Justin Marozzi

Gold and dust

Was the frantic salvage operation of 2012 quite as heroic as it originally appeared?

Gold and dust
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The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu: The Quest for this Storied City and the Race to Save its Treasures

Charlie English

William Collins, pp. 400, £

Timbuktu. Can any other three syllables evoke such a thrill? For travellers, explorers and historians of Africa, the ancient desert city, one-time fabulously rich centre of the Saharan caravan trade and bookish haven for bibliophiles, is one of the great destinations — a place that manages to out-Mecca Mecca in its remote attraction. Leave aside the less romantic truth that the city’s a bit of a dump these days and don’t spoil the fun. The legend lives on.

And that’s the point really. There are two Timbuktus, as Charlie English explains at the outset of this excellent book. There’s the real city, a scraggy outpost in northern Mali and, if we’re honest, something of a disappointment. And then there’s the altogether more fantastical Timbuktu of the imagination, stirred by those epic tales of European explorers, driven crazy by malaria as they fought their feverish way along the deadly Niger, frequently losing their lives and those of their African companions, to reach this elusive talisman.

The mythologising began not with Europeans, in fact, but from the flourishing pen of Al Hassan ibn Mohammed al Wazzan al Zayyati, better known as Leo Africanus, who wrote admiringly of Timbuktu after his visit around 1510. Manuscripts, he reported, were more valued in the city’s markets than any other goods.

After a number of false — and fatal — starts, the first European to make it to Timbuktu was the impossibly plucky Major Alexander Gordon Laing in 1826, having survived fever and plunder and a brutal attack in which he was stabbed 24 times and left for dead. After staying in the city for over a month, Laing was murdered, leaving greater glory to the Frenchman René Caillié, who recorded the perhaps more important first, that of being the first European to return alive from Timbuktu in 1828, an accolade which earned him the Légion d’Honneur, and 10,000 francs from the Société de Géographie.

Caillié had plenty more tales to tell, though not nearly as many as the German Heinrich Barth, who returned from his death-defying African travels through the ancient sultanates of Bornu, Kano, Sokoto, Gando, Nupe and Timbuktu from 1850–55 with the greatest store of information about Africa ever brought back by an explorer in the 19th century. That Barth is less of a household name than his contemporaries — Burton, Livingstone, Stanley, Park and Speke — owes much to his five-volume, 3,500-page account of the expedition, a thoroughly Germanic undertaking that was even more heavygoing than its author’s journey. Barth also ‘discovered’ Tarikh al-Sudan, a critical early history of the region.

Charlie English, a former Guardian international news editor, tells the gripping story of these accreting layers of exploration and literary excavation with punch and panache. Equally compelling, and cleverly interwoven with that history, is the more contemporary narrative of the frantic race to save tens of thousands of Timbuktu’s priceless ancient manuscripts — some stored in a state library, many more guarded in family collections over centuries — from the jihadists who seized Timbuktu in 2012. Mostly religious texts, they also include works of poetry, philosophy, mathematics, medicine, magic, history, science, geography and astronomy dating back to the city’s golden age in the 16th century.

If there is a hero in this book it is Abdel Kader Haidara, scholarly head of the Ahmed Baba Institute, who masterminded the covert operation to move the manuscripts more than 600 miles from Timbuktu to the safety of Bamako, Mali’s capital, under the jihadists’ noses. Given the iconoclasts’ stomach-wrenching destruction of the city’s ancient shrines, it was a race against time to save them from public book-burning. Or so it appeared.

That qualification may sound mean-spirited and niggardly, but English’s admirably thorough investigations leave room for uncertainty. Was the threat to the manuscripts deliberately exaggerated to encourage international donors, who duly poured in their millions, to take action? Might some of those involved in the operation have been tempted to exploit the crisis for their own benefit? How many manuscripts really were there? Amid the murk and chaos of a dangerous and undeniably courageous operation, we may never know. Whatever the finer points, it is thrilling stuff and, despite media reports to the contrary, the manuscripts have lived to tell another tale.

English is also particularly good on the growing awareness of indigenous African history, putting paid to the complacent, Eurocentric parochialism as expressed by Hugh Trevor-Roper in 1963:

Perhaps in the future there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none. There is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness.

This was arrant nonsense then, and even more so now.

With its galloping sweep of history and high-paced reporting The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu pays fine tribute to the ‘acute bibliophilism’ of this mercurial city. English must have been disappointed to see Joshua Hammer, author of the ludicrously overhyped The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, beat him into print last year. He needn’t be. Sometimes, as Major Laing discovered to his cost, being first has its drawbacks.