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Timbuktu: A journey to Africa’s lost city of gold

Timbuktu! No city in the world conjures such images of romance and adventure. NBC News' Richard Engel journeys to the lost city of gold — the end of the earth, terra incognita — where old maps went blank.
/ Source: NBC News

Timbuktu!  No city in the world conjures greater images of romance and adventure. Timbuktu, that lost city of gold — the end of the earth, terra incognita — where the maps went blank. 

Thomas Friedman says the world is flat and that every corner of our little planet is interconnected and discovered, tied together by the magic rope of the Internet and global finance. He may be right. A factory in China or India does impact life in Middle America like never before. A bank failure in Russia could trigger stock brokers on Wall Street to swan dive onto the pavement below their offices.

But there are still mountains and deserts in this flat world of ours, pockets of mystery on the globe still untouched by the world economy, open to explore, and still delightfully alive with romance. There is still Timbuktu. And we were on our way.

A country that combines north and south
Timbuktu — the very byword for remoteness — is in Mali, a poor, landlocked nation in West Africa. Shaped like Texas, but twice as big, Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world.  It exports almost nothing — mostly just cotton, gold and livestock — and doesn’t have enough money to import much of anything either. Mali exists mostly to itself. Few people go there. Few Malians leave. Most of Mali’s 13 million people live, and seem to live quite happily, off the rice, corn and millet they grow and the long-horn cattle and goats they keep.

We began our journey to Timbuktu in Bamako, Mali’s capital. Bamako is a filthy, swampy city, a slum of rusty buildings and damp markets crowded with cheap clothing and even cheaper electronics. Bamako is unremarkable even by the low standards of African capital cities. But just beyond Bamako, the earth spreads out in a deep red blanket of clay. The sky is wide and bold and awe-inspiring, like a painted canvas held up by the Gods themselves. The horizon is long and flat and seems very far away. You can get lost in the big sky as you watch hawks trace lazy circles. I certainly did.

We didn’t linger long in Bamako. Why stay there when Timbuktu awaited? 

Seen from space — although it’s doubtful anyone has really ever bothered to seek it out from space — Mali looks like a flag painted in three giant stripes of color: one green, one brown, and one golden. Thecountry is wet in the south. Most of the people in Mali live in the fertile southern wetlands, and most of them are farmers. This is Mali’s green stripe. 

Heading north, Mali starts to dry out. The rice paddies and cornfields fade into savannahs and open plains speckled with thorn and acacia trees. The savannah and plains are good cattle, sheep and goat country.  Many people in the plains are shepherds.  This is Mali’s brown stripe.  And then the plains, which seem to stretch endlessly with views unbroken by power lines or other of man’s ugly fingerprints, come to an abrupt end. They stop at a sharp line — a barrier you can see and step over — where the golden dunes of the Sahara begin. The Sahara is Mali’s golden stripe. 

The Sahara, twice the size of the Mediterranean and less mapped than the moon’s surface, continues all the way to North Africa. North of Mali, north of the Sahara, are Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Egypt, the lands of the Arabs. The Sahara is Africa’s great divide. The geographical separations in Africa are also ethnic and cultural boundaries. The farmers and shepherds in southern and central Mali are black. They consider themselves Africans. Banks in sub-Saharan Africa have names like “African Development Bank” and “African Bank.” The newscasts in sub-Saharan Africa usually lead their broadcasts with the comings and goings of African politicians and potentates, few of whom Americans would recognize. 

North of the Sahara, the people are predominantly Arabs, who tend to focus their gaze on the Middle East. In Egypt, while undeniably on the African continent, the maps behind television anchors show the land of the pharaohs as being in the Middle East, not in Africa. The Arab League is in Egypt (not that the Arab version of the United Nations does much these days).  Moroccan and Algerian newscasts talk more about Israel and the Palestinians than African politicians in badly cut suits. 

The Sahara divides Africa from the Middle East, but the people who inhabit the Sahara itself — the people of the desert — don’t fit into either group. They are the nomadic Tuareg, the founders of Timbuktu.  And it was the Tuareg who make Timbuktu one of the richest cities in the world before the city was lost, seemingly forever. 

