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The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu: The Quest for this Storied City and the Race to Save its Treasures

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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 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.


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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 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.

30 review for The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu: The Quest for this Storied City and the Race to Save its Treasures

  1. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    The city of Timbuktu with its ancient history has long captivated people. Just the very name conjures up images of an oasis in the desert, a city full of exotic people and a place where the mysteries of the East meet the gateway to the dark continent of Africa. It is a place that drew travellers in the Eighteenth century seeking the legendary place where even the slaves wore gold, but the desire to reach there was not always met with success, history shows us that the roads there were littered w The city of Timbuktu with its ancient history has long captivated people. Just the very name conjures up images of an oasis in the desert, a city full of exotic people and a place where the mysteries of the East meet the gateway to the dark continent of Africa. It is a place that drew travellers in the Eighteenth century seeking the legendary place where even the slaves wore gold, but the desire to reach there was not always met with success, history shows us that the roads there were littered with failed expeditions as they succumbed to the hostile landscape, disease and attack. There is another side to Timbuktu, it has always been a world centre in the Islamic world for learning from as far back as the 13th Century. As they became a centre where knowledge was pooled. This has left a lasting legacy of thousands and thousands of documents, books and manuscripts in public and personal libraries throughout the city on subjects as diverse as astronomy, religion, law and history as well as cultural subjects like poetry. These vast libraries came under threat from destruction in 2012 as al-Qaeda–linked jihadists poured across Mali wreaking havoc and destruction as they went. After destroying several mausoleums the librarians and archivists of the city were forced to consider the fate of their precious papers. So began the race to either hide the manuscripts or in the case of large collections, to move them to another city where they would be safe. At times this reads like a thriller, as he tells the stories of how the manuscripts were moved from Timbuktu to a place of safety in Bamako using secure networks of couriers. Much of it was carried out in secret as the least amount of people that knew about it, the safer the operation. Charlie English recounts the stories he’d been told, before travelling to the city to see for himself the lockers and their precious cargoes. Whilst I think that it was important to set the context, for me it felt like there was too much emphasis on the past events. I didn’t like the switching around of the old and the new, I would have preferred the current day and historical events to be in separate sections. With its history, contemporary world issues and focus on ancient books, it is a difficult book to pigeonhole. It is a fascinating and very readable account of a small but significant part of world history.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Daren

    Hints of spoilers below, so read on only if you know about this, or don't mind some discussion around the edges. Timbuktu - it really is a magical name for a city, one that conjures up such strong impressions of the wild, inaccessible African El Dorado. It is a place that captivates the imagination, it is a city so well recognised for the lack of knowledge about it, which is quite ironic. Timbuktu was also a historic Islamic centre of learning and religion - a fact discovered by the West only a l Hints of spoilers below, so read on only if you know about this, or don't mind some discussion around the edges. Timbuktu - it really is a magical name for a city, one that conjures up such strong impressions of the wild, inaccessible African El Dorado. It is a place that captivates the imagination, it is a city so well recognised for the lack of knowledge about it, which is quite ironic. Timbuktu was also a historic Islamic centre of learning and religion - a fact discovered by the West only a long time after its heyday. Congratulations me, I read a book only a little more than a year after it was published, this is quite a rare event. I was gifted an on0line book voucher and the shop had only limited stock available and this captured my imagination. I found it an excellent read - well put together with an easy structure. It basically runs two narratives, going chapter about. The first is the titular theme - the rescue of the hundreds of thousands (*) of ancient manuscripts stored in the official and private libraries of collectors which were at risk (*) from the al-Qaeda-linked jihadists from 2012 to 2015. The secondary theme is covers the western exploration of (or to) Timbuktu - Going back to 1788, when Africa was in fashion, and not well explored. Joseph Banks with other members of the Royal Society formed the Africa Association - and they advertised for explorers to fulfil exploration missions. Africa had previously been written off as the continent which had no recorded history - where people had no learning to pass down. And yet historic stories of the wealth of Timbuktu had been massively exaggerated, Timbuktu was to change that. Successive chapters move both story lines forward a little at a time, until they come together at the end of the book. There are some twists and turns, and some well explained concise history. The book smugglers theme has a rather well telegraphed twist, which is not necessarily resolved by this book - something other reviewers have identified as an issue. It wasn't such an issue for me. The exploration theme tells some wonderful stories - some already well known, some less so, but all entertaining. The mix if right for me - not so much detail that the exploration stories get bogged down, but not so little that it reads as an outline. My only complaint, and I don't know how this could be resolved better - is that many of the people featured in the book have similar names, and it can be pretty confusing with the who is who. Overall easy to read, well organised and enjoyable. 4 stars. * - maybe!

