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The Storied City: The Quest for Timbuktu and the Fantastic Mission to Save Its Past

The Storied City: The Quest for Timbuktu and the Fantastic Mission to Save Its Past

by Charlie English

Narrated by Enn Reitel

Unabridged — 13 hours, 54 minutes

Charlie English

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Two tales of a city: The historical race to "discover" one of the world's most mythologized places, and the story of how a contemporary band of archivists and librarians, fighting to save its ancient manuscripts from destruction at the hands of al Qaeda, added another layer to the legend.
To Westerners, the name "Timbuktu" long conjured a tantalizing paradise, an African El Dorado where even the slaves wore gold. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, a series of explorers gripped by the fever for "discovery"  tried repeatedly to reach the fabled city.  But one expedition after another went disastrously awry, succumbing to attack, the climate, and disease. Timbuktu was rich in another way too. A medieval center of learning, it was home to tens of thousands-according to some, hundreds of thousands-of ancient manuscripts, on subjects ranging from religion to poetry, law to history, pharmacology, and astronomy. When al-Qaeda-linked jihadists surged across Mali in 2012, threatening the existence of these precious documents, a remarkable thing happened: a team of librarians and archivists joined forces to spirit the manuscripts into hiding.

Relying on extensive research and firsthand reporting, Charlie English expertly twines these two suspenseful strands into a fraught and fascinating account of one of the planet's extraordinary places, and the myths from which it has become inseparable.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Tom Zoellner

Charlie English…tells this story of contemporary Timbuktu combined with alternating chapters about the mania among 19th-century European Orientalists to be the first to "discover" the lost city. The result is a classic nonfiction braid that reinforces his central point: that Haidara's Indiana Jones-style work to save the hippocampus of the Songhay kingdom is just one more incredible tale in the continuum of Timbuktu.

Publishers Weekly

Like a real-life El Dorado, Timbuktu titillated European explorers for centuries, but its quotidian realities were shielded from their view by the arid desert and distrustful nomads. The modern-day city remains threatened by violent extremists, and its real riches, unbeknownst to the early explorers, are its manuscripts, an unrivaled library of Islamic literature predating Oxford and Cambridge. English (The Snow Tourist), international editor of the Guardian, draws parallels between the intrepid, mostly ill-fated adventurers who were intent on bringing fabulous news of Timbuktu back to Europe and today’s fearless, scholarly inhabitants, who resolutely strive to save the yellowing tomes from destruction at the hands of al-Qaeda. “Any well-informed European asked in 1788 to travel into Africa’s interior should have recognized the journey as the death sentence it was and stayed at home,” English writes. “But the African Association’s recruits were not well-informed. That, in many ways, was the point.” The city’s inhabitants, far more cognizant of the dangers they face, have nevertheless persevered. English shares his firsthand observations of the region’s people and its treasures, offering a no less fantastical or unlikely tale than those imagined in the fever-dreams of the first Europeans to venture up the Niger. Agent: Stuart Krichevsky, Stuart Krichevsky Literary. (May)

From the Publisher

[Charlie English] reconstruct[s] vivid scenes…A classic nonfiction braid…fits perfectly into ongoing narrative of Timbuktu, a place where the magnificence of the tale can occlude the plain fact of what’s there.”–New York Times Book Review

"Spellbinding."—The New Yorker 

"Thrilling...English tells the new and the older tales in parallel...The two stories illuminate each other... a brilliant device." –The Economist

"An exemplary piece of investigative journalism that is also a wonderfully colourful book of history and travel. Above all, it is a work of intellectual honesty that represents narrative non-fiction at its most satisfying and engaging." –The Guardian

“Insightful...interesting…[The Storied City] shows that the sort of willful delusion behind much of the 18th and 19th century quest for Timbuktu continues to this day.”The Wall Street Journal
“Timbuktu is a real place, and Charlie English will fuel your wanderlust with true descriptions of the fabled city’s past, present, and future.” Fodor’s 

"Captivatingly considers the mythic quality Timbuktu attained in the collective imagination, and the failure to understand the city's continued importance as a treasure trove of knowledge." -Shelf Awareness

“English writes vividly of explorations of the past and complications of the present, with a focus on the Indiana Jones-style account of the evacuation of the manuscripts.” –The BBC

