Tall tales of Timbuktu

November 2, 2001

It is a byword for remoteness, but Timbuktu's fabled reputation in the West as an exotic city of great riches may have been a case of mistaken identity, archaeologists believe.

An excavation of Timbuktu in central Mali, Africa, by a team from Manchester University has revealed a city that was far from the mythical metropolis sought by European adventurers.

Those explorers heard tales of houses with gold-plate roofs, rivers glistening with precious metals and fountains flowing with rose water. Instead, the experts found evidence of illicit tobacco trading and chronic inflation.

Tim Insoll, a specialist in Islamic archaeology who led the expedition, said there were no hints of former economic importance: "It seems that Timbuktu's real importance has been exaggerated."

The archaeologists spent two months in 1998 excavating into the city's past. They uncovered remains from the 17th century, but did not reach layers left from Timbuktu's medieval heyday, detailed in a preliminary report.

Among their discoveries were hundreds of tobacco pipe fragments dating from the mid-19th century, a time when smoking was supposedly prohibited. They also found large quantities of buried koroni shells, physical testament to their use as currency and their abandonment in 1795 during chronic inflation.

Before his work at Timbuktu, Dr Insoll excavated another medieval Malian city called Gao. This was once a wealthy settlement with large mosques and palaces. Discoveries of gold beads from Spain and an abundance of hippopotamus tusks indicated its history as a commercial centre.

Previous digs at another lost Malian city, Djenne, told a similar story of prosperity in an earlier age.

Timbuktu was known to the Arab world principally as an important Islamic centre, where 5,000 scholars from many Muslim nations studied at the University of Sankore. Unlike its sister cities, however, it was not noted for its wealth.

Dr Insoll said that Gao appeared to have been abandoned soon after the fall of the Songhai empire at the end of the 16th century. Somehow Timbuktu clung on.

By the time Europeans first reached it in the mid-19th century, it was an insignificant oasis settlement, yet its name retained its mythical connotations.

"Knowledge of the city percolated out via dubious European travellers, who were getting a vision of all these things rolled into one," Dr Insoll said.

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