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Mali: Timbuktu

Sankoré Mosque, Timbuktu
Sankoré Mosque in the dusty town of Timbuktu is of a typical Malian design; it's made of mud, has wooden spikes sticking out of it and has a loudspeaker strapped to its tower so the muezzin can remind everyone to pray

Everybody has heard the name Timbuktu, but an amazing number of people don't know that it's actually a real place. Before I first went travelling and met people who'd actually been here, I didn't know whether Timbuktu was a myth – hell, I didn't even know where Mali was until I fished out a guidebook to Africa and started researching this trip – but one thing that everyone knows about Timbuktu is that it's famous for being in the middle of nowhere. How right they are; Timbuktu is surrounded by lots and lots of nothing.

A view over TImbuktu
Looking over Timbuktu

A Famous History

Djinguereber Mosque, Timbuktu
Djinguereber Mosque

If Timbuktu wasn't Timbuktu it would still be an interesting place to visit, but its fame is what makes it special. Timbuktu was once the most important trading post in the Sahara, a meeting point for caravans of camels as they carried salt, ivory, slaves, gold and untold riches along the Saharan trade route, in the days before European sea power reduced the trans-Saharan trade to a trickle. It's still an important destination for salt from the mines in Taoudenni in northern Mali, but the days when Timbuktu was important are long gone.

A wood-fired oven in the streets of Timbuktu
A wood-fired oven, caked in the soot of many fires

Mosques by Moonlight

A street in Timbuktu
A typical street in Timbuktu

About the only buildings of note in Timbuktu are a few Sahel mosques, strange mud towers that look like huge desert hedgehogs; this distinctive type of architecture is dotted all over Mali, and the wooden spikes that cover the mosque's conical towers enable locals to pack more mud on the surface when it starts to wear out. They're a delightful sight, but apart from that Timbuktu doesn't look like much.

A Timbuktu window shutter
Timbuktu's homes have a distinctive style of window shutter, designed to keep the sand out when the storms pick up