"A piece of postmodern historiography of quite extraordinary sophistication and ingenuity." —The Times Literary Supplement

"Part reportage, part history, part romance and wholly gripping… a riveting read." —Sunday Times 

“A compelling work of history and historiography…[An] engrossing history of a city with the enduring power to fascinate” –Kirkus Reviews

"Clear eyed and straightforward...[English] thoroughly dispels the myths about Timbuktu to reveal a truth that is, in many ways, even more remarkable.” Booklist

“English shares his firsthand observations of the region’s people and its treasures, offering a no less fantastical or unlikely tale than those imagined in the fever-dreams of the first Europeans to venture up the Niger.” --Publisher's Weekly

"A fascinating interweaving of past and present: meticulously researched, powerfully written and riveting."
Ben Macintyre, author of Rogue Heroes and A Spy Among Friends
"In this enthralling book - part historiography, part detective story - Charlie English leads the reader on a treasure hunt through Timbuktu’s labyrinthine past to reveal how fact and fable have always commingled there - and continue to do so today. Like the beguiling place it describes, The Storied City is fascinating and surprising at every turn."
Scott Anderson, author of Lawrence in Arabia
“A stirring, page-turning story of thrilling discovery and heroic resistance, peopled by an unforgettable cast of heroes, villains, swashbucklers, scammers, sheikhs, kings, and learned men.”
—Amy Wilentz, author of Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti
“A taut, mesmerizing journey to the legendary desert city that, for generations of Europeans, sat like a shimmering mirage just beyond reach and understanding. The actuality of Timbuktu’s history, and the remarkable story English tells of the secret 2012 rescue of its invaluable manuscripts, is far richer than the mounds of gold envisioned by the many explorers who perished trying to get there.”
Peter Stark, author of Astoria: Astor and Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire
The Storied City is a lovely read. The dramatic present and past of Timbuktu are masterfully interwoven by Charlie English, who has a writer's pleasing prose style, a reporter's nose for the truth and a novelist's ear for narrative structure. Peopled by memorable real-life heroes and villains and with an epic rescue mission at its heart, this is a model of fine storytelling.”
—Jon Lee Anderson
“In this riveting duel narrative of Timbuktu, juxtaposing Europe’s audacious African explorers of yore with Mali’s current culture-keepers heroically defending sacred manuscripts from jihadist occupiers, Charlie English manages to do a remarkable thing: he pulls back the veil of mystery that enshrouds the marvelous, dusty city—but only enhances its magic.”
—Dean King, author of the national bestseller Skeletons on the Zahara

Library Journal

This volume brings together archival work and contemporary interviews to reveal aspects of Timbuktu history and culture, but the result is sometimes frustrating and unclear. Readers interested in the 2011 events might be better served by Joshua Hammer's The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu.--Elizabeth Hayford, formerly with Associated Coll. of the Midwest, Evanston, IL

Kirkus Reviews

Timbuktu has generated myths that persist into the 21st century.Like Xanadu and El Dorado, Timbuktu, in Mali, has long been a subject of legend and fantasy, a glistening city of incalculable riches. Reports circulated in medieval Europe, for example, that "giant gold-digging ants…harvested the precious metal from African riverbeds." In a compelling work of history and historiography, journalist English (The Snow Tourist: A Search for the World's Purest, Deepest Snowfall, 2009), former head of international news for the Guardian, chronicles the journeys of early explorers who contributed to those legends. Drawing on extensive interviews in Mali, the U.S., Europe, and South Africa, the author questions the recent, much-publicized accounts of Timbuktu's vast libraries, their contents and quantity, and survival from alleged jihadi threats. Timbuktu's riches resulted from its favored location, downstream from the Niger River delta. For centuries, it was "the crossroads of the river trade and the caravan routes, the meeting place, in the old dictum, ‘of all who travel by camel or canoe.' " Crossing the Sahara to get there, however, was often perilous for Europeans. Many succumbed to malaria, dehydration, or starvation; others were attacked by Tuareg tribes or Muslim armies. One enterprising French explorer spent three years learning Arabic, studying Islamic texts, and practicing Muslim customs before he embarked, disguised in Arab costume, in 1827. English describes in vivid detail the journeys of intrepid explorers such as Mungo Park, Joseph Banks, and Heinrich Barth, whose exploits have been recounted in other fine books about Timbuktu. Where English breaks ground is by rigorously questioning the contemporary myth of Timbuktu as an intellectual hotbed, with libraries containing hundreds of thousands of important historical manuscripts, allegedly rescued by brave librarians from jihadis who wanted to destroy them. He echoes the skepticism of many academics who believe the documents' historical value "was as over-revved as the numbers," citing Henry Louis Gates, in particular, as inflating the manuscripts' significance. English's sources, moreover, dispute the claim of any jihadi threat. Engrossing history of a city with the enduring power to fascinate.