Toureg, Timbukto, Mali,  with Richard Engel
Toureg, Timbukto, Mali, with Richard Engel

The lords of the Sahara
Ethnically, Tuareg describe themselves as white. And they don’t look Arab or black. Many Tuareg have light skin, light eyes and sharp angular noses and cheekbones. They are cousins of the Berbers of North Africa. Some legends say the Tuareg are the decedents of an ancient Roman legion that disappeared into the desert two millennia ago. The Tuareg themselves don’t know exactly where they came from. To them, they are just Tuareg, the lords of the Sahara.

Haughty and proud, vain and sometimes arrogant, the Tuareg, especially the men, reveal little about themselves. This is accentuated by their clothing — the Tuareg are the world’s only civilization where the men veil themselves while the women go uncovered. 

Tuareg men cover their faces with a long blue scarf, exposing only the eyes. It is not a practical garment. The veil, unfurled about 15 feet long, does have the benefit of keeping out of the desert sand, but that’s not its primary purpose.  Many Arab cultures have headscarves that can be used to cover the mouth when sandstorms blow through. Tuareg men keep their faces covered all the time, even among themselves. Older Tuareg men are so fastidious about it, many keep the veil on even while eating, lifting a bottom corner to feed themselves yet revealing nothing. Tuareg men simply don’t want to be seen.

The Tuareg primary concern is covering their mouths. The mouth is considered the most sensual part of a man’s body and the most revealing. The mouth speaks truth or falsehoods.  The mouth expresses fear and love. The mouth can curse bitterly and yell ferocious hateful insults. The mouth can start wars. The mouth can be slippery and sly and woo a woman with deceitful lies. The mouth exposes the soul. It is better to keep such a powerful thing covered up.

What a delightful concept, I thought. If only most people would keep their mouths covered up, what a peaceful and serene world we’d live in.

Tuareg women: in charge
Tuareg women, on the other hand, are free and outspoken. When you arrive in a Tuareg village, you are first introduced to the leading women. Tuareg women will shake a man’s hands and look him in the eyes completely devoid of shyness. How different it is to Arab and Middle Eastern states to the north where women are wrapped behind veils and their beauty hidden. 

In the Middle East, the veil’s purpose is to disguise the seductive female form, to hide her hair and to cover, most importantly, the alluring curve of the neck, which is considered to be the pinnacle of sexy. A woman’s beauty is seen to be a dangerous thing in most of the Islamic world, so tempting it can drive men into sin or make them lose their way like gazing at the Sirens. The veil is designed to cover women and therefore protect men from their own carnal weaknesses.  If women were just walking around, showing off their tempting necks and free-flowing hair, how could men be expected to focus on anything else? Work would stop. Prayer would stop. Society would collapse. There would be necks and hair everyone. Morals would fade away. Life would become a big episode of "Sex and the City," and Middle Eastern men don’t want their societies to look like episodes of "Sex and the City." 

The Tuareg’s interpretation of women is different. The Tuareg live in a matrilineal society. Tuareg women are the heads of the household. But the Tuareg also are Muslims and value living in the banner of the Prophet. They pray, fast, accept Mohammed and give alms. They are devout. The Tuareg’s attitude toward women, however, is a cultural anomaly in the Islamic world that some have found shocking even as far back as the great Arab traveler Ibn Battuta. 

Battuta, born in Tangier in 1325, was the Islamic world’s Marco Polo. For 30 years he explored the lengths of the Islam’s domains from Morocco to Central Asia.  e was a man on the road and lived glorious adventures. But Battuta clearly didn’t like everything he saw. He was a stickler for what he considered proper Islamic etiquette. He was something of a prudish critic. Battuta didn’t approve when he found Tuareg women meeting alone in their tents made of camel skins with male friends — men who weren’t their husbands.  To him, it must have looked like an episode of "Sex and the City."

As the head of the household, Tuareg women decide when the camp should move. They own property. They educate the children. The Tuareg empower their woman for highly practical reasons. As nomads engaged in trade across the Sahara, Tuareg men are gone for long stretches of time. The men lead the camel caravans. They might travel with a caravan for six months or longer. It’s a slow, hard, dangerous slog to cross the open desert. To deal with extended absences, Tuareg men think it’s only natural that women, who stay home with the children and animals, should take care of the family affairs.

