Dating back to the 16th century, the libraries of Timbuktu are legendary – this was a city whose population is outnumbered ten to one by its books. Up until 2012, Abdel Kader Haidera was simply a bibliophile and custodian of the largest collections of these documents, which reveal the great sophisitcation of this history, formerly the heart of the two of the richest empires ever seen. But when Timbuktu was seized by Islamists, it became clear to him that this vast treasure trove of ancient civilisation would be destroyed – as the world has seen in in the manner of Palmyra – unless he could smuggle it out of the city for safe hiding. In an extraordinary operation, worthy of a John Le Carre novel, Hadeira and his cohorts managed to safeguard almost the entire collection of over a half a million documents – in effect, the history of an entire civilisation.
Even back in the 18th and 19th century, European intellectuals asked: What was Timbuktu? Did this storied place, as alluring and elusive as El Dorado, really exist? What mysteries did it hold? Alongside the story of Haidara’s efforts to save Timbuktu’s heritage from destruction, Charlie English tells the riveting story of the European and American explorers who raced to reach Timbuktu, to try to discover what they believed was the mysterious capital of a remote but intensely rich African kingdom. English brings to life the excesses and the courage of these men who crossed continents on camels whose chances of survival in this ‘white man’s graveyard’ was considerably less than those who fought in the first days of the Battle of the Somme.
Told in tandem, each story works to weave together the rich and fraught history of Timbuktu, and how its 2012 conflict threatened to wipe out this vital legacy.
About the author
Charlie English is the former head of international news at the Guardian. A fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and author of a previous book, The Snow Tourist, he first journey to African at nineteen, and has travelled widely there and elsewhere around the globe. He lives in London.
‘An exemplary work of investigative journalism that is also a wonderfully colourful book of history and travel’ William Dalrymple, Observer, Books of the Year
‘This spellbinding record of Timbuktu’s intellectual heritage blends accounts of European explorers to the ancient city with contemporary reportage’ New Yorker
‘As Timbuktu remains off limits for tourists, this account is all the more intriguing’ Financial Times
‘A work of intellectual honesty that represents narrative non-fiction at its most satisfying and engaging’ William Dalrymple, Guardian
‘A piece of postmodern historiography of quite extraordinary sophistication and ingenuity… [written with] exceptional delicacy and restraint’ TLS
‘Part reportage, part history, part romance and wholly gripping… a riveting read’ Sunday Times
‘A fascinating account of Timbuktu’s history and the brave and crazy adventurers who sought death and glory trying to get there’ The Times
‘Gripping … written with journalistic verve’ Sunday Telegraph
‘A rewarding account … after reading it I felt I knew more, cared more and wanted to know more’ Scotland on Sunday
‘Running alongside Mr English’s lively telling of the quest for Timbuktu is a thrilling account of a more recent story: the daring evacuation of hundred of thousands of Timbuktu’s manuscripts by its librarians during the jihadist occupation in 2012… The two stories illuminate each other, but somewhat obliquely. It is nonetheless a brilliant device’ Economist