Timbuktu Today

Photographs and Text by Brent Stirton

Photographer Brent Stirton  spent a month total in 2009 and 2010 documenting life in Timbuktu for National Geographic magazine, the story was published in January 2011.

This is a modern essay on a legendary city, historically one of the wealthiest in Africa and for centuries strictly forbidden to non-Muslims. Strategically situated at the northern apex of the Niger River and the southern shore of the Sahara Desert, for hundreds of years Timbuktu dominated the trade for gold, ivory, and slaves from the African interior as well as spices, cloth, and books brought by caravan from the Mediterranean coast. It was a city of considerable scholarly endeavor. In the tenth century Timbuktu contained one of the greatest universities in the world. It was home to hundreds of learned tutors, who maintained extensive libraries of manuscripts concerning history, science, religion, literature and the study of the Koran. . As its wealth grew, the city erected grand mosques, attracting scholars who, in turn, formed academies and imported books from throughout the Islamic world. As a result, fragments of the Arabian Nights, Moorish love poetry, and Koranic commentaries from Mecca mingled with narratives of court intrigues and military adventures of mighty African kingdoms.

Today’s Timbuktu is a very different place, a dusty footnote in northern Mali, the last major settlement on the edge of a vast Saharan wasteland. But amid the ramshackle mud-brick buildings, Timbuktu scholars are once again piecing together the African history that once filled vast libraries in the city’s heyday. There is also a darker side to modern Timbuktu. She is a city on the frontlines of a new war on terror, with Al Qaeda in the Magrib (AQIM,) operating freely in the desert wastelands to its north. A struggling tourism industry and an ill-attended annual music festival are testament to the ripples of fundamentalist attacks throughout the North Africa region. Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), has steadily gained a hold on the country's northern desert. Since 2003, they have kidnapped 47 Westerners, netting an estimated $100 million in ransoms. Their coffers have been further bolstered by protection money from South American drug cartels, which smuggle cocaine through the desert to the Mediterranean coast and on to Europe. According to Interpol, some $2.2 billion worth of cocaine is funneled annually through the region. At the center of this tumult are the Tuareg, the turbaned nomads who have inhabited this part of the Sahara for centuries. For much of the last three years, Tuareg groups in Mali and Niger waged violent rebellions against their respective governments, seeking a greater voice in how their lands and resources are administered. Though a peace deal was brokered earlier this year, the conflict has left much of the region impoverished and awash in weapons and unemployed former fighters. Observers in the region worry that many of these young men could fall under the sway of AQIM and the cartels.