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Day 52: Timbuktu

Michael Palin - SaharaIt has an ancient, unostentatious feel to it, enclosed and protective, intimate and impressive at the same time. There is little decoration. Long timber beams, said to be cut from Dom palms 60 miles away from the city support the ceiling. The walls and columns are a mixture of local limestone, mud bricks and plaster. The extra strength of the stonework probably accounts for why this mosque has proved more durable than its counterpart in Djenné. It has stood here since 1327, when it was built by a man called El Saheli, credited as the inventor of the process by which mud bricks are made to this day.

I stroll amongst the columns, savouring the silence. Every now and then a shaft of sunlight breaks through, piercing the darkness like a silver blade, or a door opens, briefly silhouetting a figure against a shining wall of heat.

The imam of the Djingareiber Mosque is coolness itself. He arrives for Friday prayers decked out in a swirl of airy, white, cotton robes and a matching turban. A neatly trimmed white beard contrasts sharply with the deep ebony of his skin. After prayers he invites us to his house nearby. It's odd to walk in off the street and find yourself in a house carpeted with sand, albeit of much finer quality than the public sand outside. Also odd that in such a substantial property the interior doors should be faced with corrugated tin.

We sit in the sand and take tea together, whilst in clear and careful French he explains the history of Timbuktu. He's at great pains to emphasise the intellectual and scholarly achievements of the Middle Ages and the sharp and sudden decline that followed the Moroccan invasion at the end of the sixteenth century. Scholars were deported and killed he says, with grave concern, as if it had happened yesterday.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 52
  • Country/sea: Mali
  • Place: Timbuktu
  • Book page no: 156

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