What is life like in Mali’s ‘city in the middle of nowhere’? Guardian photographer Sean Smith recently spent a week there, meeting everyone from Timbuktu’s chief muezzin to its only DJ.

Timbuktu’s clay-built Djinguereber mosque, commissioned in 1327 by emperor Musa I, at the end of Friday’s midday prayers.

(Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

An entertainer catches his breath during rehearsals. The city’s annual music festival ran for a decade until 2011, when a visitor was killed and three more were abducted.

Timbuktu. Dancers and singers rehearse. For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian

Dancers and singers rehearse. (Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

The entrance to Timbuktu, a city largely run on donkey power whose population is now thought to have dropped below 15,000 people.

Timbuktu. The entrance to the town For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

The entrance to the town. (Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

The 76-year-old muezzin of Djinguereber mosque, Mahamane Mahanmoudou, after making his early morning call to prayer.

Timbuktu.The Muezzin of Djingarei-Ber Mosque Mahamane Mahanmoudou, 76, after making the early morning call to prayer For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

The Muezzin of Djingarei-Ber Mosque Mahamane Mahanmoudou, 76, after making the early morning call to prayer. For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa (Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

The leader of the butchers’ corporation Mahamane Traore, 68, at the open-air slaughterhouse just outside the city limits.

Timbuktu. Head of the Butchers' Corporation Mahamane Traore, 68, at the open air slaughterhouse. Livestock is killed there and then the meat taken to the market nearby For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Head of the Butchers’ Corporation Mahamane Traore, 68, at the open air slaughterhouse. Livestock is killed there and then the meat taken to the market nearby. For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa. (Photograph: Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

Reaching the river Niger from Timbuktu requires a 30-minute drive along 12 miles of potholed road. Here, World Food Programme sacks are loaded on to boats to be shipped along the river.

Timbuktu. A UN patrol to the river Niger at Korioume. World Food programme WFP sacks are loaded onto boats to be shipped along the river For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

A UN patrol to the river Niger at Korioume. World Food programme WFP sacks are loaded onto boats to be shipped along the river. For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa (Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

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The muezzin of Djinguereber stands by the first of a series of doors into the mosque. Locals say if they are all destroyed, the world will end.

Timbuktu. The Muezzin Mahamane Mahanmoudou at the Djinguereber Mosque, Djingarei-Ber Mosque. He is standing by the door behind which is a series of doors. People believe if they are ever destroyed, the world will end For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

The Muezzin Mahamane Mahanmoudou at the Djinguereber Mosque, Djingarei-Ber Mosque. He is standing by the door behind which is a series of doors. People believe if they are ever destroyed, the world will end. For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa (Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

United Nations police on a foot patrol through the city. When France intervened militarily in January 2013, the UN followed with 10,000 soldiers and police.

Timbuktu. UN police foot patrol through the city For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

UN police foot patrol through the city. For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa (Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

Timbuktu’s open-air slaughterhouse. A new abbatoir was built but was seen as too far from the market, then was looted when rebel occupiers withdrew from the city.

Timbuktu. The open air slaughterhouse. Livestock is killed there and then the meat taken to the market nearby For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

The open air slaughterhouse. Livestock is killed there and then the meat taken to the market nearby. For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa (Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

The mosques and old buildings in Timbuktu are made from ‘banco’ – sand collected on the city’s outskirts and mixed with water. The technique is listed by Unesco in a special World Heritage category.

--- 08/07/2014 Timbuktu.Building a house with Banco from which all the mosques and old buildings are made from.Not all the earth is suitable. It tends not to heat up during the day as much as other materials and therefore rather then radiating heat during the day and particularly during the night rooms can stay relatively cool..Photo Sean Smith For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Building a house with Banco from which all the mosques and old buildings are made from.Not all the earth is suitable. It tends not to heat up during the day as much as other materials and therefore rather then radiating heat during the day and particularly during the night rooms can stay relatively cool. 08/07/2014. For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa (Photograph : Sean Smith)

 

A rudimentary customs stop on the road into town. Timbuktu is a staging post on the desert trafficking route for both drugs and people.

The road into town. Timbuktu, Mali

The road into town. Timbuktu, Mali (Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

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Haoussa Tandina, 35, is the main breadwinner in her family. Her many businesses include making ice and juices, and selling fabric and clothes.

Timbuktu. Haoussa Tandina, 35, who makes ice and ice juices. For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Haoussa Tandina, 35, who makes ice and ice juices. For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa (Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

Volunteers clear rubbish close to the Djinguereber mosque. Much of the city’s waste gets dumped in the desert.

Timbuktu. Volunteers clear rubbish close to Djingarei-Ber Mosque For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Volunteers clear rubbish close to Djingarei-Ber Mosque. For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa (Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

A DJ performs a sound check in the only nightclub in Timbuktu.

Timbuktu. The DJ in the only club in the city For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

The DJ in the only club in the city.
For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa (Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

A young boy collects water from one of the few remaining waterholes on the outskirts of the city.

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(Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

A man takes a break from digging for banco. This free material has excellent insulation qualities, but requires a lot of maintenance.