It is a system of women holding down the fort that has become common in the U.S. military today. American soldiers, burdened with long repeated tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, often give power of attorney to their wives while they’re deployed. They deputize them to run the family. When soldiers are at war, wives often become the de-facto heads of the household. The Tuareg have always lived like this. They are always deployed on trading missions. 

The Tuareg have also adapted Islam to accommodate their unique relationship with women. Islam permits a man to marry up to four wives. But Tuareg women only allow their husbands to take a single wife. Like army wives, Tuareg women know what can happen when soldiers are deployed. 

Shooting till the sun goes down, Dogan Country, Mali
Shooting till the sun goes down, Dogan Country, Mali

A rich trade: slavery
Centuries ago the Tuareg had a very different reputation. If you ran into the Tuareg in the 1800s, life as you knew it would be over. Until just a few decades ago, the Tuareg were Africa’s most notorious slave traders. Black slaves captured from southern parts of West Africa — from the farmlands and plains — were transported to the Tuareg’s capital, Timbuktu, and from there, across the Sahara to work in North Africa, Arabia or Asia Minor. 

The Tuareg ran a brisk profitable and pitiless trade in human souls. For a thousand years, the Tuareg sold and shipped black Africans across the desert, marching them behind camels though the Sahara’s scorching heat. The slave trade in the Islamic world is little studied, but an estimated 9 to 13 million black Africans were forced into slavery, many of them transported by the Tuareg, according to the 2008 book “Timbuktu: The Sahara’s Fabled City of Gold” by Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle.

The Islamic world enslaved millions Africans over the course of a thousand years, ending only in the last century. America enslaved roughly the same number much faster, in only about 400 years, ending in the mid-19th century. 

Even less known, however, was the thriving trade in white slaves in the Islamic world.  The Tuareg sold and transported them, too. Most of the white slaves were Europeans captured by pirates off North Africa’s Barbary (Berber) Coast. Some of the white slaves have left fascinating accounts of their time in bondage. 

I have a little book from 1738 by British sailor turned author named Joseph Pitts. At 15 years old, Pitts worked as a deckhand on a cargo ship off the coast of Spain.  uslim pirates operating from Barbary Coast captured his ship. Pitts was sold in a slave market in Algiers.  lgeria was then what Somalia is today, a private safe haven. The great Spanish author Cervantes was himself sold into slavery in Algiers. The creator of Don Quixote was enslaved for five years until he was freed in exchange for a ransom. 

Unfortunately, Pitts had no wealthy benefactors. He was an uneducated teenager, and describes how prospective buyers inspected his teeth and eyes to check his health and strength. Slaves often also underwent the embarrassing “cough” test to check for hernias.  They needed to be strong because the majority of European slaves were forced to work on the very type of pirate ships that captured them. 

Pirates in the Middle Ages often used small oar-driven boats to overtake big sailing ships that were the principle cargo transport of the day. The oar-powered crafts couldn’t go very far or venture much from the shore, but they were capable of quick bursts of speed and could make fast agile turns, especially when the rowers in the dungeon-like galleys where whipped and beaten. The fast little pirate boats could overtake lumbering sailing ships that could only make slow predictable turns that were entirely dependent on the direction and strength of the wind.  The oarsmen on the pirate ships were kept naked and chained to benches. They were covered in sweat and blood and their own excrement. They didn’t live long, so there was a constant need for new slaves to power the galleys. The pirates would often capture a sailing ship, sell the boat and its cargo, and enslave the crew. Extra slaves who weren’t needed to row in the pirate ships were sold in markets in Timbuktu and Algiers. 

Pitts first worked in a pirate galley and was then sold twice to Muslim owners. A devout Christian, Pitts was forced to convert to Islam and worked as a personal servant. The young Brit’s final owner brought him to Mecca while on a Hajj pilgrimage, a duty of every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it. Pitts describes how his last owner treated him almost like a son and eventually granted him his freedom. When he returned to England, Pitts wrote this small book about his time in captivity. It was the most detailed account of its day of the Muslim rituals in Mecca and Medina, cities that remain mostly off limits to non-Muslims today. 

