Booms from rocket launchers and automatic gunfire crackled Sunday around Mali's fabled town of Timbuktu, known as an ancient seat of Islamic learning, for its 700-year-old mud mosque and, more recently, as host of the musical Festival in the Desert that attracted Bono in January.
On Sunday, nomadic Tuaregs who descended from the people who first created Timbuktu in the 11th century and seized it from invaders in 1434, attacked the city in their fight to create a homeland for the Sahara's blue-turbanned nomads.
Their assault deepens a political crisis sparked March 21 when mutinous soldiers seized power in the capital. The Tuaregs have rebelled before, but never have they succeeded in taking Timbuktu or the major northern centres of Kidal and Gao, which fell Friday and Saturday as demoralized government troops retreated.
The expression "from here to Timbuktu" conjures up the end-of-the-earth remoteness of the sun-baked frontier town. It does not express the town's dynamic role as a major crossroads for the caravan trade between the Arab north and black West Africa, bringing together black Africans, Berbers, Arabs and, above all, the Tuaregs.
The Tuareg set up their camel-skin and palm-mat tents in the dry season, attracted by Timbuktu's location where the Niger River flows toward the southern brink of the Sahara Desert, prompting some to call it the point where "the camel meets the canoe."
The tents soon gave way to sun-dried terracotta-colored mud brick buildings built in the Moorish style as traders, medical doctors, clerics, artists, poets and others settled.
From the sizzling desert sand and burning sun, one enters walled enclosures with a central courtyard and archways leading to the welcome cool of shadowy rooms where men chat over copious cups of strong, mint-flavoured tea brewed thrice in a time-honoured tradition. Women bake bread in the sand and cook spice-perfumed dishes of goat, cow and camel meat flavoured with dried wild hibiscus flowers or the powdered leaves of the okra plant fried in shea butter.
Arab traders brought salt and other goods that reached North Africa's Mediterranean shores and traded it in Timbuktu for gold and, above all, the books that make the town a centre for intellectuals.
"According to the inhabitants of Timbuktu, gold came from the south, the salt from the north and divine knowledge from Timbuktu," the Timbuktu Foundation says on its website.
Before the Americas were discovered by Europeans, Timbuktu had a population of some 30,000.
The city has been honoured as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its architecture and as a spiritual and intellectual capital for the propagation of Islam on the continent during a golden age that began as early as the 13th century and ended around the 16th century. It remains home to the prestigious Koranic Sankore University and other Islamic schools.
The town has been attacked and conquered in the past, most recently in 1591 by Moroccan troops who sacked Timbuktu and burned libraries.
Timbuktu is home to a library of ancient, camel-skin bound manuscripts covering science, astrology, medicine, history, theology, grammar and geography.
When France colonized West Africa starting in 1893, Timbuktu came under French rule until Mali became independent in 1960.
Throughout the invasions, the Tuareg considered Timbuktu their city. As France was negotiating Mali's independence, Tuareg leaders wrote to Gen. Charles de Gaulle in the 1950s, appealing for an independent homeland for the nomadic people made up of several tribes united by their common culture and Tamashek language.
Sporadic rebellions failed to wrest Timbuktu from government hands. When the 1990-1995 uprising to win autonomy for Tuaregs in Mali and Niger ended in peaceful negotiations, Timbuktu was the chosen site for the symbolic burning of weapons signalling an end to the conflict.
Recently, the town's tourism industry has been threatened by the rise of a thriving African branch of al-Qaida, whose fighters in November kidnapped a Dutch, a Swedish and a South African citizen from a restaurant in Timbuktu. A German man who refused to be taken hostage was executed.
Despite fears of insecurity, the Festival in the Desert was held in January, attracting people from 50 countries, according to its website, including a special appearance by U2 frontman Bono.
Festival in the Desert: http://www.festival-au-desert.org
UNESCO site on Timbuktu's heritage: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/119
Timbuktu manuscripts: http://www.tombouctoumanuscripts.org/libraries/the_mamma_haidara_memorial_library/