise on astronomy from the 16th century and a book of Islamic law from 1204. Each volume looks so fragile it seems a carelessly exhaled breath may shatter the brittle pages.

For the past 20 years, the Ahmed Baba Centre for Historical Research in Timbuktu has been collecting and cataloguing ancient texts from across the Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa. It has a library of more than 15,000 volumes, many of which are priceless.

"They are all very important texts," explained Ould El Hadj, a researcher, archivist and historian. "They come from families in and around Timbuktu who have held them down the centuries. Researchers at the centre find out what are available and how much the families want. Then we decide which we can afford to buy."

Lack of funds is a constant problem for the centre. The machine used to copy the texts usually lies idle because the centre cannot afford the micro-film. The centre also has to deal with businessmen from the Middle East visiting to try and buy texts at much higher prices.

Yet Timbuktu remains a town of scholarship. In the 16th century, some 25,000 students attended a university at the mud-built Sankore mosque. Those great days have gone, along with the town's fabled wealth, but the centre is still a school of Koranic studies.

In the Middle Ages, Timbuktu became famous as one of the entrepots through which came the West African gold on which European finance relied. White explorers reached the town only in the 19th century. By then Timbuktu's obvious decline came as a bitter disappointment.

Today it is only a provincial town in the desperately poor former French colony of Mali. Camel caravans - a hundred animals at a time - still travel to Timbuktu, carrying salt slabs from the mines at Toudeni, 500 miles to the north. Old women still sit in the market square to sell the salt that once was literally worth its weight in gold.

But the townspeople rely increasingly on tourism for a living. Alongside the piles of salt, the local women now sell trinkets for the tourists who fly in for a few dusty hours, many of them simply to say they have been to a town whose name will forever be associated with remoteness.

"Tourism is important to us but there is not much investment in the town," said Ould El Hadj. "There are only two hotels here. We need more investment. But the biggest change is our place in history. Once we were like a port on the edge of a sea - the Sahara - with camels as ships. Now things tend to pass us by. The new roads do not come to Timbuktu."

The roads are a point in question. Only one of the town's roads is paved and that is the route to the airport, the port of entry for the majority of visitors. The rest of the medieval streets have been taken over by the elements of the desert. Because of the sand, even a short walk can take an hour.

Despite this, Ould El Hadj, 58, the father of 10 children, thinks life is better than it was 25 years ago. "Now we have a governor and some organisation. Things used to be chaotic. Life is better for people. There is more to eat now."

He remembers the crushing drought of 1973 when, for the first time in centuries, starving desert nomads were forced into the town.

He remembers the time in 1995 when those same nomads attacked the town - including the research centre - behind whose thick walls the local government officials had hidden - behind whose thick walls the local government officials had hidden - during a rebellion. "But the town survived. It will continue to," he said, eyes sparkling.

He stands up and throws a sheet to cover the glass cases. The tour is over.

Ould El Hadj is researching and writing a book on the Arma - a group of scholars which held power in Timbuktu in the 17th century. It is time for him to go back to his daily studies. Time to continue a tradition.