In 2012 that history appeared to be under threat. After a coup in southern Mali, Timbuktu was overtaken by the fighters of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The jihadists began systematically to destroy the centuries-old mausoleums of the city's Sufi saints. On January 28, 2013, the mayor of Timbuktu told the world that all of the city's ancient manuscripts had also been burned.
I recall that morning well. I was international news editor at The Guardian at the time, and Mali had a special resonance for me. Many years before, at eighteen, I had developed the idea of driving across the Sahara. I saved money, bought an old Land Rover, and set out from Yorkshire with a friend, traveling via Morocco and Algeria to Mali, which we reached in the spring of 1987. The desert town of Aguelhok marked the end of the crossing, our summit, and once there we cast about for a new idea. What if we traded the clapped-out car for three or four camels and rode to Timbuktu? The story we would tell! We found a vendor and negotiated for a week, but as he only ever managed to produce one small specimen we abandoned the plan and continued south. I sold the car in Gao, the capital of old Songhay, and traveled to Burkina Faso and Côte d'Ivoire and then home. I had not made it to Timbuktu, but I had fallen in love with the idea of the desert. I returned to the Sahara in 1989 in a different vehicle, but it was too unreliable to risk the drive to Mali. Once again, the City of 333 Saints remained tantalizingly out of reach.
In July 2012, with anger and sadness, I watched the footage of the jihadists trashing Timbuktu's monuments. The following January, when our correspondent was told that the rebels had torched the city's historic texts, we led The Guardian's online edition with the news. Days later, it became clear that the manuscripts had not been destroyed after all; in fact, they had been smuggled to safety by the town's librarians. I became obsessed with the details of this operation. It seemed to me to echo the plot of Robert Crichton's comic novel The Secret of Santa Vittoria, in which the people of a small Tuscan town save a million bottles of wine from looting Nazis. Only it was far better than that: the treasure in Timbuktu was infinitely more significant; what was more, this evacuation was real. I left my job, determined to turn the story into a book.
Bruce Chatwin once observed that there are two Timbuktus. One is the real place, a tired caravan town where the Niger bends into the Sahara. The other is altogether more fabulous, a legendary city in a never-never land, the Timbuktu of the mind. I planned to give an account of both these Timbuktus by following two alternating strands: that of the West's centuries-long struggle to find, conquer, and understand the city; and that of the modern-day attempt to save its manuscripts and its history from destruction. The first narrative would explore the role of legend in shaping our view of Timbuktu; the second would relate the tale of occupation and evacuation.
What I didn't understand then was how closely these stories would mirror each other.
Charlie English London, 2017
If thou know not the way that leadeth to the City of Brass, rub the hand of the horseman, and he will turn, and then will stop, and in whatsoever direction he stoppeth, thither proceed, without fear and without difficulty; for it will lead thee to the City of Brass.—The Thousand and One Nights
A SEEKER OF MANUSCRIPTS
One hazy morning in Bamako, the capital of the modern West African state of Mali, an aging Toyota Land Cruiser picked its way to the end of a concrete driveway and pulled out into the busy morning traffic. In its front passenger seat sat a large, distinguished-looking man in billowing robes and a pillbox prayer cap. He was forty-seven years old, stood over six feet tall, and weighed close to two hundred pounds, and although a small, French-style mustache balanced jauntily on his upper lip, there was something commanding about his appearance. In his prominent brown eyes lurked a sharp, almost impish intelligence. He was Abdel Kader Haidara, librarian of Timbuktu, and his name would soon become famous around the world.
Haidara was not an indecisive man, but that morning, as his driver piloted the heavy vehicle through the clouds of buzzing Chinese-made motorbikes and beat-up green minibuses that plied the city's streets, he was caught in an agony of indecision. The car stereo, tuned to Radio France Internationale, spewed alarming updates on the situation in the north, while the cheap cellphones that were never far from his grasp jangled continually with reports from his contacts in Timbuktu, six hundred miles away. The rebels were advancing across the desert, driving government troops and refugees before them. Bus stations were choked with the displaced; highways were clogged with motorbikes and pickups and ancient trucks that swayed under the weight of the fleeing population. Haidara had known when he left his apartment that driving into this chaos would be dangerous, but now it was beginning to look like a suicide mission. Soon he'd had enough: he spoke to his driver, and then they were pointing west again, back toward the skirts of the sprawling African metropolis.