The legendary lost city
Timbuktu was the Tuareg’s base. It was their trading post. Gold, salt and salves filled its busy markets. Timbuktu was a city where the auction blocks were loud and bustling.  Caravans of 10,000 camels passed through Timbuktu, leaving with chains of slaves – both black and white – and sacks of gold.  The Tuareg were responsible for shipping their “goods” through the Sahara and were paid handsomely for their work.  The name Tuareg itself come from the Arabic word for “roads” or “paths,” turuq.  The Tuareg were literally the ones who knew “the paths” through the desert. 

The city was founded a thousand years ago by a Tuareg woman named Buktu.  Tim-buktu means “the place of Buktu.”  But it was Timbuktu’s greatest king who made the city a legend. 

In 1324 King Mansa Mousa decided that the time had come for him to make the pilgrimage to Mecca.  But Mansa Mousa didn’t just want to go, pray, symbolically stone the devil, and circle the house of Abraham.  Mansa Mousa wanted to impress the world.  He traveled with a personal army of 60,000 soldiers and 500 slaves.  Each slave carried a staff of solid gold.  Trailing the army was a caravan of hundreds of camels laden with sacks of pure gold. 

Legends say when Mansa Mousa stopped in Cairo en route to Mecca, he spent so much gold that he altered the currency exchange in the city for a decade.  Mansa Mousa’s arrival in Cairo was the event of the year.  Merchants and storytellers sung his praises and lamented his departure. 

European agents and spies in Egypt also took notice.  They wondered who was this spendthrift king and where did he come from?  Timbuktu seemed to be the richest place in the world.  But where was it? Dispatches where sent across Europe; orders went out to find Timbuktu and discover the source its wealth. 

But just as Europe woke up to Timbuktu, the city collapsed.  Mansa Mousa died after returning from his hajj.  His empire descended into civil war as the king’s children squabbled and fought for power.  Timbuktu never recovered.  It was taken over by foreign invaders.  No one in Europe, however, knew of Timbuktu’s precipitous decline.  They remembered Mansa Mousa’s caravan of gold, his army and the golden staffs of his slaves.  They remembered the king who arrived out of nowhere and disappeared.  It would take European explorers 500 more years to find Timbuktu.

- PHOTO TAKEN 10AUG03 - A Malian walks out of the Great Mosque in Djenne, Mali August 10, 2003. The ..
- PHOTO TAKEN 10AUG03 - A Malian walks out of the Great Mosque in Djenne, Mali August 10, 2003. The Djenne's Great Mosque, built of sun-dried mud bricks, was first built around A.D. 1240 and was replaced with a second mosque in 1834 and the present mosque in 1906. The town of Djenne was many years a city at the crossroads of trade between northern and southern Africa and is one of the oldest cities in Africa where people still live.X00380

A stop in paradise along the way
The journey to Timbuktu these days is much easier.  I was traveling with our cameraman, an Australian named Bredun Edwards who lives in Beirut with his beautiful wife, and a producer, Charlene Gubash, who resides in Cairo and has traveled to every country in the Middle East except Oman.

Bredun and I mostly cover the horrors of mankind.  We report on what happens when societies send men, and a few women, to kill each other.  We report on Iraq and Afghanistan, the Taliban and al-Qaida, and American soldiers fighting and sometimes dying for their nation.  We are shot at a great deal.  This historic and cultural journey was a welcome change.

But Timbuktu was only our final destination, the last stop on our very own royal road to romance.  About half way up Mali, half way to Timbuktu, is the city of Djenné.

Djenné means paradise, but evidently the people who live in the city have a fleeting impression of the Great Beyond.  Djenné is made entirely of mud, and like a sandcastle, parts of the city melt away each time it rains.  Keeping Djenné standing is a Sisyphean struggle against the gods of rain who seem determined to wash it away.  It rains in Djenné for three straight months a year.  I couldn’t imagine living in — let alone building! — a city of mud in a land of monsoons. 

