Life in Timbuktu under Islamist rule
By Robin Banerji
BBC World Service, 23 May 2012
An Islamist militant group has taken control of the fabled city of Timbuktu in northern Mali. Although the city was once a centre of Islamic learning, the group has objected to some local practises.
So what is their agenda? And will they respect the city's unique literary heritage?
Since seizing the city in March, Ansar Dine has targeted Timbuktu's precious Muslim heritage.
The shrine of a 15th Century sufi saint Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar has been attacked, according to Lazare Eloundou Assomo of Unesco.
"The entrance gate of the mausoleum was completely destroyed and burnt," Mr Assomo told the BBC World Service. "The curtain that protected the shrine was destroyed."
Timbuktu is known as the city of the 333 saints, says Alida Jay Boye, author of Hidden Treasures of Timbuktu.
The fundamentalist Salafi branch of Islam objects to the veneration of saints' tombs, maintaining that it amounts to saint worship.
"Salafis do not want there to be any intermediary between the believer and God. It looks like Ansar Dine is going after shrines just like other groups have done in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia," she says.
Neil Whitehead, a former hotelier in Timbuktu, has fled to Morocco because of the recent unrest.
He says that conditions are deteriorating in the city.
"The Salafis are turning on the locals, raiding their homes and taking anything of value, together with any food. All shops are shut and, in the words of our friends, 'everything is broken'," he said.
"They have introduced a form of Sharia and the locals feel like prisoners in their houses."
His account is confirmed by Mari Touri, a Timbuktu resident.
"There is no food in the shops, no stocks of supplies, because everything in Timbuktu comes from Bamako in the south and it cannot get through at the moment."
Another resident, Youba Ag Moha, said that the situation in the city was "calm" but that government offices were closed and there was a problem with the electricity supply.
There are also concerns for the city's wealth of manuscripts.
Stephanie Diakite, an expert on the city's literature, says she is worried about Timbuktu's public and private libraries, and is calling for the heritage and the scholars who work on it to be protected.
Minor damage has been done to the Ahmed Baba Library, which houses some 40,000 manuscripts, a fraction of the historical manuscripts in the city.
Ansar Dine militiamen are guarding the building, which is currently closed to the public.
"Ansar Dine says that is here to protect the city," says Mr Touri.
Ansar Dine has allowed schools to reopen in Timbuktu and another northern city, Gao, but only on condition that boys and girls sit separately.
Ansar Dine is led by Iyad Ag Ghaly, a Tuareg from an aristocratic family.
He is no simple ideological Islamist.
He has been a player in Malian Tuareg politics since at least the 1990s, when he led a Tuareg rebellion against the governments of Mali and neighbouring Niger.
Following the end of the rebellion, he was pardoned and was involved in negotiating the release of the many Western hostages held in the Sahara.
Mr Ghaly's career has oscillated between opposition and cooperation with the Malian government.
In 2006 he was involved in another abortive rebellion. But in 2007 he helped negotiate a settlement between the rebels and the Malian state.
Eventually in 2008, he was sent to Saudi Arabia as Mali's consul in Jeddah but he was recalled soon afterwards.
Jeremy Keenan, an academic expert on the politics and peoples of the Sahara, suggests that Mr Ghaly had become involved in Salafi circles while in Saudi Arabia.
"He was spending a lot of time in the wrong mosques," Mr Keenan said.
Mr Ghaly returned to Mali and seems to have taken advantage of the 2011 uprising to resume his old role as a leader of Tuareg opposition
Mr Keenan estimates the current strength of Ansar Dine to be between 100 and 200 fighters, some of whom are under 18.
It is a far smaller group than the force of at least 3,000 men under the control of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, the MNLA, a secular group fighting for Tuareg independence in northern Mali's desert regions.
The two groups together seized control of the north, after the army was distracted when it staged a coup. But relations between the secular MNLA and Ansar Dine are poor.
In April, the MNLA declared independence for Azawad, its name for the three northern provinces of Mali where most ethnic Tuaregs live.
Ansar Dine has rejected independence, however, claiming that it is fighting "a holy war" in favour of Islamic rule.
For its part, the MNLA claims that it has the situation in hand and will turn its attention to Ansar Dine in due time.
Yet so far it seems to have made no moves to do so.
According to Timbuktu resident Youba Ag Moha, the MNLA controls the airport, while Ansar Dine controls the military base opposite the grand mosque and "commands" the centre of the city.
Mr Keenan suggests that Ansar Dine's continuing freedom of movement may be because it enjoys the protection and support of Algeria, Mali's northern neighbour.
But why would secular Algeria wish to support Islamists on its southern flank?