  3. 5 out of 5

    Andy

    read as part of 2018 Irish Meridians Challenge fascinating, switching between early European searches for the city of Timbuktu and 21st century struggles to preserve the culture in the face of extremists at every point we shift along a spectrum from inflated expectations to low ones early adventurers were spurred desire to discover a trading city, a city of immense riches, and later by European colonial and commercial ambitions. Laing, Mungo Park, Barth most early expeditions ended in failure and de read as part of 2018 Irish Meridians Challenge fascinating, switching between early European searches for the city of Timbuktu and 21st century struggles to preserve the culture in the face of extremists at every point we shift along a spectrum from inflated expectations to low ones early adventurers were spurred desire to discover a trading city, a city of immense riches, and later by European colonial and commercial ambitions. Laing, Mungo Park, Barth most early expeditions ended in failure and death eventually reaching the city it appears to them as backwards and primitive there is a rich cultural and literary history in the west African region, but this is mostly dismissed as the Europeans move to conquest and a desire to portray the people as barbaric, uncultured and in need of western intervention the modern day tale of a region falling under fundamentalist control, with the imposition of sharia and the influence of al qaeda, raises the prospect of the caches of historical manuscripts being destroyed, especially those that do not gel with the particulars of the fundamentalists beliefs get a good view of a local muslim population's resistance to the erosion of their freedoms, albeit a second hand account details of three individual custodians/librarians/collectors efforts to hide the thousands of manuscripts and eventually with hard won western aid to smuggle them to safety again he pendulum swings, at first most are believed to have been destroyed, until details of the efforts to save them emerge, then as money pours in to preserve them the volume of manuscripts grows to the hundreds of thousands, but there are suggestions that the system is being gamed and numbers being inflated to get more funds even in the modern era, hard facts are elusive and we have to accept some ambiguity and misinformation

  4. 5 out of 5

    oshizu

    3 stars. I began this book on May 17, 2019, so it's taken literally a year to finish it. There's several reasons I found this book a bit of a slog, despite the author's extensive research. One, it should be retitled "The European Quest for Timbuktu" as a good half of the book focuses on European efforts to map, exploit, and colonize the Niger region. So, after all, it wasn't actually a history "about what is now Mali." Two, at the very end of the book, the author threw shade on the veracity of the 3 stars. I began this book on May 17, 2019, so it's taken literally a year to finish it. There's several reasons I found this book a bit of a slog, despite the author's extensive research. One, it should be retitled "The European Quest for Timbuktu" as a good half of the book focuses on European efforts to map, exploit, and colonize the Niger region. So, after all, it wasn't actually a history "about what is now Mali." Two, at the very end of the book, the author threw shade on the veracity of the account of the "fantastic mission to save [Timbuktu's] past." Yes, yes, we all know that all historiography is merely another form of fictional narrative that dresses itself in authenticity but still....disappointing ending.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Anetq

    This promises an action adventure, but the level of detail, people, historic events and tales are borrowing the tale of the rescue mission under a mountain of details. At first I thought it was just trying to stretch it into a full book, that we had to go through every single European Africa society and the biography of the explorers they sent off to find Timbuktu - in alternating chapters with the "real story" of the mission to rescue the many ancient manuscripts of Timbuktu (and of the few, if This promises an action adventure, but the level of detail, people, historic events and tales are borrowing the tale of the rescue mission under a mountain of details. At first I thought it was just trying to stretch it into a full book, that we had to go through every single European Africa society and the biography of the explorers they sent off to find Timbuktu - in alternating chapters with the "real story" of the mission to rescue the many ancient manuscripts of Timbuktu (and of the few, if not the only written source of Africas scholarly heritage going back to the 12th or 13th century) - much is at stake, this should be a great story... But then we need the entire history of the different jihadist fractions and islamic state (who are posing the threat to the manuscripts). And then there are the long-winding tales of moving metal lockers across the desert in wartime, and the applications for funding, and the meetings discussing the possible funding, and the meetings with warlords holding couriers and manuscripts hostage. This would make a great 1:30h action movie, but in stead it turned into boringly detailed accounts - only in the last chapter do the level of detail finally make sense as the author tried to find out how much of this was true - how many manuscripts were there really? How many were moved during wartime? Did the European donors get ripped off with false claims of kidnappers and a vast overestimate of the number of manuscripts? There are sadly no real answers, nor any clear indication of the manuscripts' future - and the research into this valuable heritage - only a naive disappointment that the "history books" turned out to be garnished and altered to suit the powers that be, when they were written hundred of years after the event they portray. I am very sure that is the case for many a historic account written during the middle ages anywhere, so it seems weird to dismiss them for that reason?! This book is a weird mess, the lack of timeline makes it really hard to get through, so yeah... maybe read another account of this fascinating historic event and the mystical city of Timbuktu.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Reaperne

    Just one note: the research done for this book is fucking amazing - as it should be.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Tariq Mahmood

    I never realised how much Muslims were fascinated and respected the written word till I changed about this riveting story. Timbuktu could be the home of the world's earliest university, a seat of learning where some of the giants of knowledge debated and wrote on rocks, leather and paper. Over the period of time these learned men and their university disappeared, leaving behind only fables and heritage which their loyal children clung to, out of respect and honour. They might not be able to know I never realised how much Muslims were fascinated and respected the written word till I changed about this riveting story. Timbuktu could be the home of the world's earliest university, a seat of learning where some of the giants of knowledge debated and wrote on rocks, leather and paper. Over the period of time these learned men and their university disappeared, leaving behind only fables and heritage which their loyal children clung to, out of respect and honour. They might not be able to know what to do with the chronicles but they will still gaurd them with their life as it is their tradition. They have successfully fought off many conquerors, the latest of which are the jihadists. This book is a detailed story of the struggle to save their beloved scriptures. So not only have these brave African Muslims demonstrated great courage but also shown the world the capability of clinging onto their cultural tradition. But it seems they do not still know what to do with these historical scriptures for they do not provide unfettered access to academics to chronicle these valuable historical documents so the wider world can benefit. Isn't it time for the whole world to benefit from this valuable history?

