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Mali is a country that is intimately related to its most renowned geographical feature, the Niger River.

Mali: the lost kingdom of Africa

Peter Holthusen continues along the routes of early explorers, reflecting on what preoccupied these intrepid Victorians and the nature of the ultimate destination they were so eager to reach
For all its lack of social graces, the camel is central to the long and fascinating story of the Tuareg caravan trade across the Sahara.

"Although Mali is today one of the poorest countries in the world, it has a long and illustrious past as an integral part of the great African empires."

We arrived at Bamako- Sénou International Airport in Mali shortly after 7.30pm, just as the sun was setting over Bamako.


Among my fellow passengers were a group of Malians returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca, and there was also a fresh-faced white American aid worker and her local support team who offered to take me to my hotel in the heart of the city, the Laico El Farouk.

This was only my second visit to Mali, so their offer of help so soon after my arrival was all the more welcome and warmly appreciated. I arranged to meet my escorts outside of the arrivals hall and as I made my way through the bustling crowds in the terminal the beckoning sanctuary of a sparkling white Save the Children 4x4 seemed an altogether more pleasurable means of escaping the chaos that surrounded me.

If you happen to thrive in sub-Saharan urban settings, the street market around the new Marché Rose in Bamako is the place for you.


With its giant mud-built mosques, villages carved into cliff faces and massive camel caravans traversing the desert, Mali makes for a stunningly surreal destination.

Rapidly developing, particularly in the main cities, tourists can now find very high standards of accommodation and cuisine on offer. Intriguing and colourful markets, vast desertscapes and ancient tombs and relics are all waiting to be discovered. All of this makes it hard to believe Mali remains one of the world's poorest countries.

Few places in the world posed more difficulties for early explorers than West Africa. Its terrain was ferocious, with dense jungles, swamps and waterways that were almost impossible to navigate. Many native peoples were hostile and the wildlife was a constant threat. But worst of all were the tropical diseases: malaria, blackwater fever, typhus, Guinea worm, dysentery and trypanosomiasis, the latter also fatal for pack animals. The region had such a high mortality rate for Europeans that it came to be called the ‘White Man's Grave’.

Nevertheless, explorers continued to try to unveil its mysteries, and nothing was more uncertain than the source of the Niger. Did it link with Lake Chad, the Nile, or the Congo? No one knew. And was the fabled city of Timbuktu truly full of gold? But when the African Association in London began sending expeditions across the Sahara to find answers, they also dispatched men from the sub-Saharan west coast. The first was the Irish explorer Daniel Houghton (1740-1791), one of the earliest
Europeans to travel through the interior of West Africa.

In 1790, Houghton approached the African Association proposing a mission to travel up the Gambia River and explore the hinterland of Africa's west coast. His optimism, determination and apparent fearlessness worked in his favour, as did his basic knowledge of Arabic and Mandingo. His proposals were accepted by the Association.

Houghton's instructions were to sail to the mouth of the Gambia, navigate the river to the Barra Kunda Falls, and then travel overland to the Hausa lands to the east. He was also tasked with pinpointing the exact location of Timbuktu as well as charting the course of the Niger River.

Houghton sailed for Africa in October 1790. He landed at Barra in present-day Gambia and proceeded to the trading post of Pisania, eventually reaching the frontier of the Kingdom of Wuli in early 1791. But he never did find a direct route to the fabled city of Timbuktu, and died of starvation in the hostile interior of the Sahara. As the African Association later noted on receiving the news of Houghton's death: "He had already passed the former limits of European discovery", for he explored the Niger basin and rediscovered many of the lost Kingdoms of Africa – countries that were once part of the old Mali or Mandinka Empire.

Although Mali is today one of the poorest countries in the world, it has a long and illustrious past as an integral part of the great African empires. The first of these empires was the Ghana Empire which from the 4th to the 11th century grew rich from the trans-Saharan caravan routes in gold, ivory and salt. The Ghana fell under invasions by the Muslim Almoravids in 1062 under the command of Abu-Bakr Ibn-Umar, but it was succeeded by the Empire of Mali, which rose to power under the rule of the great Mandinka king Sundiata Keita. Mali reached its zenith of power and wealth during the 14th century, extending over almost all of West Africa and controlling virtually all of the rich trans-Saharan gold trade. It was during this period that Mali's great cities, Timbuktu and Djenné, became fabled centres of wealth, learning and culture.

Mali's power didn't last much longer, for in the 15th century it fell to the Songhai Empire, who had established their own capital at Gao, where a small Songhai state had existed since the 11th century. Its base of power was on a bend in the Niger River in present-day Niger and Burkina Faso. The Songhai held power until the end of the 16th century, when the Moroccans crushed the Askia dynasty in an invasion force led by the indefatigable eunuch Judar Pasha. In the 17thand 18th centuries, several small states developed along the Niger basin but they fell during the 19th century holy war waged by the controversial Muslim leader Al-Hajj Umar, whose theocratic Tukulor Empire extended from Timbuktu to the headwaters of the Niger and Sénégal. His son and successor, Ahmadu Seku, was defeated by the French in 1893.

After a short-lived federation with Sénégal, the independent Republic of Mali was established in 1960 under President Modibo Keita, who led the country on a path of socialism, with a heavy emphasis on the role of the public sector in the economy. The country has suffered from periods of internal and external strife ever since, as well as a catastrophic drought in the early 1970s, but today under President Amadou Toumani Toure, Mali appears to be moving toward a stable, multi-party democracy.

