Secluded amid a sea of sand dunes at the edge of the Sahara, the Maison de Qaddafi, or Qaddafi’s Palace, was once considered the most desirable piece of real estate in Timbuktu, the ancient town in the northwest of Mali, one of Africa’s largest and poorest countries. Constructed by the Libyan dictator between 2006 and 2007 as an African outpost, it is a low-slung, Moorish-style villa of beige concrete, with oblong windows and turquoise ornamental trim, surrounded by a garden of pine and palm trees. Qaddafi decided to build his palace on the exact spot where Jacques Chirac had been feted by traditional chiefs in a Bedouin tent during his 2003 West African tour. “We still call it ‘Chirac’s Dune,’” my Tuareg acquaintance, Azima Ag Ali Mohammed, told me, leading me down a sandy track to the front gate. “Qaddafi was jealous of Western leaders, and he wanted to prove that he was their equal.”
After Libyan rebels captured and executed Qaddafi in October 2011, the villa fell into disrepair. Seven months later, Tuareg guerrillas and jihadists, some from Libya, swept into Timbuktu. In April 2012, Abdulhamid Abu Zeid, leader of the Mali-based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, took possession of the villa. The al-Qaeda commander strung black flags from the windows and moved in with two terrified French hostages, whom he had seized in Niger two years earlier.
Abu Zeid didn’t stay for long, however. French warplanes dropped rockets on the villa last January, sending Abu Zeid, his prisoners, and fellow jihadists fleeing into the desert, and putting an end to al-Qaeda’s ten-month occupation of Timbuktu. (The hostages are still being held.) Azima and I squeezed through a gap in the gate and walked unhindered through the front entrance. “This is where the jihadists held their meetings,” he said, leading me into a large salon divided up by concrete columns. Shards of glass, marble tile fragments, and chunks of concrete littered the floor. Broken roof slabs blocked the view of the garden. The entire rear wing of the villa had collapsed after taking a direct hit by a missile. As I walked gingerly around the house—skirting the charred remains of a Nissan sedan, bullet casings, and rubber hoses from Qaddafi’s irrigation system—I heard a rustling. I looked up, startled, to see a white-robed herdsman leading six donkeys up and over the huge pile of rubble. “Salaam aleikum,” he said, with a deferential nod of his head, then continued on his way.
Eight miles above the northernmost bend of the Niger River, at the edge of the Sahara Desert, the somnolent and decrepit town of Timbuktu has long held a mystical appeal for outsiders. Few were more entranced than the Libyan dictator, who declared Timbuktu to be his “favorite city” and lavished millions on a megalomaniacal effort to shape it to his vision. In 2006, on the occasion of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, he declared himself the imam of Timbuktu and flew in hundreds of Africans, including heads of state, to pray with him in a soccer stadium. He purchased Timbuktu’s crumbling Sofitel Hotel and spent extravagantly to renovate it, and in 2007, he had an eight-mile-long canal dug from the Niger River to the hotel entrance that would enable guests to travel all the way to the Sofitel by motorized long boats, known as pinasses.
Qaddafi’s deep interest in Timbuktu remains a source of speculation and bewilderment. It was said that he believed there was oil in the desert, that he had a hand in the covert narcotics trade being run by al-Qaeda from nearby Sahara landing strips, and that he admired Mali’s Tuareg nomads, whom he recruited as mercenaries in the Libyan army. But Qaddafi was undoubtedly also taken by Timbuktu’s dramatic history: an improbable saga of glory, collapse, and rebirth that continues to this day.
In the sixteenth century, Timbuktu’s strategic position on the Niger River made it a crossroads for Saharan salt caravans and ivory, gold, and slave traders from black Africa. The Kingdom of Mali’s Islamic rulers built 180 Koranic schools in the city and black Africa’s greatest Islamic university, Sankore. The population swelled to 100,000 by 1450, including 25,000 Muslim scholars from as far away as Cairo. The Tariqh al-Sudan, a history of Timbuktu written in the seventeenth century, described the city as “a refuge of scholarly and righteous folk, a haunt of saints and ascetics, and a meeting place for caravans and boats.” But by the time the French explorer René Caillie arrived in Timbuktu in 1828, European merchant fleets that sailed along the west coast of Africa had replaced the desert commerce. The city, Caillie wrote, consisted of “a jumble of badly built houses ruled over by a heavy silence.”
Timbuktu continued its decline through French colonial rule. In a foreshadowing of the Tuareg rebellions that would devastate the region a century later, heavily armed nomads, or rezzou, raided camel caravans laden with salt from the Taoudenni mines four hundred miles north of Timbuktu, threatening the city’s sole commercial activity. “The discouragement has become widespread, and if the situation does not improve the salt business will be destroyed. The rapid ruin of Timbuktu will ensue,” wrote R. Laverdure, commander of the Timbuktu region, in a 1908 account of a trans-Saharan military operation aimed at intimidating the bandits. French officers led five hundred Berber troops for two months through “white and sterile sands” to Taoudenni and back, a show of force that “can only have favorable economic benefits for Timbuktu and for the colony as a whole.” But the effect was temporary, and Tuaregs continued to violently resist both French and Malian rule for the next century.
