Morocco To Timbuktu: An Arabian Adventure Episode Scripts

N/A - Episode 2

The Sahara Desert, Mali, home to one of Earth's most mysterious and legendary places.
Africa's fabled city of gold, Timbuktu.
My name's Alice Morrison.
I'm an Arabist and explorer.
I live in Morocco, and since childhood I've dreamt of making the gruelling journey across the Sahara to see this ancient city before it's lost forever to sand and war.
I love touching history.
In this series I'll trek 2,000 miles following ancient trade routes, often known as salt roads, most hostile lands.
Timbuktu is at the centre of all these trade routes and I want to follow them and find it and see what's there.
I'll pass through some magical places that time has barely touched.
Oh, wow! Relying on the hospitality of Berber nomads.
THEY SPEAK OWN LANGUAGE He's just cutting up the heart.
And I'll come face-to-face with some frightening modern-day realities.
I'm beginning to feel quite nervous.
Travelling deep beneath the veil into the heart of ancient and modern North Africa I'll discover its incredible forgotten history en route to the legendary city of gold, Timbuktu.
I've already trekked 800 miles from the top of Morocco to the edge of the Sahara Desert.
Scaling the high Atlas and Jbel Saghro mountains to reach the market town of Rissani.
Along the way I've experienced first-hand how tough the journey was for the traders who used these often dangerous routes to transport their goods.
But it's still more than 1,000 miles to Timbuktu and it's about to get tougher.
Hafida.
Hi.
Hi.
How are you? I'm meeting up with Hafida Hdoubane, Morocco's first-ever female trekking guide.
She's stocking up on provisions for the desert.
Take this.
Taste it, see if it's OK.
Delicious, yeah.
That's nice? I think the best one is that so I will take from there.
Her expertise is going to help me on what was the most perilous part of the traders' journey.
The Sahara, the deadliest of deserts.
It spans 11 countries, a vast area of more than 3 million square miles.
It can reach staggering temperatures of 50 degrees plus, but this morning at the Chebbi dunes it's a little chilly.
Our mode of transport is authentic trans-Saharan.
Hafida and I will be making by camel.
THEY SPEAK OWN LANGUAGE Ben Didi and Hussain these ships of the desert.
Maybe now is not the time to say, "I'm not that keen on camels.
" They bite, they spit.
Which camel is the nicest camel? Getting on is the nerve-racking bit for me.
Apparently God designed the camel with the desert in mind, so I hope He's a good designer.
The camel's mentioned in seven verses of the Quran and they're known for their cunning, their sense of direction, their intelligence, and slightly worrying for me, apparently they're very vengeful if you are a cruel or intolerant master or mistress.
For the traders of old it was a 50-day journey, across the seemingly endless sands of the Sahara, all the way to Timbuktu.
They were following routes forged on trade in two precious commodities, gold and salt, and it must have been a magnificent sight as caravans, often made up of 1,000 camels or more, filed across the desert in pursuit of riches.
You can't walk in this desert without falling in love with it.
It's such an incredibly beautiful landscape, but it was incredibly perilous.
Probably the most dangerous stage of the journey.
Bandits all around here ready to rob the caravans, water was in incredibly short supply and people did die of thirst all the time.
So, even though for me it's so romantic walking through the dunes as the sun sets, as the sky looks all blue, but actually, when you did it for real, this is why the goods, when they got to the other end, cost so much - it was the danger factor.
But in the scorching heat of the desert, one thing was more valuable than anything else they were carrying - water.
Many travellers met their death in the sand, as the great medieval adventurer, Ibn Battuta recounts "We passed a caravan on the way "and they told us that some of their party "had become separated from them.
"We found one of them dead under a shrub "with his clothes on and a whip in his hand.
"The water was only about a mile from him.
" As dusk approaches, we find a sheltered spot to make camp before nightfall.
I'm descending to bribery to keep Hamoun, my camel, sweet.
I've broken out the dates.
We bought these dates for ourselves, but I think Hamoun deserves them more than I did, cos he did all the work today.
At this time of year, the temperature often plummets to below freezing.