Surely we had to see Djenné.  It was a mere four-hour detour by road.  Timbuktu had waited to be rediscovered for five centuries.  We hoped it wouldn’t be offended to wait a little longer for our arrival.

It was market day in Djenné when we arrived.  Like a traveling circus, the markets move from city to city, selling fruit, grain, fish and pottery.  The central square in Djenné was crowded with women squatting over blankets covered with black curled fish that had been smoked over cow dung, a local culinary specialty I decided not to sample.

In the market a magician was entertaining the dozens of children with a sleight-of-hand trick.  He made an onion disappear. I was an impressed as the children who shrieked in delight and fear with his display of sorcery. The people of Djenné are also Muslim, but their interpretation of the faith is deeply intertwined with magic. 

Justice in Djenné
Djenné is a safe place. There is almost no crime.  People leave their doors open.  Welcoming unannounced neighbors is central to the culture throughout Mali.  When thieves, however, do ply their skills, the people of Djenné use magic to ferret them out.

This is the spell they use, told to me by a one of the headmen in town: To find a thief in Djenné, you take a chameleon and tie its legs behind its back.  Once the chameleon is immobilized, with all four legs bound behind it, the lizard is killed.  The expired chameleon is then dried and crushed into a powder.  The powder is dissolved in a bucket of water.  The chameleon water is a thief detector.  To test if a suspect is in fact an elusive criminal, a magician shows him the bucket of water with the dissolved chameleon inside.  If the suspect leans over to peer into the bucket and puts his hands behind his back, well then he’s obviously guilty.  Can there be any doubt?  The chameleon has identified him and forced him to put his hands behind his back, just like the handcuffed lizard.  If the suspect doesn’t put his hands behind his back, then he’s clearly innocent and the shaman will put the bucket under the nose of another unwitting suspect.

There’s magic in the Djenné’s grand mosque too.  The main mosque is an imposing building, squat and sturdy like a fort with mud walls three feet thick.  Wooden beams stick out from all sides of the mosque, giving it the look of a giant pincushion.  The beams are left sticking out to provide permanent scaffolding.  Every year the entire village climbs up the mosque, scampering up the beams, to add a new layer of mud.  The mud is a mixture of earth, butter, the powder of Boabab trees, and crushed fermented rice.  It smells slightly moldy.  The rice, butter and woodchips help bond the mud together.  So does magic.

Not surprising in a city of mud, the busiest and most important people in town are the masons.  They bury amulets in the mud bricks they make my hand.  If you have the masons build your house, they also bury amulets in the foundation that are said to make the house collapse if you use another mason for repairs.  It seemed to be quite a racket.  I’d be somewhat annoyed if a contractor I hired to repair my house buried a secret amulet below the floor that would make the house fall down if I used one of his competitors. But those are the union rules in Djenné.

Eventually we moved on from mudville. Timbuktu was calling!  But our vagabonding wasn’t over.  Just another four-hour detour would take us to see even more powerful magicians who believe they can communicate with the dead.  We couldn’t resist.

Dogon country
After spreading across the Arab world and central Asia, Islam eventually jumped over the Sahara and moved through West Africa.  Most people embraced the new faith.  The Dogon people, however, wanted no part of Mohammed’s teachings.  The Dogon believe in communicating with the spirits of animals, the land, sky, water and their ancestors.  They worship many deities, and could not, and would not, profess that ‘there is no god, but God, and Mohammed is His Prophet.” 

To escape conversion to Islam, the Dogon fled to the cliffs of central Mali about 700 years ago. Hidden in their new homes, like eagles on cliffs, they were out of reach of the new religion. The Dogon have remained in the cliffs ever since.  We visited one of the only villages that allows foreigners to witness the Dogon’ sacred rituals. 

The ritual dance began with a slow drumbeat.  The drum echoed throughout the village.  It called the dancers to assemble in the holy spot.  The dancers arrived in small groups, yelling and hopping like the ground was covered in hot coals.  The dancers wore fantastic wooden masks.  Each mask was unique.  Some had the horns of bulls.  Others were 20 feet high.  More dancers marched in on stilts 10 feet off the ground.  Some of the masks had human faces.  One showed a man with two giant goiters in his throat.  Dogon believe goiters are good omen.

