Published: January 2011


Prophets Mosque Diagram

The Telltale Scribes of Timbuktu

The caravan city harbors great books, mysterious letters—and a world of intrigue.

By Peter Gwin
Photograph by Brent Stirton

The Salt Merchant

In the ancient caravan city of Timbuktu, many nights before I encountered the bibliophile or the marabout, or comforted the Green Beret's girlfriend, I was summoned to a rooftop to meet the salt merchant.

I had heard that he had information about a Frenchman who was being held by terrorists somewhere deep in the folds of Mali's northern desert. The merchant's trucks regularly crossed this desolate landscape, bringing supplies to the mines near the Algerian border and hauling the heavy slabs of salt back to Timbuktu. So it seemed possible that he knew something about the kidnappings that had all but dried up the tourist business in the legendary city.

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