From Here to Timbuktu goes the phrase, as though the nearly millennial city at the bend of the Niger River was the middle of nowhere. Seven hundred years ago it was certainly somewhere. Timbuktu was the center of the West African gold trade — at a time when the region produced two-thirds of the world?s supply. The city reached its height during the reign of Mansa Musa, the tenth emperor of Mali, whose pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 did so much to spread the rumors of Timbuktu?s fabulous wealth. Western explorers came searching for gold, but the real treasures were literary — hundreds of thousands of Arabic manuscripts — for Timbuktu had long been the intellectual center of Islam in Africa. When Mali fell to French colonialism, the private libraries went underground — often literally, being buried under the sand — and only began reappearing in the 1960s with independence. The story of these manuscripts and their preservation is at the heart of this beautiful new photography book. The manuscripts and the city?s historical buildings are lovingly depicted and the story of their almost miraculous survival told. But the book?s unexpected treasure is the group of sitting portraits of Timbuktu?s people. Nomad, Tuareg, Fulani; man, and woman; young and old: all stare directly into the camera. Their faces are riveting and remind us that Timbuktu, despite impoverishment, remains a vibrant cultural crossroads. As the West African proverb has it: “Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom come from Timbuktu.”
About the Author
Robert Messenger is the Books Editor of The Wall Street Journal.