Timbuktu: The Sahara's Fabled City of Gold

Timbuktu: The Sahara's Fabled City of Gold

by Marq De Villiers, Sheila Hirtle

View All Available Formats & Editions

The first book for general readers about the storied past of one of the world’s most fabled cities.

Timbuktu — the name still evokes an exotic, faraway place, even though the city’s glory days are long gone. Unspooling its history and legends, resolving myth with reality, Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle have captured the splendour and decay


The first book for general readers about the storied past of one of the world’s most fabled cities.

Timbuktu — the name still evokes an exotic, faraway place, even though the city’s glory days are long gone. Unspooling its history and legends, resolving myth with reality, Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle have captured the splendour and decay of one of humankind’s treasures.

Founded in the early 1100s by Tuareg nomads who called their camp “Tin Buktu,” it became, within two centuries, a wealthy metropolis and a nexus of the trans-Saharan trade. Salt from the deep Sahara, gold from Ghana, and money from slave markets made it rich. In part because of its wealth, Timbuktu also became a centre of Islamic learning and religion, boasting impressive schools and libraries that attracted scholars from Alexandria, Baghdad, Mecca, and Marrakech. The arts flourished, and Timbuktu gained near-mythic stature around the world, capturing the imagination of outsiders and ultimately attracting the attention of hostile sovereigns who sacked the city three times and plundered it half a dozen more. The ancient city was invaded by a Moroccan army in 1600, beginning its long decline; since then, it has been seized by Tuareg nomads and a variety of jihadists, in addition to enduring a terrible earthquake, several epidemics, and numerous famines. Perhaps no other city in the world has been as golden — and as deeply tarnished — as Timbuktu.

Using sources dating deep into Timbuktu’s fabled past, alongside interviews with Tuareg nomads and city residents and officials today, de Villiers and Hirtle have produced a spectacular portrait that brings the city back to life.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for Sahara:

“This is a cool book about one of the world’s hottest places.”
National Geographic Adventure

“[A] lyrical portrait of a vast, exotic land. . . . Wide-ranging, engagingly written.”
Seattle Times

“A thoughtful history of, and popular guide to, the great African desert.”
Kirkus Reviews

Publishers Weekly

For the Victorians, Timbuktu, a town in central Mali, evoked visions of mysterious, faraway lands, but in fact it has been in a gradual decline since the Moroccan invasion more than 400 years ago. Although today it is rife with malaria, dengue fever, poverty and corruption, Timbuktu boasts an illustrious, lucrative past as a nexus for the gold and salt trades from the 14th through the 16th centuries. Timbuktu was also a center for Islamic scholarship, as evinced by the 14,000-manuscript Mamma Haïdara Library; its owner unlocks a storage closet in his home to reveal to one of the authors piles of priceless ancient manuscripts (one dating to 1204), some gathering dust on the floor. The nomadic Tuareg herdsmen, pegged by some legends as Timbuktu's 11th-century founders, practice an unorthodox brand of Islam in which the men are veiled and the women are not, and women can divorce their husbands. This history-cum-travelogue gives a legendary city its due with an abundance of cogent, rich anecdotes, but falls short with a lack of narrative tension as the authors (Sahara) remain remote from the action, never venturing on a daring quest of their own, as writers of the best books in the genre do. Illus., maps. (Aug.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Timbuktu-just the name conjures up adventure, romance, and wealth. While these ideas are slightly out of date, Timbuktu is still a city full of surprises. Part travelog, part historical narrative, this book tells the story of the city's long and colorful past, with de Villiers and Hirtle (coauthors, Sable Island) doing a thorough job of explaining how the city, established by nomads around 1000 years ago, became a focal point for commerce and learning as well as a tolerant home to many different groups of people for hundreds of years. While Timbuktu gained its economic wealth through the trading of salt, slaves, and gold, its social importance came from its many scholars, schools, and libraries. Since around 1600, unfortunately, natural and political intrusions and assaults have worn the city down; today, Timbuktu suffers from immense poverty, but, as the authors reveal, it takes great pride in its history, culture, and astonishing manuscript collections (gathered for generations by Timbuktu's oldest families). International assistance is now working to support preservation of these priceless treasures. Recommended for all public and academic libraries.
—Melissa Aho

Product Details

McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.01(w) x 8.95(h) x 0.82(d)

Read an Excerpt

So why was it important, this now faded and dusty desert capital? In a curious way, the reputation, or reputations, that accreted to Timbuktu predate its actual founding by many years, perhaps by a millennium or more. Or put the other way, Timbuktu itself became a shorthand metaphor for a much greater body of stories and legends about other places altogether. Some of the images inserted into outside imaginations over the centuries were grafted onto the city in the days of its magnificence under the Malian king Mansa Musa. Some of these, in turn, were legends that enveloped the earliest of the Arab invaders, in the seventh and eighth centuries, which in their turn were based on folklore derived at least in part from hints and suggestions of travelers going back to earliest antiquity.

