Timbuktu: The Sahara's Fabled City of Gold

Timbuktu: The Sahara's Fabled City of Gold

by Marq de Villiers, Sheila Hirtle

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

Founded in the early 1100s by Tuareg nomads who called their camp "Tin Buktu," it became,…  See more details below


Timbuktu-the name still evokes an exotic, faraway place even though its glory days are long gone. Unspooling its history and legends, resolving myth with reality, Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle have captured the splendor and decay of one of mankind'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 center 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, which began 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.

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Editorial 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

Kirkus Reviews
De Villiers and Hirtle (Sable Island: The Strange Origins and Curious History of a Dune Adrift in the Atlantic, 2004, etc.) team up again to tackle the long, knotty history of a metropolis famed as the home of fabulous wealth and Islamic scholarship. De Villiers assumes the personality of a jaunty traveler, while Hirtle is the intrepid archival scholar in this crammed account of the city in northwest Africa that "became a shorthand metaphor for a much greater body of stories and legends" about the Arab world. The popular Victorian expression "from here to Timbuktu" captures its perceived mystery and inaccessibility; indeed, even Timbuktu's location, six miles from the source of the Niger River, prompted confusion in early explorers, who often thought the Niger was the Nile. Nomadic Tuareg herdsmen probably named the city after the well of Buktu around the 11th century-or the name might mean "woman with a large navel" in a local language. The authors present both possibilities, followed by a benumbing list of foreign emperors, kings and sultans, as the pre-Islamic Ghana-Wagadu kingdom gave way to waves of Arab invaders who made Timbuktu a crossroads of the trans-Saharan commercial trade, attracting gold and holy men from the Maghreb. The great kingdom of Mansa Musa (1312-1332) was succeeded by Tuareg, then Songhai rulers. Timbuktu became an important center of learning with extensive libraries (now being preserved). The Moroccan invasion of 1590 ushered in a decline later exacerbated by militant jihadists and European colonizers. The authors attempt to lighten the load of all this convoluted history with modern "travelers' tales," depicting Timbuktu today as decrepit and dusty but stillunusually polyglot and ethnically diverse. A few contemporary anecdotes, however, can't disguise the fact that this is essentially an academic resource for bookish trekkers. Fascinatingly recondite, but also fairly deadening: scarcely useable or even readable for most pleasure travelers.

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Product Details

Bloomsbury USA
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