  8. 4 out of 5

    Catherine

    I loved this book! The history, in and of itself was mind-boggling. I am very impressed with this author and the research they put into this project. Bravo!!!

  9. 4 out of 5

    Calzean

    An interesting way of telling two stories. The first about the various European attempts to explore West Africa, the fixation of the mysterious city of Timbuktu and their eventual invasion. The second is the more recent efforts of the librarians and protectors of Timbuktu's wealth of ancient manuscripts who were able to prevent their destruction by Islamic fundamentalists. This is well written, well researched and told me about the written African histories that I had not known existed.

  10. 5 out of 5

    James

    The author cleverly sets out two separate narratives. The first describes the various European explorers who set out to “discover” Timbuktu, drawn by a self generating mythology. The second describes the various efforts by the book owners of Timbuktu to rescue their manuscripts from Islamic fundamentalists. At the very end the author brings these two strands together and in doing so brings all the themes of culture, bravery, western projections and flawed narratives into a most pleasing relief.

  11. 5 out of 5

    J.J.

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. Was kind of one of elusive squid books. You invested all this time to find out what happened and then it closed with but did it?!

  12. 4 out of 5

    Richard

    This book was given to me by a family member as an Xmas present. Otherwise, admittedly knowing nothing about Timbuktu and its history and having other more pressing issues and topics to read about I probably never would have read it. On the one hand, I am glad I did. I learned a tremendous amount about the history of European efforts to find the city. In the course of relating that history in a highly readable, narrative, journalistic rather than academic style the author taught me as much about This book was given to me by a family member as an Xmas present. Otherwise, admittedly knowing nothing about Timbuktu and its history and having other more pressing issues and topics to read about I probably never would have read it. On the one hand, I am glad I did. I learned a tremendous amount about the history of European efforts to find the city. In the course of relating that history in a highly readable, narrative, journalistic rather than academic style the author taught me as much about European prejudice, and ignorance as about Islamic culture over the ages. I came away very impressed with the extent to which the people there built and sustained empires of political and intellectual power for centuries. On the other hand, there were aspects of the book which I found to be lacking. The maps were poorly done. Many locations noted in the text of the book were not shown on the maps. It was also cumbersome to have to flip back and forth from the text to the front of the book where the maps were. More maps at the beginning of each chapter about the explorers would have been much more user friendly. The portraits and photos were good. More of them would have been even better. The city seemed so exotic, if not alien, that some depictions of what it might have looked like over the centuries would have been helpful. Some portrait painting of the explorers and photos of the current day people described in the book were included. More would have been better. As with any book which provides a broad and sweeping history of a place and its people covering a long period of time there are A LOT of names, dates, and places to try to recall. For the more serious history reader it might require a second reading or follow up with some of the books noted in the references. For a more casual reader like me one can come away with a pretty clear sense of patterns and trends as well as a new found appreciation of just how sophisticated the cultures were in that part of Africa hundreds of years ago. Overall it is a well researched and readable book that others like me who know nothing about the city's history and culture will probably find worthwhile.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Howdle

    Ultimately, a rather mixed book. The book divides into two time-frames, one investigates the history of Timbuktu, the other describes the attempt to rescue valuable manuscripts from the Taliban and fundamentalist Islam. In theory the two narratives connect, one building up the mythology of Timbuktu and the other relating the facts of Timbuktu today. In reality, however, this is not the case. The concluding chapter leaves the synthesis undone-- but with a hope that a "psychogeography" might do th Ultimately, a rather mixed book. The book divides into two time-frames, one investigates the history of Timbuktu, the other describes the attempt to rescue valuable manuscripts from the Taliban and fundamentalist Islam. In theory the two narratives connect, one building up the mythology of Timbuktu and the other relating the facts of Timbuktu today. In reality, however, this is not the case. The concluding chapter leaves the synthesis undone-- but with a hope that a "psychogeography" might do this in the future. The historical sections of the book are narrated with wit and a tongue-in-cheek attitude, which is exactly right for the nonsense that passed as geographical writing in previous centuries. English creates some compelling vignettes. The modern day vignettes are not as interesting, though, and there isn't much for a reader to absorb beyond the sheer philistinism of extreme Islam towards its cultural roots. This is an important book-- the Timbuktu manuscripts reversed academic teaching which believed that African history was merely oral. Henry Gates Jr wept when he saw the manuscripts, but a reader is not given any such sense of awe. No manuscripts are discussed. None are shown. Nothing is revealed about the literary manuscripts. At one point, English rather profoundly states that the literary nature of the Timbuktu manuscripts has been undervalued: with this in mind, it would have been interesting to see evidence! More time should have been given to describing the revolutionary nature of the manuscripts and why saving them was so vital for civilisation. Consequently, the book is a bit of a boys' own story across the centuries, with a lot of plotting, and daring, and works on that level.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Mary Rita