Mali is the seventh largest country in Africa, and is bordered by seven other states: Algeria lies to the north and northeast, Niger to the east, Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast (Côte d'Ivoire) to the south, Guinea on the southwest, and Sénégal and Mauritania on the west.

Although it cannot compete with the major safari countries for sheer natural spectacle, Mali is a nation of unusual interest and charm. Like Egypt, Mali is a country that is intimately related to its most renowned geographical feature, the Niger River. Today, 1300 km of the river, from Koulikoro in the west to Gao in the northeast, is navigable at least for a few weeks of the year (though the Sélingué Dam, upstream from Bamako on a tributary of the Niger, has considerably reduced the water level), and most of the population lives on or near the Niger's banks.

The Niger long fascinated the Europeans, but it took them nearly 2000 years – until the 19th century exploits of Daniel Houghton, Mungo Park, Alexander Gordon Laing, René-Auguste Caillié and Heinrich Barth – to find its source.

Despite the presence of the Niger, and the headwaters of the Sénégal River which flow through the western tip of the country, much of Mali lies in the Sahara. The extreme north is almost entirely arid desert, empty except for a few isolated oases and Tuareg camps. In the central region, known as the Sahel, life follows the Niger's annual flood cycle, with high water between August and November. In the southwestern area, rainfall and rivers are more plentiful, and this region is marginally more lush than the rest of the country. Although Mali experiences only negligible rainfall, the 'rainy' season in the south extends from June to September.

Mali's population comprises a number of different peoples, including the Bamana (also known as the Bambara). Numbering more than three million, the Mande-speaking Bamana are the largest linguistic community in the country and they are concentrated in the region of Bamako and Ségou. To the west, from the Manding Highlands to the Sénégal River, the Malinké share a similar language and customs and trace their roots to the Mali Empire. The Songhai are concentrated in the region of Gao to the north, while the Fulani – after the Bamana, are one of the most populous groups in Mali. The Tuareg, who are of Berber origin, were pushed southward into present-day Mali after the Arabs spread into North Africa from the Arabian peninsula. The Moors (Maures), who are localized in between Timbuktu and Nioro has a sizeable population, and the Senoufo, who reside near the Ivory Coast to the south are second in status only to the Dogon.

The last of these groups, the Dogon, live in the central plateau region of Mali, south of the Niger and are world-renowned for their mythology, mask dances and artwork, and a visit to their traditional cliffside villages in the Bandiagara escarpment east of Mopti is a fascinating experience, if not a little strenuous in the heat.

Bamako, the capital of Mali, is located on the Niger River, near the rapids that divide the Upper and Middle Niger Valleys, in the southwestern part of the country and has grown quickly since independence. Today, evidence of modernisation is only slowly penetrating the dusty city centre, and with a population of over 1,800,000 it is estimated to be the fastest growing city in Africa. It
contains many visitor attractions such as the Grande Mosquée (a gift to Bamako from Saudi Arabia), the street market around the new Marché Rose, a zoo and botanical gardens, and a splendid museum. The city also possesses many research institutions and is the commercial hub of the country.

The ancient commercial towns of Djenné, Ségou, Mopti and Timbuktu owed their prosperity to the Niger River, and you can still see why the first European explorers were so impressed by the richness and diversity of these cities. Djenné, located on a meander of the Bani River, is unquestionably the most beautiful city in the Sahel and a memorable place to visit. In the main square, the famous Grande Mosquée dominates the town, and is the largest mud brick (or adobe) building in the world. It is considered by many architects to be the greatest achievement of the Sudano-Sahelian architectural style, albeit with definite Islamic influences. Djenné was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988.

The third largest town in Mali, Ségou, makes a very pleasant stopover between Bamako and Mopti and is fast becoming a worthwhile destination in its own right. The town used to be the centre of the old Bamana Empire, described in the famous book of Maryse Condé.

Built on three islands connected by dykes, the riverside town of Mopti was a backward village in medieval times when Timbuktu and Djenné were great imperial cities, but now the situation is reversed and Mopti is an important port on the Niger and a popular tourist destination. In the Fishing Harbour, large, traditional 'pinasses' with their canvas awnings and colourful flags come and go. Traders sell their merchandise directly in the market at the wharf.

Renowned as 'The Forbidden City', the legendary desert town of Timbuktu has become synonymous with remoteness and isolation. From the time of the crusades, it was one of the main entrepôts for the West African gold and rock-salt trade which European finance relied on. It was made prosperous by the tenth Emperor of the Mali Empire, Mansa Musa. Today, Timbuktu is home to Sankóre University and other madrasas, and was an intellectual and spiritual capital and centre for the propagation of Islam throughout Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries. Its three great mosques, Djingareyber, Sankóre and Sidi Yahya, recall Timbuktu's golden age. It is true, much of the ancient lustre has disappeared, but you can still feel the atmosphere of the legendary sultans, great warriors and rich tradesmen ... but then, this is Mali, 'The Lost Kingdom of Africa'.

Further information

The Tourist Office of Mali

How to get there

Air France
Royal Air Maroc

Where to stay

Laico El Farouk Hotel

Located on the banks of the Niger River, in the heart of the capital and just steps from the famous Martyrs Bridge, this landmark hotel is one of the finest in Mali.

Radisson Blu Hotel

This hotel offers a restful and luxurious oasis away from the bustling city centre of Bamako, enviably located in the newly developed district of ACI 2000.


- Peter Holthusen


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