* Tuareg insurgents now hold fabled Saharan trading town
* Al Qaeda kidnapping had already frightened off tourists
* "Mystic city" bewitched explorers, poets for centuries
* Hidden treasures in wisdom, learning of ancient texts
By Bate Felix and Pascal Fletcher
April 4 When turban-swathed Tuareg rebels swept
into Timbuktu on Sunday to plant the flag of their northern Mali
homeland, they found very few tourists in the bars, hotels,
museums, mosques and libraries of the fabled and ancient Saharan
Local guides say numbers of foreign visitors had already
fallen off after a Dutchman, a South African and a Swede were
seized by gunmen in the historic Malian city in November. A
German citizen was killed in the abduction claimed by al Qaeda.
With the rebels, including Islamist factions preaching
sharia, now in control of Timbuktu's dusty streets, tourists may
not be returning soon to the spot near the Niger river that for
centuries was a symbol of unreachable remoteness, bewitching
voyagers with tales of wealth, wisdom and life-giving water.
"Practically all hotels are empty and closed. Nothing is
going on in the tourism sector," tourist guide Oumar Ag Mohammed
Hamaleck told Reuters from the city this week, contrasting this
with the 80 tourists a day he hosted during past boom periods.
Just as Timbuktu with its exotic staccato name is part of
the lore of the Sahara, this same mystery cloaks the Tuaregs,
those blue-robed desert marauders who have peopled adventure
stories and Hollywood films for years, from P.C. Wren's Beau
Geste to the more recent action blockbuster "Sahara", with
Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz.
But there is nothing fictional about the rebels of the
National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) who
charged into Timbuktu on Sunday to plant their yellow, green,
red and black flag in the city to claim it as part of a homeland
covering an area of northern Mali the size of France.
These modern-day Saharan raiders have swapped their fleet
horses and camels of old for powerful 4 x 4s and pickups,
bristling with heavy machine guns and rocket launchers. AK-47s
and RPG launchers are now the small arms of choice, instead of
muskets and swords.
Besides the MNLA, Timbuktu's occupants now also include
rival Islamist rebels of the Ansar Dine (Defender of the Faith)
movement under veteran Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghaly, who seek to
impose Islamic law in Mali and are reported to have links with
jihadist groups like al Qaeda.
"The Islamists have said they are not OK with bars, so no
bars have reopened since they took control," said Timbuktu guide
Hamaleck, although apart from this he had not heard of "anything
to be worried about" for the local population.
The hydra-headed Tuareg-led revolt, energised by a military
coup last month that toppled the government in the southern
capital Bamako, has fueled fears of turmoil in a vast lawless
northern zone already identified by western experts as a haven
for criminal gangs and al Qaeda militants.
Before the occupation, Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage
Site of ancient mosques and burial grounds, had become an
obligatory stop for budget backpackers seeking the desert
experience and scholars looking for historical wisdom from
priceless Islamic manuscripts.
"THE MYSTERY OF TIMBUKTU"
"People come to Timbuktu to 'feel the mystery of Timbuktu'
as we say here ... They also come for a camel ride at the gates
of the desert, boat rides on the Niger river to spot hippos and
witness the sunset. They also visit various famous tourist
sites," tourist guide Hamaleck said.
Sunday's rebel occupation prompted an appeal from UNESCO
Director-General Irina Bokova for the warring parties to spare
"Timbuktu's outstanding earthern architectural wonders". These
include the Sankore, Sidi Yahia and Djingarei-ber mosques, the
last Timbuktu's oldest, built from mud bricks and wood in 1325.
The origins of Timbuktu - the name is believed to derive
from the words Tin-Boctou (meaning the place or well of Boctou,
a local woman) - date back to the 5th century.
The site on an old Saharan trading route that saw salt from
the Arab north exchanged for gold and slaves from black Africa
to the south, blossomed in a 16th century Golden Age as an
Islamic seat of learning, home to priests, scribes and jurists.
A 15th century Malian proverb proclaims: "Salt comes from
the north, gold from the south, but the word of God and the
treasures of wisdom are only to be found in Timbuctoo."
But it was rumours of gold that drove European explorers to
cross the trackless, shifting sands of the Sahara to search for
the legendary city, already known for centuries to local
inhabitants who traversed the deserts on camelback and navigated
the muddy brown waters of the Niger by canoes.
Some of these foreign explorers died of thirst in the desert
or were robbed and slain by fierce Tuareg warriors, while
Timbuktu's mirage-like renown - no doubt enhanced by
thirst-crazed, feverish imaginations - reached glittering
proportions in the consciousness of 19th century Europe.
In his poem "Timbuctoo", English poet Lord Alfred Tennyson
addresses "Wide Afric" to ask: "... is the rumour of thy
Timbuctoo, A dream as frail as that of ancient Time?"
Scottish explorer Gordon Laing was the first European to
arrive in Timbuktu in 1826, but he did not live to tell the
tale, perishing at the hands of desert robbers.
It was not until two years later that Frenchman Rene-Auguste
Caillie became the first European to see Timbuktu and survive to
recount what he saw. "I have been to Timbuktu!" he is said to
have breathlessly told the French consul in Tangier after he
staggered back from his epic Saharan journey.
But after all his dreams of glittering minarets and palaces
filled with gold, Caillie was disappointed to find in Timbuktu
what it has largely remained for centuries: a dun-coloured town
in a dun-coloured desert.
"I had a totally different idea of the grandeur and wealth
of Timbuctoo," he wrote. "The city presented, at first view,
nothing but a mass of ill-looking houses, built of earth.
Nothing was to be seen in all directions, but immense quicksands
of yellowish white colour," he added.
"IS THAT IT?"
This initial sense of disappointment for outsiders, the myth
not matching reality, seems to have traversed the centuries.
Around a century and a half after Caillie, veteran Polish
correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski was to write as he flew into
Timbuktu by plane: "The town consists of clay houses built on
sand. The clay and sand are the same colour, so the town looks
like an organic part of the desert - a fragment of the Sahara
shaped into rectangular blocks, and elevated. The heat curdles
the blood, paralyzes the body, stuns."
And outspoken Irish rocker and anti-famine campaigner Bob
Geldof is reported to have exclaimed "Is that it?" when he first
clapped eyes on Timbuktu on a visit in the 1980s.
But residents like Hamaleck the guide, echoing the 15th
century proverb, know Timbuktu's treasures are not immediately
visible to the eye. "There is a mystery in Timbuktu, but it is
something that you can only feel and not see," he says.
Besides its architectural marvels, Timbuktu also boasts tens
of thousands of ancient, brittle manuscripts, some from the 13th
century, which academics say prove Africa had a written history
at least as old as the European Renaissance.
Written in ornate calligraphy, this is a compendium of
learning on everything from law, sciences and medicine to
history and politics. Some experts compare it in importance to
the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Some texts were stashed for generations under mud homes and
in desert caves by proud Malian families who feared they would
be stolen by Moroccan invaders, European explorers and then
French colonialists. Some believe the texts collected so far are
just a fraction of what lies hidden under centuries of dust
behind the ornate wooden doors of Timbuktu's mud-brick homes.
Michael Covitt, Founder of the Malian Manuscript Foundation
and a U.S. documentary film producer, says the ancient
manuscripts contain doctrines of "peace, tolerance, cultural
diversity and conflict resolution" that have served Mali for
decades. The mainly Muslim country was viewed as one of the West
Africa's most stable democracies before last month's coup.
Many are hoping the Tuareg rebels and the coup leaders in
Bamako will heed the message of Timbuktu's manuscripts.
(For a factbox on the city )
(Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Giles Elgood)