City of myth: where is Timbuktu?
Many people still think Timbuktu is a mythical place. In fact, a 2006 survey of 150 young Britons found that 34% had never heard of it, and the remaining 66% didn’t believe it was real. But Timbuktu DOES exist, and it’s located in the West African nation Mali.
Once upon a time in the early 12th century, Timbuktu became the crossing point for merchants plying the trade routes across the Sahara. The city gradually expanded into a travellers’ meeting place that hosted wanderers from all over the Middle East and Africa, and developed a tolerant and open-minded attitude towards strangers. During the next few decades, Islam began to spread and take root throughout Timbuktu and the surrounding regions. A Muslim king on his way back from pilgrimage to Mecca took over Timbuktu and created a proper Muslim city, complete with impressive mosques where Muslim scholars could gather and teach the Qur’an. In this way, Timbuktu soon became famous as a seat of Islamic learning.
Even today, Timbuktu has remained legendary among those of us who are fascinated by the world’s far-flung outposts. Hearing the name Timbuktu evokes a sense of profound mystery, of a place so distant we in the Western world can barely imagine what it must be like. Indeed, the name Timbuktu has long existed in the English lexicon as a metaphor for something unattainable or far away.
Storytelling: how Timbuktu became the stuff of legend
In Timbuktu’s heyday there were no flashy branding campaigns complete with clever logos and witty slogans. But nevertheless Timbuktu managed to develop a strong set of appealing characteristics: centre of trade & commerce, seat of Islamic learning, and home of open-minded citizens. African and Arab visitors to the city carried these tales far and wide via word of mouth. For the Western world, it was Spanish traveller Leo Africanus’ vivid descriptions of kings and scholars in golden palaces that really enhanced Timbuktu’s exotic reputation. As well as these elements of place image, the sheer distance, isolation and inaccessibility of Timbuktu (from Europe) added another intriguing facet: an enduring sense of mystery. And so the city’s reputation grew and crystallised slowly over many years, creating a captivating reputation that has lasted to this day. Timbuktu’s branding happened organically - all thanks to good storytelling based on genuine place characteristics with a dash of intrigue thrown in.
Timbuktu today: rise of Islamists
Sadly, times have now changed. Timbuktu (and the whole of Mali) are now facing a serious threat. Hardline Islamists who oppose the religious views of the native Sufi Muslims are destroying historical relics and harming innocent people in their misguided quest to impose shari’a law on Mali. In particular, the armed group Ansar Dine have been busy smashing up ancient tombs in Timbuktu, because they’re convinced ‘Allah doesn’t like it’ (the tombs). Exactly how these horrible terrorists know what God likes/dislikes is a mystery in itself. Their delusions would be laughable if the results were not so tragic.
Mali was once a model of democracy in Africa. Poor in natural resources yet rich in history, the country relies on intrepid tourists for much of its income – indeed, tourism is Mali’s third largest revenue generator. Of course Timbuktu is one of the main attractions for visitors. But ever since a spate of Al-Qaeda linked kidnappings hit the headlines in late 2011, Mali has become known as a haven for violent Islamist groups. As 2013 dawns, it is now clear that Mali’s tourism sector has suffered severe damage, and that Mali’s future fate is extremely uncertain.
Can Timbuktu’s mythical image, after surviving intact for centuries, emerge unscathed from this latest crisis?
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/wonker/1799719932/”>wonker</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a>
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/carsten_tb/7369937868/”>10b travelling</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a>