A longtime archaeologist, both above and below the water, Hector’s particular passion is the merging of cultures, past and present. Mali and its fabled crossroads city, Timbuktu, have provided lifelong fascination.
Many decades ago, when I was a child and European colonies still girdled the globe, there was a giant amorphous mass in western North Africa labeled “French West Africa” on our school atlas. Bordered by Algeria and Libya on the north, the Sudan on the east, and Nigeria and the Gold Coast on the south it was a land about which one knew nothing—except for the fabled city of Timbuktu, which was proverbial even among children as the end of the earth.
Since 1960, the sprawling French colony has become six separate nations of which Mali was fortunate enough to get not only that city, which must surely rank with Petra among the most exotic of desert towns, but also the UNESCO Heritage site of Djenné with its giant mud mosque, the highlands to the south with the remarkable Dogon culture, and the broad sweep of the 2,600-mile-long Niger River, which, along with the Nile and the Congo, is one of the three great rivers of Africa.
The exploration of the Niger River was one of the great feats of heroic exploration when Africa began to be opened up to European knowledge. Figures like Mungo Park, the Scottish traveler who made his way from Senegal to the Niger in the late 18th century only to meet a violent death during his second trip there, revealed, for example, that the river flowed west to east and down into the Atlantic rather than the other direction. For many centuries before, it served as a conduit for thousands of slaves to be shipped to the plantations of the southern U.S. and the Caribbean until abolition. The town of Mopti (pronounced “Mohti”), where we will be staying for part of our visit, is sometimes called the “Venice of the Niger” because of the many waterways that surround the area.
Timbuktu was one of the great cities of Africa for hundreds of years until a Moroccan invasion in the 16th century put an end to its glory. Lying at the borders of the Arab, Tuareg and Berber Sahara, and the lands of Black Africa (the region south of the Sahara), the city became synonymous with wealth, learning, and a location just beyond European direct knowledge until intrepid explorers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries made their often fatal trips there. It served as a center of distribution for gold from the south and salt from the north, the former vital for the economy and the latter for life itself. Its greatest king, Mansa Musa (which translates into “King Moses”), is still famous in the Islamic world for the pilgrimage that he made to Mecca in 1324 with reportedly 60,000 followers carrying tons of gold. The story has likely grown with the telling, but Mali still produces many tons of gold each year, some from “cottage mines”—deep pits in the earth operated by local families—in the south. Timbuktu is now a small modest city of mud houses, but it preserves the earliest of the famous mud built mosques of Mali constructed back in 1327. Descendants of the great scholars and teachers of the city have almost miraculously preserved thousands of manuscripts, many dating back to medieval times, in family libraries.
Among the many peoples of Mali in the last half century the Dogon have taken their place as one of the most striking cultures of Africa. Numbering only about a quarter of a million, the tribe took to the steep Bandiagra escarpment south of the Niger to escape the imposition of Islam and the slave trade; it still maintains to a considerable degree its animist religion. Shamans are important figures in the several dozen villages that stretch for about 125 miles along the escarpment. The rock cliff face here is lined with thousands of caves which served as burial places for the Tellem, the people who preceded the Dogon in the area, and are still used today as granaries. A favorite with anthropologists and art collectors, the Dogon have produced striking sculptures as well as mysteries connected with their belief in a companion star to Sirius the Dog Star (a star only visible by telescope). Wild claims and sensational books have appeared trying to connect this people with extraterrestrial influence, although it is more likely they learned of it from European visitors. Archaeological exploration is still underdeveloped in Mali, but increasingly excavations are throwing light on the pre-Islamic history of the area, especially the development of iron-using cultures in the Meme area northwest of Mopti.
While Mali is one of the poorest countries in Africa, and indeed in the world, it does have a fine National Museum in Bamako, the capital, which in 2006 won a prestigious Dutch award for its role in the preservation of the country’s heritage, both musical and oral. The tradition of the griot, or tale-teller, who passes stories on from generation to generation, is still strong and the richness of the country’s near and distant past are bringing more and more visitors each year. Our visit will give us a taste of this sensuous, sumptuous banquet.A longtime archaeologist, both above and below the water, Hector’s particular passion is the merging of cultures, past and present. Mali and its fabled crossroads city, Timbuktu, have provided lifelong fascination.