The Storied City: The Quest for Timbuktu and the Fantastic Mission to Save Its Past By Charlie English

    Just one note: the research done for this book is fucking amazing - as it should be. 1594634289 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!!! 1594634289 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. 1594634289 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? 1594634289 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. 1594634289

    review The Storied City: The Quest for Timbuktu and the Fantastic Mission to Save Its Past

    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. The Storied City: The Quest for Timbuktu and the Fantastic Mission to Save Its Past

    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. 1594634289 read as part of 2018 Irish Meridians Challenge

    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 1594634289 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! 1594634289 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. 1594634289 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. 1594634289