Then the dance began, about three dozen men spinning and twisting, shouting and crying.  The dance lasted more than 30 minutes.  We were riveted by every move.  Bredun, the cameraman, darted to and fro, weaving under the men on stilts, to capture every angle. The dance was designed to escort the spirits of the dead out of the village.  While the Dogon worship their ancestors, they evidently don’t want to live with them. 

The dance was the Dogon way to make sure the spirits of the departed left town and made it safely to their Elysian Fields.  If they failed to perform the ritual, the spirits would remain trapped in the village, annoyed, and become haunting ghosts.  It must have worked because I didn’t see a single ghost after the dance was finished. 

But the Dogon wouldn’t show us all of their dances.  Some of their secrets and masks cannot be revealed to outsiders under any condition.  The Dogon religion is complex, and like in Haitian voodoo, many of the Dogon’s practices involve the untimely end of poultry. 

Rooster blood seems to solve almost any problem in Dogon land.  Pictures of unlucky roosters on altars are carved into the doors of most Dogon houses.  I hungrily eyed a chicken pecking at the ground after the dance was over.  I hoped perhaps it would be our lunch.  The Dogon make a delicious sauce of roasted peanuts.  Few things are more appealing than chicken in a spicy peanut sauce.  But evidently, the chickens were reserved for a higher calling.  We ate a simple stew consisting of nothing more than boiled onions.  But it was of no importance. Timbuktu was just a few hundred miles away.

To Timbuktu!
There is still no paved road to Timbuktu, but today there are infrequent flights. Much to our surprise, the pilot who would fly us to Timbuktu was Canadian.  His co-pilot was an American from Texas. The pilot told me he was out of work and needed a job. The economic meltdown had reached even here! Perhaps Friedman is right and the world is flat after all. 

Discouraged, I asked the co-pilot how he ended up running flights to Timbuktu.  Like us, he was looking for adventure, searching for new experiences in Africa.  Spirits buoyed again that romance remains alive, or at least on life support, we took off, winging over the desert. 

What early explorers would have given for our seats!  It took the first European to reach Timbuktu, a British army major named Alexander Gordon Laing, 399 days in the desert before he entered the lost city.  On August 13, 1826, Laing became the first westerner to reach Timbuktu since Mansa Mousa put the Tuareg trading post on the world’s radar.  But Laing never enjoyed his prize.  As he left for home after spending a month wandering in Timbuktu, already starting to write the book he knew would bring him fame and fortune in Europe, the 32-year-old adventurer was murdered by the Tuareg.  They thought Laing was planning a British invasion.  Why else come all this way?  The Tuareg didn’t want outsiders to change their way of life. They still don’t.

After an hour and a half soaring over the desert, over the Niger and its grunting hippos, over the fishermen on needle like canoes stringing out their nets, we touched down in Timbuktu. 

Richard talking with Toureg spokesperson Khaliis, Timbukto, Mali
Richard talking with Toureg spokesperson Khaliis, Timbukto, Mali

Straight to the Sahara
Halis was at the airport to greet us.  Halis is perhaps the most famous Tuareg in Timbuktu. He speaks perfect English and has been to the United States.  He’s married to an American woman from Denver he met while she was working in Mali. 

But Halis prefers the Tuareg life.  Like other Tuareg men, he’s veiled and is more comfortable in the desert than cities like Denver.  When I asked him what he thought of the Mile High City, he said, quite seriously, that it was too hot. 

“Too hot? You live in the Sahara.”

“I swear in was getting sunburned for the first time in my life.  I’ve never used sunscreen, but in Denver I was getting burned.” 

“It must be the altitude.  You’re much closer to the sun,” he said.

Halis had an easy going gait and a friendly face, which is a difficult feat considering half his face was covered with a bright blue veil.  Halis drove us from the airport to his camp in the desert. 