Wood for the fire would have been an essential part of the caravan's huge cargo.
HE SPEAKS OWN LANGUAGE By the fire we swap stories.
Hafida is a rare creature, a female guide in an all-male profession.
But what she tells me about is shocking.
So, my great-grandfather, they gave him a gift, like a woman, from Ethiopia because she's she's a slave and he married her.
And she gives him a boy, it was my grandfather.
What happened to your grandfather? My grandfather, he was born a slave, so he married my grandmother that is a slave also.
So, my father, he is a slave too.
To me, it's incredible that he could be born a slave in modern Morocco.
Yeah, we don't really speak about slaves in Morocco.
It's a bit, um, what we say, taboo.
Because, it's a suffering history, but it exists.
It wasn't very far away, just 20th century.
An estimated 13 million slaves were transported north across the Sahara, a similar number to those shipped to America.
To this day, slavery has never in Morocco.
I'm proud of it.
Me, I'm born also from this slave's family.
This country is like a mosaic.
We have black, we have white, we have Arab, we have Berber, we have Jewish, we have a lot of faces, a lot of tradition, a lot of culture, and that makes this country very rich.
I'm humbled by Hafida's story.
In Morocco there are whole villages of people descended from the slaves who were forced along the salt roads from West Africa.
The country's culture has been enriched by the traditions they brought with them.
This is so magical.
I just woke up.
It's still the middle of the night, but I woke up, and I looked up and I can see the Milky Way, and I can also see the Plough, absolutely clear.
A most beautiful night.
We get up with the dawn like the traders who had to beat the heat of the day.
I feel like I'm getting a taste of what life would have been like.
Quite difficult days, difficult on the body, having to trust yourself to somebody else completely because you don't know the way.
Moments of huge beauty in the desert because it is stunning, the landscape.
And then night-time, food, hot tea and the time to just socialise with everyone around you.
Just after sunrise we're back out in the desert again and heading south.
We have 15 miles to cover today, which should take our camels about five hours.
In the past, caravans would be guided by highly paid Berbers who navigated by the sun, the stars, and the shape of the dunes, and acted as security to keep the merchants safe from raiders.
Climbing to the top of one of the highest dunes, the view across the desert stretches all the way to Algeria.
This is the border between Morocco and Algeria.
Yeah.
And it's, like, 1,500 kilometres.
Wow! Yeah.
And how far away is it from here? It's like 60km from here.
Morocco's border with Algeria has been closed since 1994 after a terrorist attack in Marrakech brought relations between the two to an all-time low.
It's said to cost the Moroccan economy 2 billion a year in lost trade.
It also means I can't go any further along this particular trade route.
But the network of routes was extensive so there are other possibilities.
Hafida's made it quite clear that the Algerian border is completely shut and no longer an option.
That southern route was a quick way down, was the fastest way down, but there is also a western route, which, although it's slower, was in fact safer because there were more places to provision along the way, it was more populated.
So that seems the logical way to try next.
Taking the road west means saying goodbye to Hafida, and my now-beloved camel, Hamoun.
I'm driving towards the city of Guelmim.
This particular route came to prominence in the 18th century when Guelmim became one of the biggest trading crossroads in North Africa.
I'm skirting across the northern edge of the Sahara and making a stop in a desert town called Tamegroute because I've heard it holds a secret treasure.
This sign in Arabic says SHE SPEAKS ARABIC Which means a treasury or a treasure trove of books.
Very surprising to find that here in such a small remote place.
This sanctuary is a Zaouia, a centre of Islamic learning, which houses a library of 4,000 ancient books.
Its custodian is 89-year-old Hajj Khalifa El Fasi.
His family have handed down this job from father to son since it was founded in the 11th century.
Now his son, Rashid, works alongside him.
This Malian scholar left behind rare manuscripts, which, as an Arabist, I'm dying to get my hands on.
How exciting that these roads I've been travelling were on a kind of medieval information highway and knowledge network.
I almost, but not quite, got to touch 400 years of history.
That book in the library is absolute evidence that the trade routes between sub-Saharan Africa and this area of north Africa brought knowledge and learning, as well as just gold and salt.
