The historic city of Timbuktu, once a byword for a place lost to obscurity and myth, is now in the grip of very real political events. As a military coup unseated Mali’s democratically-elected government in late March, a separate insurrection in the country’s north took advantage of the chaos. Comprised mostly of ethnic Tuaregs — a nomadic Saharan people — the rebel MLNA (the French acronym for National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) has wrested control of much of the territory they seek for an independent state, their “Azawad.” By Sunday, the ancient cultural centers of Gao and Timbuktu were in rebel hands. On Thursday, content with their gains, they declared an “end” to military operations. From being the pipe-dream of a fringe insurgency, Azawad is now a de facto reality.
Attention falls squarely on Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage site that, despite its dusty remoteness, has for years now been a favored spot on the European backpacker trail. Not many tourists are on their way now, though. According to reports, an Islamist, al-Qaeda-linked faction known as Ansar Dine spearheaded the city’s takeover, likely muscling out more secular Tuareg and rebel comrades. Since Tuesday, Shari’a law has been in effect in Timbuktu. In a show of force on Wednesday, reports the Associated Press, the Islamic rebels “drove through the town in a tank-like armored-personnel carrier, their ominous black flag flapping in the wind above the cannon.” The vast majority of Timbuktu’s few hundred Christians have already fled the city.
That sectarian panic belies the richness of Timbuktu’s past. The city of 50,000 may be impoverished and now inaccessible, but it’s home to some of the region’s greatest treasures — in particular, the three earthen-brick mosques of Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia. The first of the three dates back to the 13th century. Fearful for their safety as the conflict rages, UNESCO issued a warning earlier in the week, urging their protection:
Timbuktu and its three great mosques reflect the golden age of an intellectual and spiritual capital in the fifteenth century. These mosques have played a vital role in spreading Islam in Africa. They carry the identity and dignity of a whole people.
Timbuktu’s roots in the desert sands go deep. According to lore, the town sprung up in the 12th or 13th century around a well that was guarded by a woman known as Buktu. At the crossroads of great Saharan trade routes, it rapidly became a center for the exchange salt, gold and slaves. Leo Africanus, the 16th century Moorish traveler turned Papal diplomat, described a city brimming not only with “many wells containing sweet water,” but a town where “the inhabitants are very rich.”
In his account, the king’s treasury overflows with coins and ingots; one of the ingots apparently weighs 970 pounds. At the time a key city in the Songhai Empire, Timbuktu’s rulers collect tribute from surrounding lands and towns and wage wars on those who don’t submit. The king, according to Leo, has at his call an “infinity of foot-soldiers armed with bows made of wild fennel which they use to shoot poisoned arrows.”
But even more impressive than Timbuktu’s political power was its learning. Leo wrote:
There are in Timbuktu numerous judges, teachers and priests, all properly appointed by the king. He greatly honors learning. Many hand-written books imported from Barbary [North Africa] are also sold. There is more profit made from this commerce than from all other merchandise.
Though its fortunes dwindled following defeat by a Moroccan army at the end of the 16th century and the diversion of trade elsewhere, Timbuktu’s scholarly legacy is a source of pride to this day. The city boasts thousands of manuscripts dating back to its “Golden Age” from the 1400s till the Moroccan conquest, works that, as TIME’s Vivienne Walt wrote from Timbuktu in 2009, “shatter any lingering notion that Africa has no historic literary tradition of its own.”
(READ: The lost treasures of Timbuktu.)
But it’s a legacy that is tenuous: as Walt reported three years ago, private collectors have been secreting texts away and significant funds are needed to preserve and archive the manuscripts, some of which have literally been entombed in the desert for centuries. Termites and theft are perennial threats, but now greater dangers loom. As uncertainty grips Timbuktu, the city has become something of a microcosm for all of Mali: no one’s quite clear who is in charge and the threat of further violence swirls like a malevolent sandstorm.
On Thursday, military officials from neighboring West African states met in the Ivory Coast to discuss potential intervention into Mali in order to both restore the democratic government and push back the rebels. U.N. officials warn of a growing humanitarian crisis, with up to 3.5 million at risk as it is from longstanding food shortages. When the 19th century British poet Lord Alfred Tennyson asked “Is the rumor of thy Timbuctoo/A dream as frail as that of ancient Time?”, his verse took him to the edge of an unfathomable, mysterious world. Now, what makes Timbuktu so frail are terrors all too real.