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Day 52: Timbuktu

Timbuktu, Mali 
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A Touareg cross. One thing I did buy outside the hotel.
Michael Palin - SaharaWalk out of the hotel to look around, but it's quite impossible. The only reason a foreigner would walk out of his hotel unescorted is clearly to buy something, and the Touareg know nothing of the soft sell.

By the time I'm driven back in by the rattling of silver rings and the cries of 'I give you good price', I have time to take in a pretty depressing landscape. The walls of Timbuktu look fine, but in front of them is another Timbuktu, a city of semicircular huts set in thorn bush stockades and covered in sheeting of rattan or plastic. Its trees and bushes are hung with plastic bags and children and animals share the sand.

It seems the Touareg, who founded Timbuktu 900 years ago, are still coming in from the desert.

My spirits rise when we're driven into town. A city that seems almost determined to be decrepit still has some beautiful buildings. One of the finest is the catchily named Djingareiber Mosque. It's also one of the very few buildings that would have been here in the golden age of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when Leo Africanus described Timbuktu as a city where the king 'kept a magnificent and well-furnished court', with 'a great store of doctors, judges, priests and other learned men, that are bountifully maintained at the king's expense'. Irregular walls run round the mosque, curved and crenellated with rounded Sudanese outlines and supported with well-cut buttresses. The banco plaster that covers the walls is so recent that it's patterned with the handprints of those who applied it.

We are allowed inside. At the main door two boys offer their help.

'We will guard your shoes,' they promise solemnly, laying my travel-stained sneakers one beside the other with great tenderness, as if they were new-born children.

What strikes me immediately is how cool it is inside the walls, and how dark. Narrow arcades run through a forest of rough-plastered columns, 130 of them, receding into the gloom.
Timbuktu, Mali 
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The newly restored walls of the 680-year-old Djingareiber Mosque in Timbuktu - the oldest mosque in continuous in West Africa. It was built by El Saheli, the man credited with inventing this style of mud-brick architecture.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 52
  • Country/sea: Mali
  • Place: Timbuktu
  • Book page no: 155

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