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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

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