Alyssa BantaA private family library in theTuareg village of Ber, 40 miles eastof Timbuktu.DER SPIEGELThe historical trans-Saharantrading routes.
There is evidence of a Moorish influence in Ghana by as early as 800 A.D. Vast gold deposits werefound in the Ghanaian rain forest. Their owners, the Soninke kings, ruled a realm that stretchedto the banks of the Senegal River.
Point of Departure for Desert Journeys
According to Arab accounts, the black rulers lived in tents guarded by large dogs wearing gold andsilver collars and manacles. According to Arab geographer al-Bakir, one of these kingscommanded an army of 200,000 soldiers.The country provided cola nuts, ivory, cotton and semipreciousstones. Local traders loaded their goods onto cargo boats andtransported them on the Niger to Timbuktu. The city was thepoint of departure for journeys into the desert.Camels stood at Timbuktu's water troughs. Its residents includedArabs, light-skinned Berbers and dark-skinned members of theMalinke tribe. The oasis smelled of lamb dung and fresh spices,and muezzins called out from its minarets. Gold, a form of payment, glistened everywhere -- as dust, nuggets and fist-sizedlumps.In 1324, when Kankan Mussa, one of the kings of Mali, went on apilgrimage to Mecca, via Cairo, with his ostentatious entourage,he was so generous with the precious metal (he had broughtalong two tons of it) that gold prices on the Nile plunged. News of the wealthy black monarch even reached faraway Europe. ACatalan map of the world depicts him with thick lips and holding ascepter.Kankan was so impressed by the palaces of the Orient that he brought home an architect, whocreated malleable mud-brick imitations of the Arab mosques in Timbuktu. The Djingerber Mosque,with its sugarloaf-shaped towers, still stands in the city today.There is an even larger mosque in nearby Djenne, part fairytalecastle and part termite hill. Each year after the rainy season,when cracks have formed in the outside walls, hundreds of workers participate in what has become a national pastime cumreligious service. Men climb up along wooden scaffolding in theoutside walls, praying as they climb, to apply fresh mud to thestructure.For many years, such customs were all but unknown in Europe(US ethnologist Susan Vogel filmed the annual mud plasterceremony last year for the first time). In the past, those travelingto Timbuktu had to traverse seemingly endless volcanic plains androcky plateaus -- at temperatures of up to 55 degrees Celsius(131 degrees Fahrenheit). The area south of Murzuk, an oasisnotorious for its role in the slave trade, consists of a vast,shimmering sand bowl measuring 90,000 square kilometers(34,700 square miles, or about the size of Portugal).Anyone who lost his way there was literally baked.The Arabs only managed to complete the journey through the desert with the help of camels. Acamel can drink 200 liters of water at a time, and its kidneys retrieve large amounts of water afterurination. The Arabs also enlisted the help of the Tuareg tribes, which lived on ridges in thecentral Sahara.Even there, surrounded by hyper-arid sand pans, volcanic basalt chimneys and pinnacles, life waspossible. The Tuareg drilled deep wells, and they had their black slaves excavate longunderground canals with slight inclines to bring in ground water.
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