WORDS – DOMINIC BRADBURY
Even in a good week, getting to Timbuktu is quite some adventure. The alternative to taking the rainy season river boat up the River Niger, or days of hard driving overland, is to take one of the small planes that serve the city a couple of times a week from Bamako, the capital of Mali. The plane carries you over the winding route of the arterial Niger – carving its way through the flatlands – before depositing you in this frontier town of the Sahara, where a different way of life is forged among the sand and the demanding desert wind.
Beyond the northern boundary, the Sahara stretches out for hundreds of empty miles, heading towards Morocco, interrupted only by remote salt mining outposts. But out here in Timbuktu one of the most fascinating and challenging restoration projects in West Africa is underway, a project that should bring new pride and fresh interest to this historic and mesmerising desert settlement.
Few would invest time or money in such a raw and remote part of Africa, but here a team from the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) are working with local craftsmen on the restoration of the Djingarey Ber mosque, one of the oldest and most significant mud buildings in the region. In African terms, this is the equivalent of restoring St Peter's in Rome, but it just happens to be sited in such a romantic and unforgiving corner of the continent, where donkeys serve as earth movers and camel trains mix with Landcruisers, bicycles, motorbikes and goats.
AKTC's French project architect, Gautier Bicheron, and Italian conservation expert Josephine d'Ilario are leading a four year campaign to fully restore Djingarey Ber, which sits at the heart of the town. It lies just a short distance from the central labyrinth of simple flat roofed, mud houses including those of early 19th century European explorers such as René Caillié and Gordon Laing.
Founded in the 14th century and gradually adapted and enlarged, Djingarey Ber is a relic of Timbuktu's golden age, when it stood at the legendary intersection of West African and trans-Saharan trade routes. A thriving, gateway merchant town made rich on salt, gold and slaves it was also an epicentre of learning and education, cradling widely respected universities and libraries, as well as three mosques with Djingarey Ber the most significant.
It is a sculpted, sinuous building which seems to rise out of the baked ground and spread itself out, making its presence felt. Rows of pillars, reinforced with stone, support a timber lattice roof but the largest part of the mosque is earthern, with layer upon layer of banco – a mix of mud and risk husks – giving the building its smooth, hand crafted finish, interrupted by projecting timbers, emerging from the mud like giant quills.
'It is the most important and one of the largest mosques in Mali,' says Bicheron. 'The mosques in Mopti and Djenné are well known but the most historic and the most original is Djingarey Ber. It has great regional importance within the heritage of earth architecture and the practice of Islam. It's at a crossroads and the mosque served the city and the people who came here for trade and learning.'
But like Timbuktu itself, Djingarey Ber is feeling its age. While Timbuktu has suffered a slow decline over the centuries, the mosque itself has gradually deteriorated. The roof, especially, made of palm wood and mud, had weakened so much that – according to the mosque's imam, Abdramane ben Essayouti, it was in danger of collapse. In 1988 the mosque was declared a world heritage site and listed as a building in peril by Unesco, flagging up its importance and vulnerability. World Bank funds helped shore up the minaret at the turn of the millennium, but it was only after Mali's President Touré introduced the Aga Khan to Djingarey Ber that the AKTC got to work surveying the building followed by an intensive restoration programme.
'Without the restoration it would have been a catastrophe,' says ben Essayouti. 'Over time water had worked its way between the layers of banco and the walls had expanded and deteriorated. When the first team of architects from the AKTC arrived there was a party to welcome them. There is inconvenience for the users of the mosque when parts are closed for restoration but as soon as people see the outcome of the work they are very happy. There is happiness on everyone's lips and the renovation of the mosque helps bring more people to prayer.'
Gautier and Bicheron are working with a team of around 70 local workers, neatly turned out in their indigo overalls, including two master masons. It's part of a process of cultural exchange, with the AKTC team passing on their expertise and guidance but also learning from Timbuktu's artisans about local construction techniques, together helping to revitalise not just the mosque but the local traditions of earth building, which have been threatened by the arrival of other materials like concrete.
