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Sahara

Day 41: Bamako to Djenné

Bamako, Mali 
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Kora masterclass with Toumani Diabate.
Michael Palin - SaharaRested and refreshed beside the banks of the Niger, it's now time to follow the river up into the Sahara. Rivers and Sahara sound a distinct contradiction in terms and it's not surprising that the Niger has always fascinated writers and travellers. For a long time it was one of the great geographical riddles. Herodotus and Pliny believed it was joined to the Nile, possibly flowing underground through central Africa. The Romans added little information, as they baulked at crossing the Sahara, and for almost 1500 years the generally accepted authority for the river's course was the Egyptian geographer Ptolemy, whose map, drawn up in the first century AD, showed the Niger flowing from central Africa westwards into the Atlantic. This was confirmed by a twelfth-century scholar, al-Idrisi, from Ceuta, who called it 'the Nile of the Negroes'.

The problem is that neither of these learned gentlemen had ever seen the river. Nor was it easy for travellers from Europe or Islamic North Africa to check their assumptions. The Sahara was a formidable barrier and the Atlantic was much feared. The currents took sailors south, but they had no means of navigating their way back. Cape Bojador, on the coast of what is now Western Sahara, was considered the safe southern sailing limit. Beyond that was terra incognita and a sea full of dragons and sea monsters.

Arab traders were eventually lured across the forbidding Sahara Desert by the promise of gold in the lands to the south. So successful were they, that by the end of the Middle Ages two-thirds of all the world's gold came from West Africa. This created an Islamic cultural and commercial hegemony from which Christians were largely excluded. Leo Africanus, an Arab from Fez, who converted to Catholicism and worked for the Pope, became the first to give an eyewitness account of the mysterious River Niger. Published in Italian in 1600, Africanus' book described sailing the Niger from Timbuktu to Guinea, which makes it scarcely believable that he should have confirmed the conventional error that the river flowed west. But he did. The only one who dared to suggest the Niger flowed east was the man from Tangier, Ibn Battuta. But no-one had listened to him.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 41
  • Country/sea: Mali
  • Place: Bamako
  • Book page no: 125

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