    Surprise Ending? Throughout the telling of the parallel stories about the exploration of Timbuktu and manuscript creation, the author faithfully recounts what he gathered from historical texts and reliable modern sources. I found these histories fascinating, though difficult to follow at times due to the foreign sounding names and places. Thank goodness I was reading on Kindle. I made extensive use of the find in text features to remind me of the people, places, and relationships. The author write Surprise Ending? Throughout the telling of the parallel stories about the exploration of Timbuktu and manuscript creation, the author faithfully recounts what he gathered from historical texts and reliable modern sources. I found these histories fascinating, though difficult to follow at times due to the foreign sounding names and places. Thank goodness I was reading on Kindle. I made extensive use of the find in text features to remind me of the people, places, and relationships. The author writes very diplomatic ending implying that just as the exaggerated tales of gold covered buildings in Timbuktu were found to be overrated legend, some aspects of the importance and evacuation of Timbuktu's documents are likely exaggerated. However, this should not deter anyone from reading the collection of ancient and modern adventures. Nor should we underestimate the value and validity of the thousands of preserved documents. We should remember that ancient story-tellers were just as likely to exaggerate as modern sources. The real truth of the literate cultures of ancient Western Africa should be marveled and believed to be true. Just remember that history is written by the victors, who face the option to rewrite ancient history to conform with their own view of their present importance. Overall this is an amazing story that has been largely ignored in our Euro-centric history books.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Ashley

    Excellent research by author into a subject completely unknown to me. Found book difficult to read due to the flipping back and forth in the past and present (which normally is not an issue for me) but even the past did not stay chronological (or so it felt) and the dates and places plus the names really threw me. This is not a book you can put down and come back to in a few days unless you have an incredible memory. The length of characters is enormous and the names are unfamiliar to me so seem Excellent research by author into a subject completely unknown to me. Found book difficult to read due to the flipping back and forth in the past and present (which normally is not an issue for me) but even the past did not stay chronological (or so it felt) and the dates and places plus the names really threw me. This is not a book you can put down and come back to in a few days unless you have an incredible memory. The length of characters is enormous and the names are unfamiliar to me so seem very similar in nature and it’s hard to tell people apart. The history is rich and fascinating though and the mystery of the manuscripts and how families hid them and brought them to safety during the attacks over ge years is amazing.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Vicky Hunt

    A Storied Past In an Indiana Jones type adventure story, Charlie English weaves a narrative mixed with history between the centuries of exploration in and around Mali. I can not think of a better title for this book than that of Timbuktu being a storied city, given the subject of the book. The title is very clear and succinct, but there is much to say on this simple topic. But first, imagine away with me: Imagine a future where the North American continent is under occupation by a new power, inst A Storied Past In an Indiana Jones type adventure story, Charlie English weaves a narrative mixed with history between the centuries of exploration in and around Mali. I can not think of a better title for this book than that of Timbuktu being a storied city, given the subject of the book. The title is very clear and succinct, but there is much to say on this simple topic. But first, imagine away with me: Imagine a future where the North American continent is under occupation by a new power, instead of the current United States and Canadian governments. You may choose to include Mexico, or not. But, that government would not be a 'foreign' power. It would then be local. Possession is said to be nine tenths of the law for a reason. We have an extensive written h-i-s-t-o-r-y in our countries here, though it only covers a period of two and a half centuries. It is, for better or worse, the sum total of the history we are taught in schools. We do not really learn much world history in school because we value history only in as much as it relates to US. Likewise, a new power would not value our 'version' of history. History is really only our version of what happened anyways. "Power X," as I will call them, would have a vested interest in getting rid of and/or rewriting history books to create a popular history that would give their new government a sense of legitimacy here among the newly conquered people of our land. Language and culture is not all that would have to change over time. His-story itself would have to change to accommodate the new story unfolding. Imagine the number of people who would rush to hide books. Can you conceive of a story that you would want your children's children to possess, despite what they are told by the conquerors? Books tell stories. So do tombstones. But, gravestones are usually not destroyed in an occupation, unless by the bombing itself. Back to reality now, snap out of it. This book is essentially about how the country of Mali, and the literary city of Timbuktu adapted to conquerors and occupations. Timbuktu is a city surrounded by mystery and legend. Many scholars think of it as a former University city of the Songhai Empire during the 15th Century and before. Some Songhai legend holds that former kings built a navy and sailed across the Atlantic to colonize South America. Some even believe that the Aztec race may have been a descent from the ancient Timbuktians. It was stated here that The Mali race is a mixture of the Arab and Black Sudanese races, producing a red skinned race. Whatever the truth behind the many conjectures of the past, some facts exist. Thousands of ancient manuscripts were saved from Timbuktu's rich literary history over the centuries. During the Moroccan occupation of Mali, many of them were rewritten to show what the rulers wanted them to show. This is evident from very recent reading of ancient gravestones found in the city today. Those ancient manuscripts were again evacuated from the city in the twentieth century when Jihadists invaded the city, and forced Shariah Law on the populace. These manuscripts consist largely of records, documents, bills of sale, deeds, books, and scholarly works, the bulk of which are religious in nature. Today, the huge collection of manuscripts reveal the fact that Africa was not a 'dark continent' without a written history when Europeans began to raid and pillage the continent during the so-called "Scramble for Africa." It was done on the same manner that Central and South America were conquered. The found texts and culture were destroyed to perpetuate the myth that the natives were a few tech levels behind the invaders, and hence were being served a favor by being 'uplifted' to modern conditions. (Never mind that they are in worse conditions than ever now.) The ideas in this book have a huge bearing for all of us, on multiple levels. We are not black or white in a vacuum. Race delineation is relative. I am only white because you are black. You are only black because I am white. And, if we were not black and white, we would just be people together. The facts of the book shed light on what West Africa was like before the invaders and terrorists rampaged the land. I particularly enjoyed the section on the invasion of the Songhai Empire by Ahmad al-Mansur of Morocco. At that time the Songhai were ruled by descendants of Askia the Great. I read this book for my stop in Mali on my Journey Around the World in 2019. I enjoyed the Audible narrated by Enn Reitel in excellent voice. My next stop will be in Senegal, where I will read Fisherman's Blues: A West African Community at Sea by Anna Badkhan. Then on to the Gambia where I will read Roots (the book... I've seen the mini-series multiple times) for the first time. I have so much of Africa left to explore! "The traveler makes unexpected friends abroad, and finds unexpected hostility at home." "The mysterious was nothing, if not obliging."

