Week 11 – Sankoré Mosque

How do you know if the bread served you in Timbuktu is authentic local bread? Easy, if there is

Sankoré Mosque in Timbuktu

Sankoré Mosque in Timbuktu c.1327

very fine grit in the bread, then it was made in Timbuktu. In 2004 there were no paved streets in Timbuktu. Along the streets of sand were brick ovens where bread was made daily. The front of the ovens is open so the wind tends to blow dust inside the ovens. Did you know that Timbuktu was such an unknown place that it was not until 1828 that the first European reached Timbuktu and lived to tell about it. It was the French explorer, René-Auguste Callié who had disguised himself as an Arab. He had studied Islam and could speak Arabic.

Timbuktu, Mali situated on the southernmost edge of the Sahara Desert has always been the most exotic sounding name on my short list of mystical places such as Istanbul, Marrakesh, Katmandu, and Lhasa. I had visited all but Timbuktu and decided that Timbuktu would rise to the top of my “bucket list”. I contacted a few travel agents. Spector Travel of Boston seemed the most knowledgeable about West Africa and also the most accommodating to my proposed itinerary. My wife, Margaret would not even consider going on such a trip so I set about trying to find someone to share the trip with. I sent emails to a select few of my travel friends and received an interesting response from Gordon White, a doctor in Virginia. His reply was something like this; “Gordon, nobody has ever asked me to go to Timbuktu, so I think I will go”. His wife, Linda, is a bit like Margaret. They draw the line when it comes to long bumpy drives, eating in restaurants with dirt floors that have never seen a dishwasher, sleeping at hole-in-the-wall places that draw a map to find the toilet, and venturing into the unknown.

Over a three week trip, we visited Mali, Burkina Faso and Benin. We had different cars and drivers for each country, all arranged by Spector Travel. We had no guides but we had done our research before leaving home. Each driver had an itinerary of where we wanted to go and what we wanted to see. And of course we were free to stop when we saw something of interest.

The attached picture is of the Sankoré Mosque which is part of the Sankoré Madrasah (a place of learning or school). History tells us that in 1324 the emperor Mansa Musa made an extravagant pilgrimage to Mecca via Cairo. He visited the sultan in Cairo and gave away so much gold that the Egyptian money market crashed. When he returned to Timbuktu he ordered the Sankoré Mosque built and it was completed in 1327.

I had taken several pictures of the mosque but something was missing. I placed my camera on a tripod and sat down in the sand while contemplating what would make the picture more interesting. The scene contained a historic mosque but needed something more. People came and went but still the picture was missing something. Finally after about 15 minutes I saw three figures in a distance. Their colorful clothing was exactly what I needed to draw the eye into an otherwise monochromatic picture and they were walking slowly in my direction. As the three Tuareg men approached I knew this is what I had been waiting for. Click, click, click, I fired a number of shots using a remote cable.

Technical data:

  • Nikon D70 and a Nikon 24 mm – 120 mm f/3.5-f/5.6 lens set at 42 mm.
  • ISO 200, 1/350 sec. at f/11
  • Taken Nov. 20, 2004 at 12:42 PM