Europe and the Maghreb, or Christianity and Islam, always had differing views of Timbuktu. In both places the city’s reputation shifted over time, and the various versions overlapped, but they were never the same.
It’s true that in both places gold was at the heart of the matter, at least at first. Before the Arabs were routinely traversing the desert and seeing for themselves, their geographers had stitched together from obscure fragments of folktale and legend a dream of riches untold, of gold lying on the ground for the taking, of immense wealth just waiting for the intrepid. But that romantic notion had faded by the fourteenth century, for traders followed the stories, and traders had harder heads than the storytellers, and saw for themselves what was, rather than what should be. The renowned traveler Ibn Battuta and his medieval colleagues did report on the great wealth of the Malian Empire and its storehouses of gold, for the trade in that and other commodities was the city’s reason for being, and Timbuktu really was very wealthy; but Timbuktu also took on a reputation among Muslims for its learning. Many of the Arab travelers remarked on the city’s thirst for books, as well as its traffic in gold, and wrote commentaries on its savants as well as its opulence.

From the fourteenth century on, pilgrims from Timbuktu went to the Holy Places of Islam, sometimes in great numbers and in immense caravans, but scholars from Mecca and Medina also went to live and study in Timbuktu, where they found themselves (sometimes to their evident chagrin) not as eminent or as learned as they had supposed. The university at Fez and the University of Sankoré in Timbuktu were said to be equivalent; commentaries on the Qur’an produced at Sankoré were read in Jeddah and Cairo, and the eminent of both places corresponded over time and great distance, to the profit of both.

This Islamic combination of reputations, those of civilized affluence and scholarly erudition, were eventually fused in the mind of Moulay al-Mansur the Magnificent of Morocco, who in 1591 sent his armies across the desert hoping both to capture the gold trade and to extend his empire, and instead precipitated the city’s gradual decay. The soldiers may have been emissaries from what they considered a high culture, but they killed or exiled most of the scholars, equating learning with disaffection, as conquerors are wont to do.
After that, the Arabs essentially lost interest, and for several dismal centuries the city was repeatedly besieged and sacked by a rolling roster of enemies–the Bambara, the Fulani jihadists and the Tuareg–until the French took it in 1893 and restored a semblance of order. Now the Bambara, who are in charge of Mali, are once again in charge of the city’s destiny.

In Europe, where they knew and understood much less, the legend of Timbuktu took on a different color; or rather, retained a single color, the yellow of gold. Stories of caches of gold were teased out of the tales of Arab travelers, and the city became in the minds of the geographers and the merchants they served a fabulous place whose skyline was pierced with spires of gold, dreaming under the desert sun, rich beyond measure.

The legends were not entirely without merit. Of the gold that reached North Africa in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, two-thirds came from, or at least through, Timbuktu, and thence across the Sahara. The coins of the doges were Ghanaian gold from Timbuktu; the guineas that fueled the English commercial expansion were from Ghana (on the Guinea coast) and came to England via the markets of Timbuktu. It was natural, therefore, to think that Timbuktu was itself the origin of the gold and not just a way station on its route. In this way the city took on an almost luminous eminence in the European imagination, a fantastic land groaning under the ineffable weight of its affluence. Unlike the mutated Arab view, it was the pretty legends that seized the European imagination, not the reality. It was loot, not lore, that they coveted.

This image of great riches and a wondrous desert civilization lasted until colonial times; grafted onto it was the newer notion of its very remoteness–never mind that Arab travelers had been going there for seven hundred years and more; Christians were forbidden, and often killed when they were caught. As late as Victoria’s reign a popular saying in England was still “from here to Timbuktu,” which meant “from here to as far away as you can get,” adding a layer of inaccessibility and mystery to the legends of great opulence. Few men who went there, or tried to go there, or even went into the deep Sahara, ever returned to Europe, “and those who did so told almost incoherent stories of madness through thirst, unspeakable cruelties of mirages, a fierce and terrible sun, and a vast limitless ocean of sand.”1 Nothing much about money, though they knew it was there somewhere.

Why go, otherwise?

Meet the Author

Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle are the co-authors of Sable Island and Sahara: The Extraordinary History of the World’s Largest Desert. They live in Eagle Head, Nova Scotia.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >