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Day 52: Timbuktu

Michael Palin - SaharaTalking to this wise and educated man, it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that Timbuktu has been in steady decline since the time of William Shakespeare.

Even when Europeans finally braved the hostility of the desert to reach it, there was a definite hint of anticlimax. René Caillié, who came here in 1828, found 'this capital of the Soudan, which had for so long been the goal of all my ambitions' to be little more than 'a jumble of badly built houses, ruled over by a heavy silence'. On the other hand, Alexander Laing, the Scot who beat him to it by two years, wrote that 'in every respect except in size...it has completely met my expectations'.

Laing's achievement in reaching Timbuktu at all becomes the more admirable, or insanely foolhardy, when you consider that in the 250 years following the Moroccan invasion, forty-three Europeans set out to reach the city and only four succeeded, of which he was the first. He crossed the Sahara from Tripoli in Libya, a 2000-mile journey during which he was brutally attacked and severely wounded by tribesmen on the way and murdered by them, for refusing to renounce his Christianity, on the way back. He was thirty-three.

During his five-week stay in the city, though, Laing was well looked after by the trading community and the house in which he stayed still stands.

On the wall above the door is a plaque to his memory, whilst in front of the house, stuck in the sand, a less discreet signboard announces in loud stencil that this is 'Mission Culturelle, Site No. 2. Gordon Laing'.

By the standard of the time, this slim two-storey corner house must have been quite substantial. Inside, the rooms are clean and empty. I'm told it's up for rent and consider putting down a deposit for the address alone.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 52
  • Country/sea: Mali
  • Place: Timbuktu
  • Book page no: 156

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