  17. 4 out of 5

    Roy Elmer

    The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu is a genuinely fascinating piece of both investigative journalism and narrative history. The author, Charlie English, seamlessly weaves a thousand years of myth and history on the heart of Africa, with the (possibly exaggerated) tale of some astonishingly brave librarians in the time of a Jihadist occupation. The historical elements are thoroughly researched, well documented and, in what is the greatest compliment you can give to this sort of popular history, it rea The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu is a genuinely fascinating piece of both investigative journalism and narrative history. The author, Charlie English, seamlessly weaves a thousand years of myth and history on the heart of Africa, with the (possibly exaggerated) tale of some astonishingly brave librarians in the time of a Jihadist occupation. The historical elements are thoroughly researched, well documented and, in what is the greatest compliment you can give to this sort of popular history, it reads as if you're having a chat with the author in the pub. The exploration of the past of Timbuktu, and actually, more than that, of European mythologising (some good, some horrifically racially motivated in nature) is well wrought from start to finish, and none of the detail, nor non of the flourish, feels superfluous at any stage. The journalistic, semi-biographical account of Timbuktu's brave librarians doesn't quite flow in the same way. The cast of real people are fascinating, their tales read like (as the author puts it) real life Indiana Jones yarns, but, even in the face of all of the strife that they dealt with during the Jihadist occupation of their city, their experiences still did not feel as if they were entirely written in their own words. There are value judgements here, small ones, I grant you, but they undermine the sheer bravery of the act undertaken by the librarians with a pulling out of the rug from under an act that they should, quite rightly, be proud of. I would definitely recommend this book. Both elements of it, in fact. This is a fascinating story that I had no idea about, and I don't recall it appearing in the news at the time, so please pick this up, become engrossed in the history, and critically appraise everything. This is honestly worth the price of admission.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Nicky

    Reviewed for the Bibliophibian. This story is, in general, more impressive until you get to the bit at the end where doubt is cast on the veracity of some of the modern stories. It feels really cheap to get to the end and read this critique that suggests things presented as fact never occurred, and the things that do appear to have been true may be rather overexaggerated. It feels dishonest in a way that it wouldn’t have done if these critiques were presented side by side with the accounts, and i Reviewed for the Bibliophibian. This story is, in general, more impressive until you get to the bit at the end where doubt is cast on the veracity of some of the modern stories. It feels really cheap to get to the end and read this critique that suggests things presented as fact never occurred, and the things that do appear to have been true may be rather overexaggerated. It feels dishonest in a way that it wouldn’t have done if these critiques were presented side by side with the accounts, and it makes me wonder about the author’s integrity in the other parts of the book as well. I mean, reading it credulously, it’s a heck of a story and these people are heroes. And surely, surely, you think, the author must have done his research to verify these accounts as far as possible. And then you find out, well, he did, but he didn’t feel like saying so at the time. Tell the story, by all means. It’s a heck of a story after all, and it remains absorbing even if you know there are questions about it — but if you only know that at the end and look back, well, it all seems a bit of a sham, and can you really trust the author to tell the ancient story straight?

  19. 4 out of 5

    Siria

    Timbuktu is a name that's had a hold on the western imagination for centuries. In this book, Charlie English traces the history of foreign fascination with the fabled city, drawing parallels between the dangers faced by the European explorers who tried to find it and the attempts by the city's modern inhabitants to save their priceless manuscripts from destruction at the hands of Islamists. English describes past and present in vivid detail, and pushes further than the standard popular history a Timbuktu is a name that's had a hold on the western imagination for centuries. In this book, Charlie English traces the history of foreign fascination with the fabled city, drawing parallels between the dangers faced by the European explorers who tried to find it and the attempts by the city's modern inhabitants to save their priceless manuscripts from destruction at the hands of Islamists. English describes past and present in vivid detail, and pushes further than the standard popular history account in not being content to accept the mythology of the manuscripts and their rescue at face value. His scepticism, and the way in pushes back against the easy but adrenaline-filled narrative, is refreshing. Overall an engrossing read. I do wish the photo inserts had been printed in colour, though. It's so difficult to get a decent grasp of the materiality of the manuscripts when they've all been flattened out into black and white.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Diane Warrington

    The title was what caught my attention first as I remembered this event being in the news. After Al-Quedda took over Timbuctu in Mali there was a frantic rush to save all the manuscripts and texts in the mosque and the city. This is the story of how they were hidden and saved from the illiterate idiots with AK47s. However it is also the story of the white colonisation of Africa with the appalling arrogant assumption that there was no written or intellectual African history until the white men ar The title was what caught my attention first as I remembered this event being in the news. After Al-Quedda took over Timbuctu in Mali there was a frantic rush to save all the manuscripts and texts in the mosque and the city. This is the story of how they were hidden and saved from the illiterate idiots with AK47s. However it is also the story of the white colonisation of Africa with the appalling arrogant assumption that there was no written or intellectual African history until the white men arrived. Each chapter on the history of the men who tried to reach Timbuctu and the follow the course of the Niger River is alternated with following the story of the men who conspired to save the documents in 2012. It makes for riveting, informative reading. While we cannot now honour the motives of the men who ‘invaded’ these sub Saharan countries in search of gold, ivory and slaves, we can agree that they were brave and adventurous. What I didn’t realise was that there was a controversy after Al-Quedda was defeated about exactly where the saved manuscripts were being kept and how many of them there were originally. This is a well researched and thoroughly fascinating study of more than just one moment in 21st C African history.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Julian Walker

