Timbuktu, Mali

After flying with a Beechcraft twin turbine prop. 17-seater for more then an hour and a half over the Sahara, suddenly, in the middle of the desert, the river Niger spreads out into a huge delta: huge lakes and hundreds of tributaries suddenly create a surreal image. Sooo much water in the middle of the desert? (In fact there is lots of water in the desert but it is all covered under the sand and rocks about 10-15 meters down.)

Not very far off, suddenly a big city came up in perfect camouflage colors: Timbuktu, built in the same colors as the sand. To make such a big human settlement in the middle of nowhere is indeed something special in itself. And we are privileged to reach this destination with an airplane in just 1hr and 50min, on camels with a caravan it would have taken us more then one month! Discovering Timbuktu is something else. To start with, all roads in the city are of course covered with sand and the driving there gave us exactly the same sensation as driving in wintertime on snow. Awesome!

We were invited by the three Imams of the city to visit their mosques, which are built out of a limestone found near the laces and covered with a sand mortar. The two famous ones, famous for the pyramid-like minarets were designed by an Andalusian architect brought from what is now Spain to Timbuktu by one of their kings. The Arab world at the time, in the 12th century A.D., spread all the way around the southern part of the Mediterranean Sea, from Baghdad to Grenada, whilst to the North, the area that earlier had been blessed with great societies like the Greek and Roman cultures, was buried in the medieval Dark Ages.

We were invited to what used to be private houses, which today have become foundations open to the public where some of the many hundreds of thousands of manuscripts (books that are actually not bound but tied up, some in very beautifully handcrafted leather covers) are displayed in their libraries. They are just now being read, studied and analyzed – and will possibly be recorded digitally to become available for students around the world via the Internet.

What struck me most was how little the world knows about this. There are manuscripts that illustrate early studies of mathematics, geometry, chemistry, traditional medicine, of astronomy and drawings of the solar system long before Galileo stated that the world is round not flat! Lenses and optical studies …

Timbuktu was also a center for copying manuscripts hundreds of years before Gutenberg invented book printing in Germany in 1450, creating a revolution in the distribution of knowledge. The copies made here were handmade, of course, and they cost a fortune in gold. But the huge number of manuscripts that fortunately resisted the aging because of the dry desert climate are proof that there was a real interest and need for this art. In a way, this was probably the first evolution in the distribution of mankind’s intellectual property and knowledge.

The Internet nowadays is the third, and most effective, development in the disseminating of intellectual property and knowledge. Back to the monuments in Timbuktu: There is a reason why the minarets of the mosques in Timbuktu are so little. They used to be much higher, but sand has invaded Timbuktu over the centuries and it was not feasible to dig out all that sand which came with strong sandstorms. So the people of Timbuktu decided to simply raise the mosques’ roofs. This phenomenon is well visible by the different height of the mosque floors and by the depth that the original doors are buried deep in the sand.

In other words, Timbuktu is also testimony to mankind’s will to resist nature and battle the elements. Their spiritual and intellectual strength might very well help them to achieve this over centuries. And what an achievement this is!

As a complete surprise to me, the three Imams of Timbuktu and the Dean of the Sankore Islamic University found me and the N7W campaign worthy of a tremendous honor. I was awarded the “white turban” and an honorary doctorate from the university, one of the oldest in the world. A real honor, especially considering that I am not Muslim. The ceremony took place after the official N7W certificate ceremony and during a most colorful and spectacular event in the central square of Timbuktu, and in front of the intelligencia and nobles of Timbuktu and thousands of residents. A real public festival like you can only get in colourful, rhythmic Africa.

Maybe Timbuktu and its ambassadors and disciples can help us rediscover humanism and, by re-introducing this important element into Western capitalism (which is being imitated all over the world by many emerging economies), thus create a mix of ideologies that might lead to a worthwhile, livable society. That would be a tremendous development and my personal hope.

Timbuktu, for me and the N7W team, definitely lived up to its myth … maybe even surpassing it … because, in this very remote place, not only the monuments “talk” – the tangible presence of intellect and spirituality is powerfully moving.