The city of Timbuktu with its ancient history has long captivated people. Just the very name conjures up images of an oasis in the desert, a city full of exotic people and a place where the mysteries of the East meet the gateway to the dark continent of Africa. It is a place that drew travellers in the Eighteenth century seeking the legendary place where even the slaves wore gold, but the desire to reach there was not always met with success, history shows us that the roads there were littered with failed expeditions as they succumbed to the hostile landscape, disease and attack.
There is another side to Timbuktu, it has always been a world centre in the Islamic world for learning from as far back as the 13th Century. As they became a centre where knowledge was pooled. This has left a lasting legacy of thousands and thousands of documents, books and manuscripts in public and personal libraries throughout the city on subjects as diverse as astronomy, religion, law and history as well as cultural subjects like poetry. These vast libraries came under threat from destruction in 2012 as al-Qaeda–linked jihadists poured across Mali wreaking havoc and destruction as they went. After destroying several mausoleums the librarians and archivists of the city were forced to consider the fate of their precious papers. So began the race to either hide the manuscripts or in the case of large collections, to move them to another city where they would be safe.
At times this reads like a thriller, as he tells the stories of how the manuscripts were moved from Timbuktu to a place of safety in Bamako using secure networks of couriers. Much of it was carried out in secret as the least amount of people that knew about it, the safer the operation. Charlie English recounts the stories he’d been told, before travelling to the city to see for himself the lockers and their precious cargoes. Whilst I think that it was important to set the context, for me it felt like there was too much emphasis on the past events. I didn’t like the switching around of the old and the new, I would have preferred the current day and historical events to be in separate sections. With its history, contemporary world issues and focus on ancient books, it is a difficult book to pigeonhole. It is a fascinating and very readable account of a small but significant part of world history.