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.