And that knowledge made its way across the water to Europe where ideas from Muslim scholars on subjects like philosophy, science and mathematics informed the European Renaissance.
A 350-mile bus journey brings me to the market town of Guelmim.
It's nicknamed Bab Sahara, gateway to the desert.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was known for its huge camel market, the medieval equivalent of a massive car showroom full of four-by-fours.
I want to see if any of that trade survives.
This is a fantastic livestock market, full of noise and colour and smell.
But, actually, I'm looking for camels because it used to be the biggest camel market in the whole of north-west Africa and I haven't seen any yet.
I'm imagining this market in the days of trans-Saharan trade, bustling with merchants bartering for camels by the hundred.
Eventually, I find a small collection of them in a corner.
Today, the trade is very different.
THEY SPEAK OWN LANGUAE So times have really changed.
In days of old, this was the place to buy your camel and to refuel your camel for the trek across the Sahara, or from the Sahara up to the north.
But now these camels are actually used for food and we've just been told that one camel can feed up to 300 people for a party.
So that's mainly what people come and buy them for now.
Ahmed al Ansari's family has been in the business for generations.
If anyone knows the going rate for a camel, it's him.
It depends.
It depends on the camel.
If the camel is very strong Yes.
.
.
the price is like that.
If the camel is not strong, the camel is down.
Sometimes you can find a camel and it's 20,000 dirhams.
But it's very, very big, you know? It's enough for 500, 600 persons.
20,000 dirhams is £1,500.
After my trip across the desert on Hamoun, it seems like a bargain to me.
And it's easy to imagine why a strong camel was an asset for Saharan traders when they might carry loads of up to 200 kilos.
Apparently, the white camel is called the president of the caravan because it can sniff out water.
So they used to send it ahead in the desert and it was highly valued.
The days of camel caravans are clearly over, so I'm making the next leg of my journey by car.
I'm going south towards the town of Zag, 115 miles away.
There's a military checkpoint at the entrance to the town and people in Guelmim have told me I'm unlikely to get through.
I'm about 25km outside of Zag on the western route that the merchants followed towards Timbuktu.
The issue here is, of course, that the borders have changed since those times and political and social tensions here are quite high.
Zag is the last town before the border with Western Sahara.
A territory that's been disputed by Morocco, Mauritania, and the Sahrawi Berbers who have always lived there.
When Morocco secured control of it in 1979, they turned the area into a military zone and built a long sand berm to keep out local independence fighters.
I'm just getting everything ready.
I've got my permit and I've got the map to show them where I'm going at the checkpoint, but I am really nervous that we're not going to get through.
It's a military zone, there is a lot of tension over the Western Sahara and this really is one of the points that I think could block our journey.
Bonjour.
Bonjour.
THEY SPEAK ARABIC It turns out my worries were totally unfounded.
Instead of a show of military bravado, I'm warmly welcomed and waved through the checkpoint and into Zag, a town straight out of a spaghetti Western.
Here, I want to find someone to take me on to the border, but when I ask around, everyone says it's not possible to get there.
Finally, a local cloth trader, Mansour Hamadi, agrees to take me down the road south of Zag towards the border.
He used to travel it himself to buy fabrics in Mauritania.
But just four miles along the track, he stops the car.
This is as far as he is prepared to go.
The military presence doesn't bode well for my onward journey.
Mansour tells me there are thousands of unexploded mines along both of these roads and the conflict is very much alive.
This is extremely frustrating.
This should be so simple.
I'm actually standing on a crossroads for two roads that go to Timbuktu.
That one goes through Tindouf and this one goes through Mahbes.
But unlike the days of old, when the merchants passed freely along these routes, I can't go and the reason is there is a built-up military zone, this area is under dispute, it is mined, and there is absolutely no possibility for me to cross.
So, I'm stuck, I'm absolutely stuck here, there is nothing I can do.
I'm out of options.
I can't follow the salt roads through the closed border and a military zone.
So, to continue on my quest for Timbuktu, I have to fly 1,000 miles over the no-go territory of Western Sahara and Mauritania directly into Mali.