Product Details

BN ID: 2940169497656
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Publication date: 03/12/2022
Edition description: Unabridged

Read an Excerpt

1. A Seeker of Manuscripts
One hazy morning in Bamako, the capital of the modern West African state of Mali, an aging Toyota Land Cruiser picked its way to the end of a concrete driveway and pulled out into the busy morning traffic. In its front passenger seat sat a large, distinguished-looking man in billowing robes and a pillbox prayer cap. He was forty-seven years old, stood over six feet tall, and weighed close to two hundred pounds, and although a small, French-style mustache balanced jauntily on his upper lip, there was something commanding about his appearance. In his prominent brown eyes lurked a sharp, almost impish intelligence. He was Abdel Kader Haidara, librarian of Timbuktu, and his name would soon become famous around the world.

Haidara was not an indecisive man, but that morning, as his driver piloted the heavy vehicle through the clouds of buzzing Chinese-made motorbikes and beat-up green minibuses that plied the city’s streets, he was caught in an agony of indecision. The car stereo, tuned to Radio France Internationale, spewed alarming updates on the situation in the north, while the cheap cellphones that were never far from his grasp jangled continually with reports from his contacts in Timbuktu, six hundred miles away. The rebels were advancing across the desert, driving government troops and refugees before them. Bus stations were choked with the displaced; highways were clogged with motorbikes and pickups and ancient trucks that swayed under the weight of the fleeing population. Haidara had known when he left his apartment that driving into this chaos would be dangerous, but now it was beginning to look like a suicide mission. Soon he’d had enough: he spoke to his driver, and then they were pointing west again, back toward the skirts of the sprawling African metropolis.

Responsable is a French noun whose meaning is easy to guess at in English. There were few better words to describe the librarian then than as a responsable for a giant slice of neglected history, the manuscripts of Timbuktu, a collection of handwritten documents so large no one knew quite how many there were, though he himself would put them in the hundreds of thousands. Few had done more to unearth the manuscripts than Haidara. In the months to come, no one would be given more credit for their salvation.

In person the librarian was an imposing man with a handshake of astonishing softness, a drive-by of a greeting that left a hint of remembered contact, no more. He was well versed in the history and content of the documents, but appeared not so much a scholar as a businessman who controlled his affairs in a variety of languages via his cellphones, or in person from behind a desk the size of a small boat. He was not the only proprietor of manuscripts in the city, but as the owner of the largest private collection and founder of Savama, an organization devoted to safeguarding the city’s written heritage, he claimed to represent the bulk of Timbuktu’s manuscript-owning families.

Haidara had been raised in a large Timbuktu house made of banco and built around a courtyard, like a hundred thousand others in the region. He was one of fourteen children of Mamma Haidara, a Timbuktu scholar, and the town in which he grew up had changed little in a hundred years. At the heart of the city were the three large mosques: Jingere Ber, the “great mosque,” in the west; Sidi Yahya in the center; and Sankore in the north. The spaces between the mosques were filled with houses and markets, and the old medina, in the shape of a fat teardrop, was a mile and a half around. The people had buried their relatives close to their houses, and as the city had grown, the burial grounds had been absorbed into the network of alleys and streets. The living and the dead now existed side by side, and in the tradition of mystical, Sufi, Islam, the divide between them had become blurred: the most holy ancestors, the scholars and judges and leaders of former times, lay in grand mausoleums where they were worshipped as saints. Someone had counted 333 such saints, and since it was an auspicious number, that was what Timbuktu had come to call itself, the City of 333 Saints.