The answer, suggests Mr Keenan, is that these groups allow Algeria to project power in what it sees as its sphere of influence while simultaneously justifying the existence of Algeria's security apparatus.
Whatever the truth of the matter, in the meantime, Ansar Dine's black flag is flying over Timbuktu.
Treasures of Timbuktu
Timbuktu was a centre of Islamic learning from the 13th to the 17th Centuries
Over 500,000 manuscripts survive in public libraries and private collections
Books on religion, law, literature and science
Letters between rulers, advisers and merchants on subjects as varied as taxation, commerce, marriage, divorce, adoption, and prostitution
Who, What, Why: Why do we know Timbuktu?
Rebels in Mali have taken the historic city of Timbuktu, a place that has become shorthand in English for anywhere far away. How did this metaphor come about?
"Omg! Just found out Timbuktu is a real place!"
The news that the city of Timbuktu has been seized by ethnic Tuaregs has had some tweeters scratching their heads, unaware up to now that it even existed.
While some people will be familiar with the Tuareg people, almost everyone will recognise the place name Timbuktu, even if they think it's mythical.
Once spelt as Timbuctoo, the city in northern Mali has come to represent a place far away, at the end of the world.
As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "the most distant place imaginable".
Its first documented use in this sense is dated to 1863, when the English writer Lady Duff-Gordon drew a contrast with the familiarity of Cairo.
In one of her Letters from Egypt, while in the Egyptian capital, she wrote:
It is growing dreadfully Cockney here. I must go to Timbuctoo.
Writers as diverse as DH Lawrence, Agatha Christie and Mr Men creator Roger Hargreaves further strengthened this association by references in their books
In one of his final works, Nettles, in 1930, Lawrence wrote:
And the world it didn't give a hoot
If his blood was British or Timbuctoot.
Phrases that develop this idea include "from here to Timbuktu" when describing a very long journey, or "from Timbuktu to Kalamazoo" (a city in Michigan, US).
So why Timbuktu?
It was founded by Tuareg nomads in the 12th Century and within 200 years had become an immensely wealthy city, at the centre of important trading routes for salt and gold.
Through writers such as Leo Africanus, tales reached Europe of its immense riches, which stoked an acute curiosity on the part of European explorers.
This mystery was enhanced by its inaccessibility and many European expeditions perished, leaving it tantalisingly out of reach for centuries.
Before it was discovered by Europeans in 1830, all documented mentions of Timbuktu are about the efforts to get there, says OED revision editor Richard Shapiro.
"In 1820, people were talking about it taking 60 days from Tripoli and there were only six days without water.
"It was this legendary wealthy city, and the British hoped they could get from Africa the kind of riches Spain had got from South America."
In 1829, Alfred Tennyson described it as "mysterious" and "unfathomable" in his poem entitled Timbuctoo, and compared it to El Dorado and Atlantis.
It was not until 1830, long after the city had fallen into decline, that the first European went there and back again, Frenchman Rene Caillie.
The Europeans came very late to Timbuktu," says Marie Rodet, lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
"For centuries, they tried to reach the place because it was a mythological place of trade and Islamic scholars.
"It had been described in Arab manuscripts in the Middle Ages so they knew about the history but they never reached it because the population never allowed them."
Locals regarded it as the holy city of 333 saints, she says, and Christians were the enemy, so Caillie went disguised as a Muslim. A Scot, Alexander Gordon Laing, beat him to it by four years but is thought to have been murdered before he could leave.
Even today, when the world has become a much smaller place, it remains relatively remote.
"You can get anywhere but Timbuktu is still very difficult to get to," says Richard Trillo, author of Rough Guide to West Africa. There is still no tarmac road to take travellers there.
The first time he went, he hitch-hiked from Hampshire in England in 1977, aged 21.
"We wanted to go to a place no-one else had been. Like many others, we had thought it a mythical place and when we realised it wasn't, it seemed like a good place for two guys to go on a gap year."
The journey was tough and took nearly six weeks, ending with a four-day boat trip on the River Niger and a truck ride supplied by a local police chief.
"Sub-Saharan Africa was so very different from the Arabic-speaking north. It felt like we had crossed an ocean, like we had skirted the edge of this huge continent. Timbuktu felt extraordinarily remote."
Trillo explains the endurance of the myth by the fact the city disappeared off the map when it fell into decline in the 17th and 18th Centuries, after the Moors deserted it and trade went elsewhere.
"For 200 years it was a city living on the sand but completely disconnected from the rest of the world and that was why it has such a mythology.
"Imagine New York suddenly under water for 200 years, and people still talking about it.
"That's when this explorer race started and everyone wanted to be the first to get to Timbuktu."
Reporting by Tom Geoghegan