This is Bamako, the capital of Mali, and one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.
Arriving here is an assault on the senses.
I feel like I've been parachuted into craziness.
I'm in the heart of West Africa and everything's going at ten times the pace of normal.
It's brighter, it's noisier, I keep sneezing because of the chillies.
What an incredible contrast to the sounds of the Sahara.
Just couldn't be more different.
We're still 700 miles from Timbuktu, but I've spotted something in the market that tells me I'm on the right track.
Timbuktu? Everywhere I go, there are glimpses of Timbuktu luring me in.
Here I've found this massive block of salt, which must have come down from the north, through the city, and all its way over here to Bamako.
I've found salt.
Now I'm searching for the other prized commodity of these trade routes - gold.
Mali is the third-largest producer in Africa, yielding over 50 tonnes of gold a year.
In the Middle Ages, the great West African empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai got rich from it.
Gold is still mined here and I'm keen to see a working mine for myself and maybe do some prospecting.
So I'm making for Narena, 40 miles south-west of Bamako, taking the local transport with some of the workers.
SHE SPEAKS LOCAL LANGUAGE It's a sociable ride and I learn a new phrase in Mandinka, the local language.
SHE SPEAKS MADINKA Slow down.
It's getting a bit bumpy.
We're off-roading through the bush on the way to the gold mine.
We rattle to a halt at what I'm told is the mine.
I was expecting a modern, hi-tech operation, but instead I'm greeted by the sight of people busily wielding picks and shovels.
This is a community mine run by the local landowner.
You have to pay him a fee before you can mine here.
Assalaamu Alaikum.
Walaykum assalam.
I've brought him a traditional gift of kola nuts.
The Malian equivalent of a nice bottle of red.
SHE SPEAKS FRENCH Keita has an entourage who seem amused by my eagerness to do some gold mining.
Yacouba is the chief's cousin and the mine's foreman.
The mine has only been open for eight months.
He said, "Do you want to see gold?" Assalaamu Alaikum.
These men are the modern-day version of the traders of old, buying gold to sell on.
I'm surprised it's all so shiny and bright.
Somehow I thought it would be in big rocks and you wouldn't actually be able to see that it's real gold, which it obviously is.
And these guys here are weighing it and pushing it out.
Apparently the price varies a lot.
But it's great to see it here.
At the moment gold sells for the equivalent of £20 per gram.
The mine here produces three to four kilograms a month.
It's hard to work out where it's all coming from.
All I can see is a series of holes in the ground, but it turns out all of them are mine shafts with people working down them.
Working underground appears to be a male-only zone, but I'm desperate to have a go myself.
Time to get my hands dirty if they'll let me.
It's boiling hot, this is really hard work.
All the miners are laughing at me, but I'm actually doing my best.
There's a lot of hard graft involved in striking gold.
And once you've used all your muscle power to shovel earth from the ground, actually spotting the gold is more difficult than you might think, even with the help of a metal detector.
THEY SPEAK LOCAL LANGUAGE I found gold.
When I say I found it, me and 30 excited miners found it.
I think that's going to pay for me to get all the way to Timbuktu.
I'm told my piece of gold is too small to be weighed, but I don't care, this is trans-Saharan trade in the palm of my hand.
This is just a small community mine, but you can see the potential for enormous amounts of gold coming out of the ground.
I already found my own little nugget, I dug it up myself, and it makes me realise that Timbuktu, this mythical city of gold, may actually be a reality.
I'm finally setting off on the last leg of my journey.
I've travelled 2,000 miles to get to Mali and there's just one last 700-mile stretch before I reach Timbuktu.
It looks so simple on the map, a short plane ride away, but while once all routes led to the city, recent events have changed that.
Allahu akbar.
Allahu akbar.
NEWSREADER: 'On the night of April 1st, 'Islamists and local Tuareg rebels drove into Timbuktu.
'By dawn they were in control.
' In 2012, rebels invaded Timbuktu, turning it from a cultural treasure trove into one of the world's most dangerous places.
