The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu
Charlie English (William Collins, £20)
This is a double story in more ways than one. The chapters alternate between, on the one hand, an account of the discovery and revelation of Timbuktu by European travellers over the centuries and, on the other, an account of the dramatic events of the years 2012 and 2013, when the city’s cultural treasures—and indeed its very existence—were threatened by a combination of raiders from the north: jihadists, al-qaeda extremists, common bandits and renegade Tuareg (the blue men of the sahara desert).
in a second way, this book is a double story, for Timbuktu has always been both a reality and a myth. At the level of reality, it was already an established settlement—at the junction of the world’s largest desert and West Africa’s longest river (the Niger) —by ad1100 and it was recorded in the Catalan Atlas of 1375. it was a natural meeting point of trans-saharan caravan routes, the main commodities going south being salt and, going north, gold.
The first published account of Timbuktu was that of Leo Africanus in the 16th century, but his account, which he claimed was based on personal observation, contained almost as much myth as reality. he described it as a city with palaces in which the wealthy inhabitants traded gold ingots and the king commanded an army of 3,000 cavalry.
The historical chapters recount the experiences of the subsequent European travellers, most of whom really did reach Timbuktu and found a dusty desert settlement of mud houses rather than a glittering city of golden domes. The urge to explore Africa had been motivated by James Bruce’s reports of his travels in Ethiopia in the 1770s. in 1795, Mungo Park set out for Timbuktu and, after three months as a captive of ‘the Moors’, reached the River Niger and found it was flowing in a different direction to that expected.
it was left to Maj Gordon Laing to reach Timbuktu itself—in 1826 —and produce the first account written in situ; he disappeared in the desert on his attempted return journey.
Two years later, a frenchman named Caillie arrived, but his written account of Timbuktu was received with some scepticism by those—including the forerunners of the Royal Geographical society in England—who suspected his comments were based on the lost or stolen papers of Gordon Laing.
The next significant traveller was the German heinrich Barth in the 1850s, who first recognised the importance of local ‘chronicles’ containing a history of black Africa that had previously been thought to be non-existent. he was received by Lord Palmerston in London on his return, but, thereafter, British geographers concentrated their attention on British explorers, such as Livingstone, Burton and speke. The European acquisition of Africa quickly followed: only 10% of the continent had been colonised by 1870, but, by 1914, the figure had reached 90%.
Alternating with these historical chapters is an account of the efforts made between 2012 and 2013 to preserve the African heritage recorded in the manuscripts and libraries of Timbuktu. This is when the ‘book smugglers’ came into their own, risking death or mutilation by the al-qaeda fanatics who had taken over the city. Manuscripts and books were stowed away in ‘safe houses’ or carried past checkpoints and frontiers to find safe havens in Bamako or elsewhere; in one operation, 922 boxes of hidden manuscripts were shipped down the Niger. Librarians suddenly became heroes, scholars daring adventurers.
What is in part a history of exploration turns into a gripping tale of contemporary risk taking—although, even here, the scale of the rescue may have been exaggerated. Nothing can be taken at its face value in Timbuktu, except perhaps its magnetic appeal. John Ure
Mukhtar bin Yahya al-wangari at his family library in Timbuktu