Great Mosque of Djenné © Jean Louis Potier
Mali, one of the poorest countries in the world, is rich in mystery and majesty, offering some of Africa's most fascinating cultural sites and spectacular surreal scenery. The landlocked Republic is the largest country in West Africa, surrounded by seven other states and traversed, in its central and southeastern sector, by the great Niger River.
The country's best known city is the fabled Timbuktu, in ancient times the powerful, wealthy centre of Mali's Mandinka Empire, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is in danger of being swallowed up by the desert sands. Mali's importance waned in the 16th century as the trans-Saharan caravan trading routes lost ground to European sea traders. Imperial power in Mali was replaced by French colonialism and ultimately, in 1960, independence, which has failed to bring prosperity. The Niger River is the centre of industry and commerce, vital for the livelihood of a nation whose majority are poor farmers and fishermen.
As Africa opens up to travellers, however, Mali is once again featuring large on the map, with its variety of unusual sights and experiences, from camel treks through stunning desert landscapes to hikes along the Bandiagara Escarpment where the Dogon people live, steeped in their unique mythology and art. In the medieval city of Djenne tourists marvel at the exquisite mosque, the largest mud building in the world, and centre of the country's predominant Islamic faith. Even the modern capital, Bamako, offers exotic sights and sounds among its dusty streets, and several worthwhile museums. Many visitors opt for the lively town of Mopti, built on three islands, where the market is just bursting with arts and crafts and from whence river cruisers set out along the Niger.
The name Timbuktu has long been colloquially used in English and other languages to denote remoteness. A trip to Mali today, however, is certainly not a dead end but an intriguing journey of discovery.