Timbuctu – No-go zone and The long quest for Timbuktu, and the race to save its treasures
The Storied City: The Quest for Timbuktu and the Fantastic Mission to Save its Past. By Charlie English. Riverhead; 416 pages; $28. Published in Britain as The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu; William Collins; £20
To get another view on this subject, read “Bad Assed Librarians” about saving all the manuscripts.
Tombut. Tenbuch. Tombouctou. Timbuktu. The names called to Europe from out across the Sahara, never quite certain. Was it a New Jerusalem? An African Carthage? A Moorish Florence? Nobody knew: explorer after explorer had tried to reach it, to send word back to Europe of this fabled city on the Niger river, but until well into the 19th century every attempt had ended in death or failure. Perched on the outer reaches of European knowledge, Timbuktu powerfully captured what Edward Said, a Palestinian-American scholar, called the “Orientalist” imagination. For centuries, myth was piled upon myth.
In “The Storied City”, Charlie English, a veteran journalist for the Guardian, traces how the European idea of Timbuktu took shape through the “West’s centuries-long struggle to find, conquer and understand the city”. Cut off from Christian Europe following the Muslim conquests in the seventh and eighth centuries, Timbuktu’s sheer remoteness at the far end of the Saharan caravan trails meant that first-hand accounts were non-existent. Explorers dreaming of Africa’s El Dorado, with prizes and wealth for doing so waiting back home, yearned to remedy this.
Leo Africanus, a north African traveller of obscure origin, put Timbuktu on Europe’s intellectual map with “Descriptions of Africa”, a florid account of his journey from what is now Tunisia to the gold-trading kingdoms of west Africa. His mid-16th-century portrait of a city of gold and enlightenment echoed down the centuries. Mungo Park, a Scottish explorer, published “Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa” in 1799. A bestseller, it made Timbuktu the talk of literary Europe, but Park never reached the city. A little-known Scottish soldier, Major Alexander Gordon Laing, finally entered in 1826: he later left a cryptic note that revealed little, before disappearing into the desert. René Caillié, a reclusive Frenchman, proclaimed himself ready to share Laing’s fate: “Dead or alive: it shall be mine.” But Caillié went on to become the first European explorer to return from the city alive, in 1828.
Other detailed accounts began to emerge, describing a city less fantastical than many Europeans had imagined. But the myth of Timbuktu proved resilient. Into the 20th century it remained a source of fascination to scholars enraptured by the gilded legend of its libraries and unrivalled learning.
The reality, inevitably, was more mundane. To be sure, an influential Moorish trading town had sat at the juncture of the world’s largest desert and west Africa’s longest river since at least the 12th century. Until the discovery of the Americas it lay at the heart of a region that produced two-thirds of all the Mediterranean’s gold. The settlement was an important asset for a succession of empires: Mali, Songhai, Morocco. It was an exceptionally (though not uniquely) sophisticated society from at least the mid-14th century, rich with literature, madrasas and thousands of students. Timbuktu’s most distinctive feature, though, was its many private libraries, the work of the city’s scholars, drawn from its wealthiest families. It was in these libraries that the famous manuscripts—vast numbers of mainly religious texts but also secular works such as poetry, novellas and works of science—were deposited, and carefully conserved, over the centuries.
Running alongside Mr English’s lively telling of the quest for Timbuktu is a thrilling account of a more recent story: the daring evacuation of hundreds of thousands of Timbuktu’s manuscripts by its librarians during the jihadist occupation in 2012. The threat that the jihadists posed to the city’s inheritance was often foreshadowed over the preceding centuries, from the Moroccan invasion in the late 16th century, which led to killings, expulsions and looting, to the French conquest at the end of the 19th. The French and the jihadists, though utterly different in every other way, both saw a once-great city that could be restored to glory only through their occupation.
Mr English tells the new and the older tales in parallel. The evacuation of Timbuktu’s manuscripts has been recounted by others in many newspaper articles and another recent book. But the history of European exploration is a compelling enough subject in its own right, and much less well-known. The two stories illuminate each other, but somewhat obliquely. It is nonetheless a brilliant device.
This is because Mr English concludes by casting a degree of doubt on the story of the evacuation. It is, he suggests, a “modern-day folktale”, the jihadi threat to the manuscripts slightly exaggerated, their number and value a tad inflated. But this, he argues, is in keeping with a long tradition. Timbuktu’s story has always been told and re-told: a tapestry of half-truths and almost-truths shaped by outsiders and Timbuktiens alike. The city’s history, he says, exists in “perpetual motion, swinging back and forth between competing poles of myth and reality”. No wonder people like Mr English keep writing about it.