    Weaving together two strands of centuries-apart history really works, as does the author's blending of ancient and modern beliefs surrounding a city whose very name still conjures up images of mystery and adventure. Written with pace and imagination, as might be expected of a seasoned journalist, this is a great tale of what was, what is, and what might have been, from the perspective of people on the ground and those far away from the reality (both in thinking and physically). A luxuriant tale, Weaving together two strands of centuries-apart history really works, as does the author's blending of ancient and modern beliefs surrounding a city whose very name still conjures up images of mystery and adventure. Written with pace and imagination, as might be expected of a seasoned journalist, this is a great tale of what was, what is, and what might have been, from the perspective of people on the ground and those far away from the reality (both in thinking and physically). A luxuriant tale, skillfully and engagingly unveiled. Terrific stuff.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Mark Latchford

    A saga worth communicating; a history well told. Having visited Timbuktu just before it fell to the Islamists this book was always going to be very interesting to me but English has researched forensically and narrated smoothly. A good read about a great continent.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Lori Tatar

    The Storied City: The Quest for Timbuktu and the Fantastic Mission to Save Its Past by Charlie English paves the way toward understanding the differences between Westerners and other cultures, particularly Arabian. It explores multiple expeditions fraught with all kinds of peril from disease to hunger, murder to insufficient water. Attempts to discover and exploit a whole other, seemingly hidden culture and city are met with tremendous resistance from men as well as from environmental factors. T The Storied City: The Quest for Timbuktu and the Fantastic Mission to Save Its Past by Charlie English paves the way toward understanding the differences between Westerners and other cultures, particularly Arabian. It explores multiple expeditions fraught with all kinds of peril from disease to hunger, murder to insufficient water. Attempts to discover and exploit a whole other, seemingly hidden culture and city are met with tremendous resistance from men as well as from environmental factors. The book blends early travels with current sentiments and hardships on both sides as it takes the reader on a journey for a destination very similar to El Dorado, with similar findings once discovered. Timbuktu has always had an identity of its own, full of beauty, mystery and secrets. Very few outsiders get to know her. This history offers great insight into understanding why.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Brooks Goddard

    The Storied City/USA The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu/UK 2017 by Charlie English. Subtitled everywhere as “the quest for Timbuktu and the fantastic mission to save its past,” this is very pleasant read to satisfy adventurers and librarians. In subject matter similar to the Hammer book but much, much better in my view. Alternating chapters tell the story of the European search for Timbuktu in the 19th century and the books that have come to highlight the city written starting in the 14th century. A The Storied City/USA The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu/UK 2017 by Charlie English. Subtitled everywhere as “the quest for Timbuktu and the fantastic mission to save its past,” this is very pleasant read to satisfy adventurers and librarians. In subject matter similar to the Hammer book but much, much better in my view. Alternating chapters tell the story of the European search for Timbuktu in the 19th century and the books that have come to highlight the city written starting in the 14th century. Abdel Kadera Haidara is the hero of the 21st century rescue of books which have yet to be translated; Heinrich Barth is the hero of the auslanders. The author clearly has a passion for both stories and a writing style to illuminate both of them. For more authority on the subject read The Hidden Treasures of Timbuktu by Alida Jay Boye based on the work of John Hunwick, a gem of a book.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Kat

    *** I received a copy of the book from the New Zealand publisher Harper Collins, this review is my honest opinion and I was not requested nor rewarded in any way for it*** I first started this book in June, and I enjoyed reading the history of the old explorers and also the rise of modern Timbuktu before the rise of 'Al Qaeda' but then the London terrorist attacks happened and I couldn't pick it back up. The book sat on my coffee table, it's cover taunting me to pick it back up. I love the cover, *** I received a copy of the book from the New Zealand publisher Harper Collins, this review is my honest opinion and I was not requested nor rewarded in any way for it*** I first started this book in June, and I enjoyed reading the history of the old explorers and also the rise of modern Timbuktu before the rise of 'Al Qaeda' but then the London terrorist attacks happened and I couldn't pick it back up. The book sat on my coffee table, it's cover taunting me to pick it back up. I love the cover, it's what initially pulled me in when I was perusing the upcoming releases from the publisher and then the description had me requesting it, as I was ready for another nonfiction book. I'm not really a nonfiction reader, I read to escape, but I have lived in Africa as a child, and have always been fascinated by its history. So by August and having finished working full time I picked it up to finish. Having felt enough time had passed for me to read with an unbiased opinion. On conclusion after finishing I guess it is true what people tend to say of written history - it's written by the victor and often is biased towards the side who wrote it. And of course a record of an event can be interpreted differently by he individual. And I think the author has tried to put this across with his interpretation of the facts gathered. My personal view is that the librarians and the many contributors of the savings of the manuscripts were brave and courageous. It matters not the numbers saved, but in the fact they actually did it in such adverse circumstances. When saving themselves was hazardous enough, to risk life and limb for books is what every bibliophile reading this book will understand. To save the written history of an ancient history and culture that has been preserved and revered by the people of Timbuktu and the world itself even to the average fiction reader like myself, and in that I mean, that I personally don't read nonfiction regularly, but have an interest in the history of the written word. This book created a visual interpretation of a land of mystery and history of the early European explorers who set out to find the fabled city. I was astounded at the lack of provisions some of the early explorers had. And also how the descendants of Timbuktu preserved the history of their people throughout the constant upheaval of foreign and domestic invaders. By the end of the book I was left with the thought of... Who knows what history has been lost in the centuries of war and religious conflict. And I'm glad that the author chose to stick to the story of the manuscripts and not go into the ideologies of a very secular group of what to the outside world seems to be a corruption of an otherwise peaceful religion. The book is an interpretation of the facts gathered, I'm sure there will be those who will wonder if the numbers were correct, of whether the danger was exaggerated, but when you look back at the treasures lost in the Nazi occupation I could understand the librarians fear for their treasures. I also thought adding the photographs was a good touch, and the notes at the end are also worth reading. Overall I've enjoyed it even with the break in between.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Samuel

