Timbuktu has generated myths that persist into the 21st century.
Like Xanadu and El Dorado, Timbuktu, in Mali, has long been a subject of legend and fantasy, a glistening city of incalculable riches. Reports circulated in medieval Europe, for example, that “giant gold-digging ants…harvested the precious metal from African riverbeds.” In a compelling work of history and historiography, journalist English (The Snow Tourist: A Search for the World's Purest, Deepest Snowfall, 2009), former head of international news for the Guardian, chronicles the journeys of early explorers who contributed to those legends. Drawing on extensive interviews in Mali, the U.S., Europe, and South Africa, the author questions the recent, much-publicized accounts of Timbuktu’s vast libraries, their contents and quantity, and survival from alleged jihadi threats. Timbuktu’s riches resulted from its favored location, downstream from the Niger River delta. For centuries, it was “the crossroads of the river trade and the caravan routes, the meeting place, in the old dictum, ‘of all who travel by camel or canoe.’ ” Crossing the Sahara to get there, however, was often perilous for Europeans. Many succumbed to malaria, dehydration, or starvation; others were attacked by Tuareg tribes or Muslim armies. One enterprising French explorer spent three years learning Arabic, studying Islamic texts, and practicing Muslim customs before he embarked, disguised in Arab costume, in 1827. English describes in vivid detail the journeys of intrepid explorers such as Mungo Park, Joseph Banks, and Heinrich Barth, whose exploits have been recounted in other fine books about Timbuktu. Where English breaks ground is by rigorously questioning the contemporary myth of Timbuktu as an intellectual hotbed, with libraries containing hundreds of thousands of important historical manuscripts, allegedly rescued by brave librarians from jihadis who wanted to destroy them. He echoes the skepticism of many academics who believe the documents’ historical value “was as over-revved as the numbers,” citing Henry Louis Gates, in particular, as inflating the manuscripts’ significance. English’s sources, moreover, dispute the claim of any jihadi threat.
Engrossing history of a city with the enduring power to fascinate.