From Somerset to the Sahara: Glastonbury may become Timbuktu's twin

To casual observers, Timbuktu is a bit like Glastonbury without the mud: an ancient town, renowned for its remoteness, spiritual history, and world-famous music festival.

In future, they could have even more in common. Yesterday, the Somerset market town emerged as a leading contender in the competition to provide Timbuktu with a British twin.

The Cultural Mission of Timbuktu announced that Glastonbury was one of three finalists shortlisted from more than fifty UK towns and cities which applied for the post after reading about the vacancy in The Independent last month.

Along with the other finalists - Hay-on-Wye and York - Glastonbury will be visited by politicians from the west African city in early December. A winner is expected to be announced before Christmas.

In common with the other shortlisted towns, Glastonbury has already fulfiled several important criteria from a list of guidelines for prospective twin towns published by the government of Mali.

As well as having once been "an important trade hub" and "centre of learning," the town boasts a "love of the written word," together with "unique architecture" and a "cosmopolitan mindset".

The parallels don't end there. Where Glastonbury provides a destination for pilgrims to the oldest Christian church in Britain, Timbuktu is home to a world-famous collection of mud mosques.

Glastonbury's unique architecture is protected by English Heritage. Timbuktu has been looked after by Unesco, which declared the town a World Heritage Site in 1998.

Both towns are also a favoured destination of followers of the New Age movement. Timbuktu provides a venue for an ethnic music festival organised each year by Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin fame; Glastonbury's blowout is organised by the farmer Michael Eavis.

The competition to find a twin town was launched after officials from the Cultural Mission of Timbuktu discovered that one in three young Britons was unaware of their town's existence. Most of the remaining 66 per cent polled either thought Timbuktu was "a mythical place" or believed it to be in South America.

A winner is to be chosen by Ali Ould Sidi, the head of the mission, after a tour of the shortlisted towns scheduled to take place next month. He said yesterday that York, Glastonbury and Hay-on-Wye were all worthy finalists in the contest, which is intended to raise the profile of the town.

"The three finalists most accurately match the spirit of Timbuktu, and I am very pleased to have found such similarities in Britain," he said. "The decision of who wins will be very difficult indeed."

In keeping with the spirit of competition, all three of the shortlisted towns have already begun sprucing themselves up in preparation for Mr Ould Sidi's visit. Hay-on-Wye decorated its high street yesterday with bunting in Mali's national colours.

"We have put a huge flag across the road reading 'From Hay to Timbuktu'," said Anne Brichto, who is organising the town's campaign. "The cultural lessons we can learn from them, and they can learn from us, is far wider than you'd ever get with a European twin town."

Glastonbury is expected to emphasise its status as a spiritual destination its pitch to win the contest. The town has a wide range of healers and New Age shops.

York, the biggest of the three destinations, claims to have the most interesting civic history, and the strongest parallels with Timbuktu's tradition of trade and interesting architecture.

The British photographer Stuart Redler will announce the result of the contest on Wednesday. He is acting as an adviser to the Cultural Mission on the project, because Mali does not have an embassy in the UK.

"We had a staggering amount of people applying from all corners of the country, but I think the finalists are a pretty good choice," he said.

"It's not for me to say which I think is the best, but having visited Mali, I can see that they all have something important in common with Timbuktu."

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