The Odyssey
Base Camp
Trek Connect
Time Machine
Multimedia and Special Guests

Jasmine Dispatch

City of Sand

Are you wondering why in the world the Odyssey trekked all the way to Timbuktu? And to think, we are only two people of thousands who have gone to great lengths, like crossing the desert, to get to this legendary place. As a matter of fact legends say that the name Tombouctou comes from the two Songhay words Tom and Bouctou. Tom means water well, and Bouctou is the name of the lady who owned the well. After long journeys across the Sahara to reach Tombouctou, she literally saved peoples lives by giving them water to drink. But she would not allow anyone to drink unless they wore the necklace with the emblem of the Muslim cross. Thus the city was named after her; Bouctou's Well. But WHY??? What was so enticing about Timbuktu that people risked their lives, and often died, trying to get there?

Click image for larger view
We made it!
TRIVIA: What do you think attracted so many people to Timbuktu? a.) Hidden treasure b.) Gold c.) Magical sand d.) Salt If you chose 'c', you were almost right. In addition to it being a desert city, the sand has been incorporated into almost every aspect of life. Even the buildings are made of a sand/mud mixture. I had wondered how these buildings were able to withstand desert winds and storms for centuries. It takes constant repair, especially after heavy rains. The bricks are baked and then covered over with another layer to seal the walls. This makes for life-sized sandcastles with a magical fairytale-like quality to them. But the sand can easily become a nuisance. It gets in your clothes, in your shoes and, yes, even in your food. The famous bread of Timbuktu is baked in an oven made of sand, so every bite is gritty but tasty nonetheless.

Click image for larger view
He may be small but he knows his way around Timbuktu
I chose answer 'a', hidden treasure (wishful thinking, I know--you develop a big imagination on a pinasse for three days!) The fact of the matter is that once we reached Hotel Bouctou, I did find one of Timbuktu's hidden treasures. His name is Hamada. Many people in Mali make a living as a tour guide. So it's commonplace to be surrounded by people asking to help you find your way around. Only there was something different about this small guide, something special. Instead of trying to charge us a crazy amount of money for a tour, Hamada welcomed me to his city, and helped me with my bags. At fourteen years old, he speaks fluent English, French and the native tongue of the Songhay people. He is also an absolute angel. He did eventually show Kevin and I around, but not for a fee, just as our new friend.

Click image for larger view
The ancient manuscripts of Timbuktu
Together we set off to uncover the mysteries of Timbuktu. And where do you go to discover the secrets of a city: the ancient manuscripts of course. So off we went, on a trip to the museum. I always love visiting museums, especially history museums, though they are often overlooked (except on school field trips). Although Timbuktu's National History Museum is much smaller than any museum I've ever visited, it didn't let us down. We began with the ancient manuscripts of Timbuktu, while Hamada explained some of the history of the city. Timbuktu was founded about 1100 AD as a seasonal camp by Tuareg nomads. The Tuareg people live in the desert, even today, and move from place to place depending on their needs as the seasons change. After it was incorporated by the Mali Empire, probably in the late 13th century, the Mali sultan, Mansa Musam, built a tower for the Great Mosque (Djingereyber) and a royal residence, the Madugu (the former has since been rebuilt many times, and of the latter no trace now remains). Kevin and I were able to visit the Grand Mosque, but only Muslims are allowed to go inside. Timbuktu is historically important as a post on the Trans-Saharan caravan route that extended from the Sub-Saharan West African kingdoms across the Sahara desert to Europe. The Saharan Trade linked such African empires as Ghana, Mali, and Songhay to the European world. While the Sudan, where the Empire of Ghana was situated, possessed a large amount of gold, the region lacked adequate salt for the survival of Empire's population. The Desert regions of present-day Morocco and Algeria, however, contained huge salt resources, and desert inhabitants were always in search of valuables. Not surprisingly, the gold/salt trade between the Ghana Empire and the Arab desert merchants flourished.

Click image for larger view
Bread comes out of this?
So if your answer to our trivia question was 'b" or "d"…congratulations, you got it! In no time at all, Timbuktu became a center for the expansion of Islam, and an intellectual and spiritual capital. At the end of the Mandingo Askia dynasty (1493-1591) it was home to a prestigious Koranic university. Three great mosques (including the Grand Mosque) were built at that time, using traditional techniques still used in the region. This period was the height of Timbuktu's commercial and intellectual development. The city's scholars, many of whom had studied in Mecca or Egypt, attracted students from all over. Merchants from Wadan, Tuwat, Ghudamis (Ghadames), Augila, and the cities of Morocco gathered there to buy gold and slaves in exchange for the Saharan salt of Taghaza and for North African cloth and horses.

"Remember the Time?"

Interesting Facts of History: During this time salt was needed so badly in some areas that it traded pound for pound with gold. Can you imagine going to your local grocery store and buying a salt sized container of gold for $1.99?

The city declined after its capture by Morocco in 1591. Two years later the city's scholars were arrested on suspicion of disaffection; some were killed during a struggle, others were exiled to Morocco. Timbuktu was then repeatedly attacked and conquered by the Bambara, Fulani, and Tuareg until 1893, when the French captured the city. The museum displayed numerous artifacts preserved from this era. Warriors used shields, spears and other tools they made themselves, like armbands made of stone, which would crush the skull of an adversary if you could get him in a headlock. Kevin even tried his hand against Hamada's skill, luckily they formed a treaty before any damage was done.

Click image for larger view
Kevin defends himself at the National History Museum
In 1960 it became part of the newly independent Republic of Mali. Today, the sand, a few refurbished landmarks and a population of about 15,000 people are all that remains of the legendary city of Timbuktu. Small salt caravans from Taoudenni still arrive in winter, but there is no gold to offer in exchange, and Trans-Saharan commerce no longer exists. The French partly restored the city from the desolate condition in which they found it, but no railway or tarmac road ever reached it. And although there is an airport, the city continues to be most easily accessible by camel and boat. There you have it, the city of Timbuktu. But you don't think the adventure ends here, do you? I hope not, because the fun is just beginning! We still have an entire desert to explore, so come along.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Kevin - All the Way Out in Timbuktu!
Kevin - "Chez Tuareg" - House of Tuareg, A Desert Tea Party
Monica - Contact: A View From the Other Side
Monica - Pirogue, a Traditional Boat Ride Up River
Making A Difference - Who Will Mop up Their Mess? Shell and Chevron Wreak Havoc in Nigeria

Meet Jasmine | Jasmine's Archive

Base Camp | Trek Connect
Time Machine | Multimedia and Special Guests

Home | Search | Teacher Zone | Odyssey Info

Meet Jasmine