    I suspect there is a sizeable portion of people who still think Timbuktu is a fictional city that stands in for any distant/exotic place. There's a part of me that wishes more people knew about the fascinating (and largely ignored) history of Africa, but there's another side that loves the fact Timbuktu, even in this information-saturated world we now live in, is still seeped in mystery. I brought this book for research for a novel I'm writing that's set in West Africa. It's a part of the world I suspect there is a sizeable portion of people who still think Timbuktu is a fictional city that stands in for any distant/exotic place. There's a part of me that wishes more people knew about the fascinating (and largely ignored) history of Africa, but there's another side that loves the fact Timbuktu, even in this information-saturated world we now live in, is still seeped in mystery. I brought this book for research for a novel I'm writing that's set in West Africa. It's a part of the world I'm endlessly interested in, but I've never visited, which makes writing about its complexities difficult. Charlie English's book is non-fiction, to be sure, but his prose style flows beautifully as he tells two parallel stories of Timbuktu's history and its place in the wider context of Africa. It reads like a novel and very much gives the reader a sense of time and place. Hardcore history fans will probably be disappointed because this isn't a deeply scholarly work. It's well-researched and detailed, to be sure, but English keeps the text largely free of scholarly clutter like footnotes. Several hundred years of history are covered and it really is just an overview, but for casual history enthusiasts like me this is just fine. English includes a helpful list of further reading materials for those who would like to delve further into parts of Mali's history, and indeed the present situation. English adopts an interesting approach to telling Timbuktu's story by switching between European attempts to discover the city and its modern occupation by jihadists and the actual book smuggling. I was expecting it to focus on the latter, but it's a roughly 50:50 split, and this approach makes sense. The book smuggling - thousands upon thousands of manuscripts from all over the place stored in libraries both public and private - only makes sense when we understand Timbuktu's unique place in history. It is a genuinely fascinating story, one which English notes is a combination of myth and fact. He raises doubts about some of the claims made by the book smugglers as the reality, as with all good stories, has perhaps been exaggerated and distorted. While this is a story about a city in Mali, what it really highlights is just quite how much power a dusty city in the desert has wielded over people through its history. For me, as a Brit, to read about the numerous Europeans who died a variety of horrible deaths just trying to find a city they weren't even convinced existed was fascinating. Gentlemanly organisations in high British society spent vast sums of money recruiting explorers for no particular reason beyond geographical intrigue. In contemporary times, Mali is an extremely poor nation. The book smuggling operation didn't just happen - they needed money. Clever use of social media and lobbying eventually brought financing from organisations in the USA, Netherlands and elsewhere, all for the sake of preserving centuries of cultural heritage in a city that's in real danger of losing its status in world as a place of mystery and scholarship in lieu of being associated with violence and narrow-mindedness. All in all, an excellent and very readable book that should be of interest and relevance to everyone.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Stephen Coates

    Readers will probably remember the crisis - Ansar Dine, Boko Haram and al Qaeda took control of Timbuktu and, reportedly, threatened to destroy the many and some large collections of ancient manuscripts, most several hundred years old and urgent action was needed to evacuate them for safekeeping in cities still controlled by the Malian government. This book documents the occupation and manuscript evacuation interleaved with chapters presenting the history of Timbuktu and expeditions by Europeans Readers will probably remember the crisis - Ansar Dine, Boko Haram and al Qaeda took control of Timbuktu and, reportedly, threatened to destroy the many and some large collections of ancient manuscripts, most several hundred years old and urgent action was needed to evacuate them for safekeeping in cities still controlled by the Malian government. This book documents the occupation and manuscript evacuation interleaved with chapters presenting the history of Timbuktu and expeditions by Europeans to visit the city, not all successful, in the 18th and 19th centuries. As history, these chapters made an interesting read, and those covering the evacuation conveyed a sense of urgency which was clearly present amongst those involved. However, late in the book, it was revealed that the threat may not have been as significant as first presented, with hints that the crisis was manufactured to obtain funding from Western bodies to move the manuscripts, or perhaps boxes that were presumed to contain them. Furthermore, while interesting in its own right, the book began to unravel towards the end, suggesting a rush to meet a publishing deadline, with an implied acknowledgement the author may have been hoodwinked by the Timbuktu resident who appeared to be the sole source for most of the accounts of the manuscripts’ relocation, and that some serious inventorial investigation, not to mention serious scholarship, remains to be done. Having read Ibn Warraq’s “Defending the West (A Critique of Edward Said's Orientalism)” after “The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu” but before writing this review, Warraq’s very thorough analysis of traditions within and the West of rationalism; universalism and self-criticism in comparison to the lands of Islam and in particular the complete absence of any tradition of self-criticism within the traditions of Islam, it would appear quite likely that this collection of manuscripts, how extensive it might be, will remain in warehouses and family houses, untranslated, uncatalogued and unanalysed for decades, perhaps centuries to come.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Yasmin