There were no cars or trucks in Timbuktu when Haidara was growing up; the city did not get its first gas pump until the mid-1970s. Instead it was filled with animals. Sheep and goats and cattle and chickens picked at the sparse vegetation and at the scraps thrown in the streets. Caravans of donkeys brought cereals in from the river port to the south, while the biggest events of the year were the arrivals of the salt caravans, thousands of camels strong, from the mines in the desert.

At the age of six, Haidara had been sent to Kuranic school to learn the holy texts, and afterward to the Franco-Arab school to learn everything else. He remembered it as a childhood sans souci, free from worry, but like most Timbuktiens the family had little moneyTheir principal assets were the manuscripts. These were stored all over the house, Haidara would later recall, on shelves that bowed under the weight of paper, and in relatives’ homes in and around Timbuktu. They were written mostly in Arabic, and were bound in cracking camel and gazelle hide, their fabric eaten by termites and stained with water. They covered almost every subject under the sun. There were works on astronomy, poetry, and medicine, as well as mundane documents of owner­ship, legal rulings, and bills of sale. More than anything, they were Islamic, commentaries on the holy texts and interpretations of their legal meanings.

Haidara’s father used the manuscripts for teaching. Students came from around the region to learn from the scholar and his books, while his friends—the grandes personnalités, the neighborhood leaders and the notables of Timbuktu—came to sit and swap opinions. Sometimes his father would ask him to fetch a certain document, and Haidara would search through the rooms of the house to find the right work. Later he started to copy out parts of the manuscripts, and in this way he came to know and understand them.

His father died in 1981, when Abdel Kader was seventeen. It was tradition that the family of the deceased and the city fathers should meet to divide up the estate, and to this end a list of Mamma Haidara’s possessions was compiled in an exercise book. The manuscripts, though, were kept apart: the collection was not to be divided, sold, or given away. Instead, one of the next generation would be tasked with looking after it. The elders, who had witnessed his inquisitive nature, chose Abdel Kader. He would be the responsable.

It was around this time that the Malian sage Amadou Hampâté Bâ came to speak in Timbuktu. Hampâté Bâ, who had lived since the early days of French colonization, was a gifted writer, a collector of traditions, an expert in West African culture, and a man of great intelligence and stature. Haidara went along to listen to him. Hampâté Bâ told his audience to imagine that in the cultural scheme of things the world’s cities were in a line. At one time, he said, Timbuktu had stood at the front, but then God had ordered the queue to do an about-face, and now it was at the back. “We do not know how,” Hampâté Bâ said, “but perhaps one day God will order another about-face so that Timbuktu finds its place again. You should not cross your arms and wait for that moment. You must help history. You must bring out your manuscripts. You must use them.”

Hampâté Bâ’s words sank deep into Haidara’s consciousness. That day, he understood his purpose. He would try to revive the city through its manuscripts.

Timbuktu in the 1980s was already home to an organization devoted to studying Arabic texts. With the encouragement of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Malian government had endowed a research institute in the city in 1973, named after the sixteenth-century Timbuktu scholar Ahmad Baba, tasked with collecting and preserving Mali’s written heritage. The Ahmad Baba center started out with fewer than one hundred documents and had added around 3,300 more by 1984, when its director approached Haidara and told him he should come to work there as a prospecteur, a seeker of manuscripts. Haidara agreed. He would become the most prolific manuscript prospector the center ever had.

He began by contacting friends and using his charm, his family name, and his natural persistence. Often people would deny that they had manuscripts, but Haidara would return again and again until he had won them over. He searched in Timbuktu but also in the wider ­region, crisscrossing northern Mali by donkey, camel, pirogue, and Land Rover. Sometimes he traveled with the salt caravans, trekking alongside them for fourteen hours straight. He went into towns and ­villages and hamlets, cajoling people into relinquishing the documents they had hidden or forgotten. He traveled to the borders of Mauritania and Senegal in the west, and to the frontiers with Burkina Faso and Niger in the east. He went to Goundam, Diré, Tonka, Niafounke, Niono, and all the places in between. He would pay as much as two hundred dollars for a valuable single-page document and three hundred for a complete manuscript, though sometimes he would pay in animals, which were often more valued than cash. Historical manuscripts were the most sought-after, followed by those that were elaborately decorated, very old, or written by local authors. If his haul was cumbersome, Haidara would hire a car or a riverboat to carry it back to Timbuktu. Little by little, he brought the books and documents in. In twelve years he added 16,000 manuscripts to the Ahmad Baba collection. He continued his prospecting after that, but stopped counting.