'All the workers are from Timbuktu and have a strong craft tradition,' says d'Ilario. 'In time some knowledge has been lost and together we are trying to find the best methods and the best materials for the restoration. It is an evolving, working monument. We work closely with the imam as well, always showing him what we are doing and if it's something new then we will speak with him about it. It's important that there is understanding,'
Within the restoration, lost decorative panels have been uncovered under layers of mud, with the AKTC now working with the local libraries to try and uncover documentary evidence of how old and how significant these discoveries might be, given that there's little detailed information on the history of Djingarey Ber.
'As we started to do this work we began to discover things that nobody seemed to know about, things that have been conserved in their original state – I was absolutely stunned by it,' says the Aga Khan, spiritual head of the Ismaili Muslim diaspara, as well as a British citizen, who recently visited Timbuktu, along with the two sons, Princes Rahim and Hussain, and his daughter in law, Princess Khaliya. 'It is history unfolding in front of you and it is fascinating.
'On all these projects we train people, people who we have selected or want to learn about restoration work. What I want to do now is get into targeted training. In Mali we are working with the Ministry of Culture to establish a thorough data base of all the cultural assets in earth construction in Mali – villages, palaces, forts, mosques – and we will try and grade their importance.
'Then we will try and bring people from the most important sites to train with us, so that when those people go back to their local communities there will be trained men and women to do that restoration work. It will no longer be dependent on an initiative from the AKTC. It will be able to progress without us. It's a very exciting process.'
As well as working in Afghanistan and many other challenging parts of the world, in Mali the AKTC has already restored the grand mosque in Mopti and will soon start work on the mosque in Djenné. The restoration work is complemented by other initiatives alongside these earth masterpieces, which improve infrastructure, kick start enterprise and improve transport links, with even the city hopping Air Mali planes benefiting from investment. It is a regeneration package with architecture at its centre
For a place like Timbuktu – where the life is hard and the facilities few, where for every simple mud house there is a hand made tent pitched on the town's edge – the push towards regeneration is a lifeline. A revived Djingarey Ber, where restoration should be complete by 2010, will create new interest in the town and bring in more tourism, more investment.
'We hope these projects are a catalyst for development,' says Luis Monreal, director general of the AKTC. 'In the case of Mopti you already see the development of hotels and this is a result of the improvement of the cultural environment. The notion that the built environment has to be at the service of well being and quality of life is a central idea.'
At Djingarey Ber, there's an old story about a powerful magician who one day changes himself into a lion only to be locked away behind a strong door in the mosque, sealed away from the world. It's tempting to think of Timbuktu in the same way – a powerful, mysterious and magical place which has been hidden away by geography and the shifting sands of history. But Timbuktu could, at long last, be woken up by a revival encouraged by the passion, patience and time devoted to restoring its greatest building.
BUILDING THE EARTH
Whether you want to call it adobe, pisé, cob, loam or banco, mud is one of the commonest and most beautiful building materials on the planet. In Mali and other parts of West Africa, mosques, churches, buildings and houses are naturally made of mud – being so readily available and relatively easy to use.
Here, you see mud bricks carved out of earth pits and set out to bake in the sun or alternatively made up in moulds and dried in stacks. The mud bricks are then used, sometimes on stone foundations, to make walls while the roofs are made with lattices of timber. The whole lot then gets coated in layers of banco, a mixture of mud and rice husks, giving the architecture of the region its organic, sculpted feel.
Larger buildings, like mosques, also have projecting timber struts, which help add extra support while also doubling up as ready-made scaffolding. In Morocco and parts of North Africa, rammed earth walls are more common, with the mud pressed down layer upon layer to form hard walls.
The cost of all this beautiful mud is the need for constant maintenance, with the rainy season of tropical West Africa a particular danger to those sinuous, crafted walls, as well as the dangers of extreme temperatures and sand encroachment. In Mali, the mosques are refaced each year with new layers of banco in annual crepissage – or replastering – festivals, where the whole village gets involved. Even in the UK, mud is making something of a comeback with a resurgence of interest in traditional, eco-friendly cob building.