Tuareg separatists wanted to create an independent state.
But they were soon supplanted by Islamic militants who implemented their own extreme version of Sharia law.
A year later, French and Malian troops reclaimed the city.
Now, a UN presence keeps the fragile peace there.
The security situation means flights are strictly limited.
I'm camping out at Bamako airport, trying to get on a military plane.
This is the most difficult leg of the journey because the only way to get into Timbuktu now is with the UN.
The political situation means that even in the olden days when the traders came across the Sahara and had to face all those difficulties, it's now worse, it's harder to get into the city.
After waiting around, I finally managed to pick up a flight.
I feel as excited as those early European explorers must have felt.
"At last we arrived safely at Timbuktu.
"At the moment when the sun touched the horizon, "that was when I saw this capital of Sudan, "which for so long had been the focus of all my desires.
"Entering that mysterious city, "which all the civilised nations of Europe have striven for, "I was seized by an inexpressible feeling of satisfaction.
" But when I touch down at Timbuktu, I'm faced with the alarming reality of a city which is effectively under siege.
It's really chilling to come into all these military checkpoints.
In the airport you see civilians and people greeting their families and then here, it's all military personnel, it's barbed wire everywhere, there's weapons everywhere.
There are only three miles of the Sahara between me and Timbuktu.
After travelling 2,000 miles, I'm just a few minutes away and I'm getting butterflies.
The city's world-famous mosques are some of the last surviving remnants of the medieval trader era and I'm heading for one of them, the Sankore.
I've been waiting for this moment for years.
It's been a really, really long journey with lots of obstacles in the way.
Slightly different ones from the traders, but the same kind of feeling.
And now I get it, my first glimpse of the icon of Timbuktu - this beautiful, stunning mosque that looks nothing like anything I've seen before.
You can see it in pictures, but it's not the same as being here.
The Sankore Mosque was built in the 14th century and its name means, white nobles, reflecting the pale-skinned Berbers who ruled the city.
It must have been a hugely imposing sight for medieval traders as they emerged from the desert.
I love touching history.
Just imagine all the people that made this, all the people that have worshipped inside.
It's a symbol, but it's so much more than that because it's actually a living, breathing place, the centre of the city.
The inside of the mosque is reserved for Muslim worshippers.
But just the sight of it transports me back to the heady days of trans-Saharan trade.
I'm picturing this main square at the height of Timbuktu's glory when it would be a cacophony of crazy noise and colour, with everybody here, the caravans, the merchants, people trading every good imaginable.
Over there, we'd have people sitting with their weighing scales, weighing out the goods.
Maybe over there you'd have the horrible scenes of the slaves getting ready to be loaded up and taken up to the north, crying because they didn't know where they were going, what was going to happen to them.
Just a melee of humanity - Jews and Arabs, Tuaregs, Songhai, all mixing together to make this the most important trading centre of its day, the city of gold.
The cultural richness of the city, with its fabulous mosques, grew out of its material wealth.
The oldest and largest of them, the Djinguereber, was built by the greatest king of Mali, Mansa Musa.
Though I'm not a Muslim, I've been granted special permission to go in.
Under the tall arches, I find Salem Ould Elhadjie, a historian and storyteller, who tells me the tale of the richest man in history, Mansa Musa.
Tales of Mansa Musa's astonishing wealth spread across the globe and thus began the legend of Timbuktu.
Many explorers over the centuries tried and failed to reach it.
In the 19th century, a French explorer's club even offered a prize to the first adventurer to reach the city and return.
But the first man to get here wasn't French, he was British.
Major Alexander Gordon Laing's house.
This is where he stayed in Timbuktu when he was here and it's one of the places I've really, really wanted to come to.
He's a fellow Scot and I consider him an extremely brave man.
Alexander Gordon Laing reached Timbuktu in 1826.
It had taken him a year to trek from Tripoli across the Sahara, and on the way he'd been viciously attacked and robbed.
Tuaregs had fractured his jaw and nearly cut off his right hand, and he had a musket ball in his hip.
I have a copy of the letter he wrote when he arrived here.