As he built up the state archive, Haidara increasingly thought about his own manuscripts, which lay in trunks stacked in small, dark rooms, exposed to damp and termites and the risk of fire. Even if he had wanted to, tradition did not allow him to sell them, so he decided to set up his own research library. He sent out faxes to international institutions and foundations and buttonholed influential visitors to the famous city, asking them for support. People offered to buy them, but no one wanted to pay him to keep them in Timbuktu.

In 1997, the eminent Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., came to Mali, and Haidara invited him to see his collection. Gates shed tears over the documents that were laid out in front of him. Why, Haidara asked, was Gates weeping? Because he had taught at some of the best universities in the world for almost twenty years, Gates explained, and had always told his students there was no written history in Africa, that it was all oral. Now that he had seen these manuscripts, everything had changed. On his return to the United States, Gates lobbied for funding for Haidara’s project, which soon had the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Other foreign donors—the Ford Foundation, the London-based Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, the Juma ­al-Majid Center for Culture and Heritage in Dubai—would provide more money as the years went by. In 2000 the first modern private ­archive in Timbuktu, the Mamma Haidara Memorial Library, was opened at a ceremony attended by the First Lady of Mali. After that, Haidara helped his friends set up their own institutions, and soon ­libraries were springing up all over, as Timbuktu families brought out their collections.

The manuscripts by this time were becoming a cause célèbre. Increasingly they were being used to argue for a new interpretation of ­Africa’s past that could combat the racism that had dogged the continent for so long. From Immanuel Kant to David Hume, Western philosophers and historians had cited the lack of written works from Africa as proof that the continent was too backward even to have a history. “There never was any civiliz’d nation of any other complexion than white,” Hume wrote in 1748, “nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences.” This view was still being echoed by the British historian 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.” Manuscripts ­existed all over West Africa, but Timbuktu’s were the most famous, and now they were held up as counterevidence. In 2001, South African president Thabo Mbeki enlisted them in a campaign to help redefine the continent in African terms. He ordered the creation of a giant new Ahmad Baba building in Timbuktu with an exhibition space, a conference hall, restoration workshops, and an academic program of con­servation. “[The manuscripts] open up possibilities for thinking in new ways about the world,” Mbeki said, “the opportunity to look at history afresh.”

Research into the growing numbers of documents reaching Timbuktu was meanwhile proceeding apace. In 2001, John Hunwick of Northwestern University, the leading international expert on the written Islamic heritage of West Africa, announced that a hoard of three thousand manuscripts he had been shown in one Timbuktu collection was “rewriting history.” “My eyes were popping out of my head,” Hunwick told the Chicago Tribune. “I’d never seen anything quite like them before.” Hunwick’s friend and colleague Sean O’Fahey said it was “like coming upon another Anglo-Saxon chronicle that gave us a new view of the early history of England.” The find was simply “monumental,” according to David Robinson, a professor of African history at Michigan State University.

By 2011, Haidara and his manuscript-hunting colleagues had made enormous progress with the task Hampâté Bâ had set them of restoring Timbuktu to its rightful status in the world. The number of manuscripts counted in the province now stood at no less than 101,820, Haidara estimated, and the figure for the whole country was close to a million. Had it not been for fire, war, and natural disaster, the number would be far higher.

Then the disturbance in the desert outside the city, which had rumbled along for decades, became a cacophony.

Northern Mali had long been a rough neighborhood, a refuge for bandits, smugglers, and revolutionaries. Militant leaders in the north had held grievances against rule from Bamako since colonial times, and these had erupted in periodic rebellions ever since. In 2003, Algerian jihadists fighting a war against their own government had taken refuge across the border in Mali, and soon afterward they received the blessing of Osama Bin Laden and adopted the name al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). They put down deep roots in the desert, taking a cut from the smuggling trade, but their biggest money came from kidnapping. Between 2003 and 2010, AQIM made tens of millions of dollars by ransoming Western diplomats, energy workers, and tourists who strayed into the wrong territory.

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