Timbuktu. Digging banco mud, the building material used for all mosques and old buildings. It doesn't heat up during the day or radiate heat as much as other materials so rooms can stay relatively cool, particularly during the night For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Digging banco mud, the building material used for all mosques and old buildings. It doesn’t heat up during the day or radiate heat as much as other materials so rooms can stay relatively cool, particularly during the night.
For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa (Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

With midday temperatures in the 40s throughout summer, locals often stay out on the streets socialising until midnight.

Timbuktu. Because of the heat, people tend to rest in middle of the day and stay out on the street socialising until midnight For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Because of the heat, people tend to rest in middle of the day and stay out on the street socialising until midnight.
For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa (Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

The hotel purchased by the late Colonel Gaddafi a decade ago; the former Libyan leader dug out the Timbuktu canal all the way to the Niger river in 2006.

Timbuktu . Libya Hotels. The hotel Colonel Gaddafi built on the edge of town For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Libya Hotels. The hotel Colonel Gaddafi built on the edge of town.
For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa (Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

A demonstration at the city hall by civil defence force members, protesting at their exclusion from talks in Algeria aimed at brokering a settlement between warring Malian groups.

Timbuktu. Demonstration at the town hall by various members of the civil defence forces. They were protesting at having been excluded from talks arranged in Algeria to broker a settlement between warring Malian armed groups For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Demonstration at the town hall by various members of the civil defence forces. They were protesting at having been excluded from talks arranged in Algeria to broker a settlement between warring Malian armed groups.
For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa (Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

Awaiting the catch at the fish market in the small village of Toya, on the banks of the river Niger.

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(Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

The city’s local historian, Salem Ould Elhadje, says life in Timbuktu ‘is like the years of segregation in the United States’.

Local historian Salem Ould Elhadje. Timbuktu, Mali

Local historian Salem Ould Elhadje. Timbuktu, Mali (Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

Diadié Hammadoun Maiga, 67, on the roof of his home. Maiga stayed put in 2012 to head the city’s crisis committee during the jihadist occupation.

Timbuktu. Hammadoun Maiga, a local councillor who stayed when town was taken over by rebels, at home on his roof For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Hammadoun Maiga, a local councillor who stayed when town was taken over by rebels, at home on his roof.
For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa (Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

People, goods and livestock are crammed on to the back of an old truck and taken to Timbuktu from the river Niger.

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(Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

Children wearing cattle horns play a version of ‘trick or treat’ during the first phase of Ramadan.

Timbuktu. Children wearing horns play a kind of "trick or treat" during the first phase of Ramadan, while there's a moon For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Children wearing horns play a kind of “trick or treat” during the first phase of Ramadan, while there’s a moon.
For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa (Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

Two boys walk past the Djinguereber mosque. Its annual restoration requires a team of 20 builders.

Timbuktu. The Djinguereber Mosque, Djingarei-Ber Mosque For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

The Djinguereber Mosque, Djingarei-Ber Mosque.
For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa (Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

UN police observe one of the city’s many donkey-pulled traps – Timbuku’s equivalent of the ‘man with a van’.

Timbuktu. UN police foot patrol through the city For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

UN police foot patrol through the city.
For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa (Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

The headmaster of Timbuktu’s Qur’an school, Abdoul Wahab Haidara, writes passages of the holy book out on wooden tablets for students to recite.

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(Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

A UN armoured vehicle returns to the city limits after a patrol to the Niger river at Korioumé. There has been a recent surge in attacks on UN peacekeepers in northern Mali.

Timbuktu. A UN patrol to the Niger river at Korioume returns to the city limits For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

A UN patrol to the Niger river at Korioume returns to the city limits
For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa (Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

A young boy sporting a Cristiano Ronaldo football shirt and large knife follows a limb of raw meat as it is carried from open-air abattoir to market.

Timbuktu. A boy carries meat from the slaughterhouse to the market along a street. The town has an open-air abattoir. A new abattoir was built but was a long way from the market and was looted during the withdrawal of rebels For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

A boy carries meat from the slaughterhouse to the market along a street. The town has an open-air abattoir. A new abattoir was built but was a long way from the market and was looted during the withdrawal of rebels
For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa (Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

Dancers and singers during rehearsals. The Timbuktu Renaissance Initiative seeks to restore the city as ‘a beacon of tolerance, wisdom and innovation – the signature characteristics of its golden age’.

Timbuktu. Dancers and singers rehearse For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Dancers and singers rehearse.
For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa (Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

Protesters demanding their voices be heard at the city hall. According to residents, rebel fighters are still present but dormant in Timbuktu, and active all around it.

Timbuktu. Demonstration at the town hall by various members of the civil defence forces. They were protesting at having been excluded from talks arranged in Algeria to broker a settlement between warring Malian armed groups For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Demonstration at the town hall by various members of the civil defence forces. They were protesting at having been excluded from talks arranged in Algeria to broker a settlement between warring Malian armed groups.
For Cities: Timbuktu, Mali, Africa (Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

The Djinguereber mosque during a sandstorm. The Sahara desert is encroaching on Timbuktu’s northern limits, stifling life in the city.

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(Photograph : Sean Smith/Guardian)

 

This feature originally appeared in The Guardian.

 


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