He was only 32 years old.
"I have been busily employed during my stay, "searching the records in the town, which are abundant.
"But my situation in Timbuktu has been rendered exceedingly unsafe "by the unfriendly disposition of the Fulas, "whose Sultan has expressed his hostility to me "in no equivocal terms.
"He has now got intelligence of my being in Timbuktu "and as a party of Fulas are hourly expected, "Alkaidy Boubacar, who is an excellent good man, "and who trembles for my safety, "has strongly urged my immediate departure.
" This was the last letter Laing ever wrote.
After fleeing Timbuktu, he was captured and then brutally strangled by Tuareg raiders.
It's bittersweet, sitting here in Laing's house reading his letter in the place that he stayed in Timbuktu.
I'm here, I'm wandering the same streets that he did.
He died in such a horrible way, but he achieved such an incredible thing.
It puts my puny attempts to get here into perspective.
This man was incredibly courageous.
He knew that he might die, but he still did it in the interests of finding out about this great city.
I wish I had half that courage.
Two years later, in 1828, a Frenchman, Rene Caillie, won the race for Timbuktu and returned alive to claim the 10,000-franc prize.
That's more than £75,000 in today's money.
It was a prize which had cost Laing his life.
Today, 60,000 people live in Timbuktu, a mix of the different tribes who have made their mark on this city throughout its history.
It was founded in the 12th century by the Tuaregs with their trademark scarves and fierce reputation.
They're nomads of the Sahara and the mainstay of the caravan trade across the desert.
Most still live a nomadic life, like the Agata family who come to Timbuktu to trade.
Muhammad's forefathers grew rich from trading in salt and Malian gold.
He still uses that gold in his jewellery.
Since the militants' incursion, the Sahara has become too dangerous, even for Tuareg nomads, and the Agatas now rely on their jewellery to survive.
Zacate.
Zacate.
I've been invited to join the family for lunch, which Muhammad's wife, Maya, is preparing.
The meat is goat, cooked slowly to tenderise it.
I want to know if it's true that in this warrior culture, women rule the roost.
I'm not used to seeing men veiled and women uncovered in a Muslim country.
It's a complete role reversal.
Maya has provided a feast.
But times are hard for the Agata family.
The security risks in Timbuktu have scared away the tourists and it's too dangerous to cross the desert to trade.
Their nomadic lifestyle is on hold.
To me, Timbuktu seems a peaceful, friendly place, but the UN presence all over the city is a constant reminder of the dangers that lurk outside its boundaries.
And that's where I'm going next - to follow the salt road south.
What made Timbuktu such a great centre of trade was its geographical location.
A crossroads between the desert of the Sahara and the great Niger River.
The Niger lies just five miles south of Timbuktu, but once again, I have to rely on the UN to take me there.
This time in an armoured convoy on one of their daily patrols.
There are 1,200 UN peacekeeping troops in Timbuktu, their third largest force in the world, and Mali is their deadliest mission.
My driver, Kai, tells me that only two weeks before I arrived, there was a rocket attack here.
So, when you patrol, are you looking out for anything in particular? Everything that's sort of unusual, or is it calm or not? You can't sort of pinpoint what you're looking for, you're just looking that is it the same way that it usually is.
The desert eventually gives way to a sea of green.
This is where the camel met the canoe in the days of trans-Saharan trade.
And when I see the Niger River for the first time, it takes my breath away.
The port of Korioume is going about its daily business, oblivious, it seems, to the danger around it.
And I'm curious to know what kind of goods are passing through here today.
Monsieur.
Ibrahim is the harbour master here.
Two boats have just pulled in and are unloading their cargo.
There's a huge variety of merchandise including a whole consignment of motorbikes .
.
but hiding under a tarpaulin is something much more interesting.
Just uncovered a big treasure trove of salt.
This is an exciting discovery.
I'd thought that the salt trade through Timbuktu had been halted, but here it is, in huge 30kg tablets, waiting to be shipped south.
Ibrahim tells me that Saharan salt is still highly prized.
In days of old it was vital to preserve meat.