During the past decade Timbuktu began to rouse itself from its stupor. Local collectors rediscovered thousands of ancient Arabic manuscripts that testified to Timbuktu’s pre-colonial traditions of scientific inquiry, jurisprudence, and religious tolerance. South African President Thabo Mbeki, Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, and Qaddafi himself helped fund the construction of libraries to conserve and display these literary treasures.* Meanwhile, the Festival au Désert, a three-day outdoor music concert that featured rising Malian stars such as Amadou and Mariam and Habib Koite, began drawing people from around the world to the oasis of Essakane, thirty miles west of Timbuktu.
Timbuktu’s cultural revival didn’t last long. In 2012, armed with weapons plundered from Qaddafi’s arsenals, Tuareg rebels allied with al-Qaeda militants overran Timbuktu. Once again the rundown city became a center of attention. The Tuaregs declared it the capital of their long-sought independent nation, Azawad, and predicted that oil wells in the desert would soon be producing petrodollars. The commanders of al-Qaeda considered Timbuktu to be the linchpin of their jihadist state, a laboratory for the austere caliphate that they hoped to impose across the Sahara.
This summer, six months after French forces drove out the jihadists in a spasm of violence, I made my fourth trip to Timbuktu over the last two decades. The two private airlines that once linked the outpost to the capital, Bamako, had ceased operations, and the chartered flights reserved for United Nations peacekeepers weren’t taking journalists. So I hired a Land Cruiser and followed the Niger River north for 450 miles—a journey that served to underscore the outpost’s isolation and its utter lack of development. At dawn on the second day we reached Konna, a riverside town north of Mopti that had been attacked by the jihadists in January 2013, precipitating the French invasion. On the outskirts pre-adolescent boys played in the skeletal remains of an al-Qaeda ammunition truck, which had been bombed by a French jet during the militants’ desperate retreat.
The paved road ended abruptly north of Konna, replaced by a cratered dirt track. Limestone pinnacles and mesas rose just ahead of us: we had entered the land of the Dogons, an animist tribe that dwells beneath the cliffs. The road, now just two shallow grooves through the sand, ran for another one hundred miles to the bank of the Niger River. Here we caught a rusting car ferry to the opposite bank. Half an hour later we parked, exhausted, in front of L’Auberge du Désert, one of the two functioning hotels in Timbuktu.
The last time I had seen Timbuktu, in January 2009, its hotels were packed, its streets jammed with tourists on their way to the music festival. This time Timbuktu was a forlorn wreck, filled with the bombed-out remains of buildings once occupied by jihadists, uncollected trash, and stagnant pools of water. The place seemed strangely empty: 20 percent of the population, a United Nations official told me, had still not returned from displaced persons camps or the lodgings of friends and relatives in Mauritania and southern Mali. Six months after the jihadists’ withdrawal, the city was getting eight hours of electricity a day, between 7 pm and 3 am. The government was too broke to pay for fuel to run the power plant, and private aid organizations were offering limited help. The Internet hadn’t worked in a year. Shops were empty, restaurants were closed, the libraries were locked, and even the ubiquitous Orange cell-phone stands were deserted; it was impossible to buy a phone recharge card anywhere in the town.
On the day that the jihadists rolled into Timbuktu, April 1, 2012, Boubacar Touré, the owner of the Hotel Bouctou, emerged from his office to see three Land Cruisers, black flags fluttering from their radio antennas, roaring up to the hotel entrance. Out stepped “twelve bearded terrorists from all over the world—Pakistan, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Mali,” Touré recalled, as we sat in plastic chairs in front of the hotel, a two-story concrete building with a wide terrace facing the desert that had once been Timbuktu’s most popular drinking spot. At the head of the militant group was Abu Zeid, who spoke Arabic “in a soft voice, just like bin Laden,” Touré told me, and who demanded rooms for his men. Touré couldn’t hold back his anger. “I said, ‘Mr. Abu Zeid, for five years tourism has been ruined, my employees and their families are hurting. You are kidnapping tourists, and you are killing them. What are you going to do about it?’ He stared and he stared, and then he and his team stormed off.”
Abu Zeid returned to the Hotel Bouctou the following day. With him was Iyad Ag Ghali, the black-bearded founder of Ansar Dine (“Defenders of the Faith”), a Tuareg movement that had allied itself with al-Qaeda. A former devotee of Malian music who was now known for his piety, Ghali demanded that Touré tear down photographs and discard his liquor. “Destroy everything,” the militant told him. This time, Touré decided that the wisest course was accommodation. As the jihadists looked on, Touré dug a trench behind the hotel, and dumped in it hundreds of bottles of beer and hard liquor. He then smashed the bottles with a hammer.
* My story in the December 2013 issue of the Smithsonian, still untitled, will recount how a handful of collectors smuggled 350,000 manuscripts to safety in Bamako during the rule of the jihadists. ↩
My story in the December 2013 issue of the Smithsonian, still untitled, will recount how a handful of collectors smuggled 350,000 manuscripts to safety in Bamako during the rule of the jihadists. ↩