    As with other writers English weaves two simultaneous stories together, although it reads as though both are happening at the exact same time there is a matter of a hundred to two hundred years difference. The reader meets a veritable raft of differing characters each with his (mostly his) or her own golden thread towards the mottled web of the country/the land of Timbuktu. Indeed, whether inside or outside looking in what connects all these people, including the writer, is what desire has broug As with other writers English weaves two simultaneous stories together, although it reads as though both are happening at the exact same time there is a matter of a hundred to two hundred years difference. The reader meets a veritable raft of differing characters each with his (mostly his) or her own golden thread towards the mottled web of the country/the land of Timbuktu. Indeed, whether inside or outside looking in what connects all these people, including the writer, is what desire has brought them to Timbuktu and the treasures it contains. The treasures isn't so much gold or jewelry but books and how to preserve these books. It is contentious and one might be tempted to say that as a journalist it was the job of English to demand to see the contents of the double locked lockers. In truth it wasn't up to him. Why should a foreigner say what is and what is not true or accurate about another people's country, history and how books were taken out of a city to be spared? He did question was it important or not and he did talk to others whom swore the events must have been true and why it was so. But rather than being satisfied he did what all white privileged men do and that was to cry prove it to me! By what right did he have to fuss about exacting numbers and how things were done when it wasn't his country, his heritage, his beliefs that were on the line? Although for the most part English does a convincing job with the majority of the book, sadly it is the end chapter and the epilogue in which he reveals that it was not Haidara has a sham merchant, but himself. The back of the book praises English for extensive research and firsthand reporting, however, he was at neither place when all this happened and therefore can hardly be praised for something he wasn't actually involved with.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Walter

    One rarely thinks of Librarians Timbuktu ... Even today, this is a city of mystery. The author portrays Timbuktu as a city of ancient scholars and academics that wrote many worthy manuscripts. Western adventurers, such a Laing, Caille and Barth, sought the manuscripts written by these scholars. The Tarikh al Sudan was considered to be a History of Sudan but later shown to have been a fictionalized history in large part. What is truth and what is not? Today’s Timbuktu is but a memory of what once One rarely thinks of Librarians Timbuktu ... Even today, this is a city of mystery. The author portrays Timbuktu as a city of ancient scholars and academics that wrote many worthy manuscripts. Western adventurers, such a Laing, Caille and Barth, sought the manuscripts written by these scholars. The Tarikh al Sudan was considered to be a History of Sudan but later shown to have been a fictionalized history in large part. What is truth and what is not? Today’s Timbuktu is but a memory of what once was. Those memories are preserved by “librarians” who have protected the documents of their private families and in some cases collections of several families. With few exceptions, the Western world does not know what is contained in these manuscripts. Most have not been translated from their original languages. Thus, the world does not what value they might or might not have. The adventurers to Timbuktu of the 19th and 20th Centuries have not been particularly enlightening other than to confirm manuscripts did and do exist. The author has documented the efforts of the librarians to preserve these manuscripts from the jihadists of the last 5 years. Many of the manuscripts were evacuated, at great risk at times, to Bamako for fear that would destroyed by the jihadists who might consider them “haram” or forbidden under their interpretations of Islam. Clearly, more than 100,000 manuscripts exist. But exactly what are they? I cannot say that I (or anyone else) know after having read this book. The book is interesting and readable.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Pete Missingham

    The majority of this book is written as an account of the book smuggling operations in Mali during the MNLA and Al-Qaeda occupation in 2013, interleaved with a history of the European attempts to find Timbuktu mainly during the 18th and 19th centuries. The majority of the book smuggling operation reads as a quite thrilling narrative with tension expertly ratcheted up. The tales of the explorers and their individual failures almost functions as light relief, and allows the tension to be wound bac The majority of this book is written as an account of the book smuggling operations in Mali during the MNLA and Al-Qaeda occupation in 2013, interleaved with a history of the European attempts to find Timbuktu mainly during the 18th and 19th centuries. The majority of the book smuggling operation reads as a quite thrilling narrative with tension expertly ratcheted up. The tales of the explorers and their individual failures almost functions as light relief, and allows the tension to be wound back up expertly until the denouement. If the explorers provide some amusement, the subsequent colonisation of Africa and the death of an estimated 10 million people in the Belgian Congo, related in passing, underline the outcome of these explorations. After the denouement, English indulges in a reflective moment. Was it really so dangerous? Just how many manuscripts were saved? How important are they anyway? He once again interviews the main protagonists, and ponders the lack of transparency. The author is being naive. He is ignoring his own role here as a Guardian journalist, one of the most read online newspapers in the world. Lets not forget that some of the terrorist organisations mentioned in the book, or their successors, still exist, and some may read either the Guardian, or this book. Timbuktu's heritage still needs to be protected.

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