Now it's a gourmet item, and after all these centuries it's still an important part of Timbuktu's trade.
Timbuktu is a place where legends abound - of fierce Tuareg warriors and brave, moustachioed, European explorers.
But I'm here to meet some unlikely heroes, the librarians.
Bonjour.
Bonjour.
In its heyday, Timbuktu was one of the world's most important centres of learning.
Priceless manuscripts were created here and transported via the trade routes throughout Africa and into Europe.
Here at the Ahmed Baba Institute, Bouya and his team had collected thousands of them.
When the Islamic extremists took over the city in 2012, the heritage of a whole continent was put in jeopardy.
But the librarians were determined to save their treasure.
At dead of night, they began sneaking the books out, hidden in trunks, right under the noses of the militants.
Haidera and the librarians managed to smuggle out almost all of the collection.
But in January 2013, when Timbuktu was finally reclaimed by French and Malian troops, the extremists committed one final act of vandalism as they fled the city.
They brought out a box of the remaining books and set fire to it.
Throughout history, men have burned books, fearing the knowledge they contain.
The charred remains of the manuscripts have become part of the collection, fragments of Africa's golden past.
Since I've been in Timbuktu, I've been really touched by how the city has coped with all it's been through in recent years.
THEY SPEAK LOCAL LANGUAGE The physical and emotional turmoil of invasion and the damage to its culture and lifestyle.
Today its people live with the constant threat of danger on their doorstep and many have been left in poverty.
But the city has another enemy, one it's lived with since it came into existence - the desert.
I love the desert, but it's a very harsh place and I can see that when I look around behind me at Timbuktu, because everywhere there's sand, it's encroaching, it's eating away at the buildings and it feels like it's almost making the city disappear.
On every corner, I see people battling to keep the sand at bay.
It attacks the buildings too, wind and sand eroding the walls.
And it's a constant fight to keep those mud-built mosques from crumbling back into the dust.
El Bukhari bin al-Suyuti is in charge of maintaining the city's cultural heritage, which includes fighting off the scouring effects of the weather.
It's not just the abrasive combination of wind and sand.
Recent heavy rains have also severely damaged the exterior plasterwork on these mosques.
I'm pleased that the city is getting some help from outside agencies, like UNESCO, to preserve these iconic buildings, but what's more difficult to deal with is the march of the Sahara into Timbuktu.
The city is in danger of being gradually swallowed by the desert.
Timbuktu is no longer El Dorado.
It's a charming, sleepy town that's slowly disappearing and it seems to me its streets are now paved with sand, not gold.
It's a place where the Sahara, which brought untold wealth to its gates, has been both a blessing and a curse.
Timbuktuans love a party.
Their fierce history, the violence of the occupation, the encroaching sands - nothing can stop them, and I've been invited Maya and Muhammad.
Traditional Tuareg music has two components - a three-stringed tehardent and a calabash drum.
First, the women dance and, of course, I have to join in myself.
I choose Maya as my dance partner.
THEY SING IN OWN LANGUAGE It's a curiously sedate experience, but that all changes when it's the turn of the men.
Oh-la-la-la! The women's dance was very, very gentle.
I just had to wave my hands a little bit and wiggle my eyebrows.
Very enjoyable.
The men's dance is incredibly energetic.
They're leaping up and down like little frogs.
Five years ago, when the city was occupied, all music was forbidden.
Now, the irrepressible spirit of these desert people is free to express itself again in the song and dance that the Sahara has been witness to for centuries.
It was the promise of gold and salt, as well as precious books and manuscripts, that brought the world to Timbuktu's gates and helped forge the trans-Saharan trade routes, the salt roads of old, that I've travelled to get here.
Along the way, I've crossed spectacular landscapes and met extraordinary people with ancient ways of life.
I've uncovered lost empires and found treasure in the strangest places.
But most of all, I've finally completed my quest and discovered for myself the living myth of Timbuktu.
Am I disappointed not to find my El Dorado? No, because in every corner you can feel the legacy of its magnificent past.
It's a heritage that needs protecting, from both nature and mankind, so future generations can, like me, make their own journey