De Villiers and Hirtle (Sable Island: The Strange Origins and Curious History of a Dune Adrift in the Atlantic, 2004, etc.) team up again to tackle the long, knotty history of a metropolis famed as the home of fabulous wealth and Islamic scholarship.
De Villiers assumes the personality of a jaunty traveler, while Hirtle is the intrepid archival scholar in this crammed account of the city in northwest Africa that “became a shorthand metaphor for a much greater body of stories and legends” about the Arab world. The popular Victorian expression “from here to Timbuktu” captures its perceived mystery and inaccessibility; indeed, even Timbuktu’s location, six miles from the source of the Niger River, prompted confusion in early explorers, who often thought the Niger was the Nile. Nomadic Tuareg herdsmen probably named the city after the well of Buktu around the 11th century—or the name might mean “woman with a large navel” in a local language. The authors present both possibilities, followed by a benumbing list of foreign emperors, kings and sultans, as the pre-Islamic Ghana-Wagadu kingdom gave way to waves of Arab invaders who made Timbuktu a crossroads of the trans-Saharan commercial trade, attracting gold and holy men from the Maghreb. The great kingdom of Mansa Musa (1312–1332) was succeeded by Tuareg, then Songhai rulers. Timbuktu became an important center of learning with extensive libraries (now being preserved). The Moroccan invasion of 1590 ushered in a decline later exacerbated by militant jihadists and European colonizers. The authors attempt to lighten the load of all this convoluted history with modern “travelers’ tales,” depicting Timbuktu today as decrepit and dusty but still unusually polyglot and ethnically diverse. A few contemporary anecdotes, however, can’t disguise the fact that this is essentially an academic resource for bookish trekkers.
Fascinatingly recondite, but also fairly deadening: scarcely useable or even readable for most pleasure travelers.