While the Tuareg founded Timbuktu, they’ve never quite lived in it.  They stay with their camels in the open desert just outside the city. They live in the desert suburbs.  Timbuktu was too bustling and crowded for Halis, too dirty and urban. Whenever he talked about the desert, his eyes got excited, like the desert was a secret that only he and few lucky others had the privileged to know. 

I told Halis I’m from New York City.  He looked at me with profound sympathy.  He couldn’t understand why anyone would want to live in the Big Apple. So busy. So much work.  An inhuman existence.

“Work is all people do.  Work, money, work.  Here I see my neighbors and family every day,” Halis said. “I see them in the morning when I wake up.  I ask if they need anything.  I ask if their animals are well. They ask how I am. When I was in the United States, I saw all the neighbors had their doors closed and locked.”

Tuareg welcome dance
A group of Tuareg women were standing on a dune when we arrived at Halis’s camp.  He had arranged for a welcome dance.  In no Middle Eastern country have I ever been welcomed by dancing women.  Usually, you don’t see the women at all.  When strange men arrive in the Middle East, women generally tighten their veils and are whisked off to a back room. 

Here the women were unveiled and dancing in a circle, clapping and pounding on drums made of camel skins stretched over clay pots.  There were about 15 women in the circle atop the dune, dressed in flowing indigo robes like blue Grecian goddesses.  The women had silver buttons in their black hair.  Their skin had a purplish hue, also stained with Indio, a local form of sun protection. 

In the center of the circle was a lone veiled male dancer.  He was the soloist. He unsheathed his sword — many Tuareg men still carry long Crusadic swords — and twirled, defiantly slashing the sky to show his strength, manliness and freedom.  As he spun and dueled with the air, the women around him made low throaty grunting sounds — humph, humph, humph — and kept rhythm with the drums.  Then, one by one, the women joined the male soloist.  While his dance was a display of power, their dance was more subtle, slow and sexual. The women make tiny circular motions, barely moving their hips and breasts.  Ibn Battuta would have hated it. 

‘Time, friends and fire’
By a campfire later that night Halis extolled the virtues of the desert life, but said it’s under threat.  Contractors are searching for oil in the desert. Halis worries if they strike the black gold, life will forever be changed for the Tuareg. “Oil brings war,” he said.  “Look at what it’s done to other countries where they’ve found it.”

I told Halis I wish they never find any oil and that I believe that greatest contribution to peace in the Middle East will be the solar car. Then we sat in silence. The Taureg love silence. They don’t fill it with chatter.

Quietly, we drank tea. It’s polite to serve three cups of tea. The Tuareg boil the tea for a long time so the first cup is strong and black. They add more water to the teapot to make the second cup. The second cup of tea is more diluted and sweeter, more like the strength of tea served in Europe and America. When even more water is added to the pot for the third cup, the tea becomes weak. You can clearly taste the sugar in the third cup. 

“We say the first cup of tea is bitter like death.  The second cup is soft like life.  The third cup is sweet like love,” Halis said.

“To make tea you need three things: time, friends and fire.”

I told Halis again that I hoped they never discover oil in this part of the Sahara.

Downtown Timbuktu
After sleeping under the stars — outshone that night by a full moon — Halis finally took us to downtown Timbuktu.

Frankly speaking, Mansa Mousa would be disappointed.  The caravans are gone.  The streets are muddy and unkempt.  The city is past its prime.  About 100,000 people lived in Timbuktu, including 25,000 university students, in the 14th century. Today only about 15,000 call Timbuktu their home and the only school we saw was a madrassa where children were memorizing the Koran.

Timbuktu’s former glory is gone, but the romance and that delightful feeling of being disconnected remain. 

Halis runs a small hotel in Timbuktu for the few tourists who come to the city.  We were the only guests there during our visit. While we drank a cup of tea in his hotel, the electricity failed, as it often does in Timbuktu.

“What happens if the power goes out in New York City for a few hours?” Halis asked me as his lit an oil lamp.

“It’s very serious,” I told him. “People get stuck in elevators. They can even die. People sometimes steal things.”

Halis hung his head in silence, sorry that I’d have to return there.

Richard Engel is NBC News chief foreign correspondent. He usually spends his time reporting from war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan.