In 2013, Charlie English, then international news editor of The Guardian, became obsessed with the news coming out of Timbuktu. Jihadists were destroying the city’s religious monuments because they were not properly Islamic and librarians were smuggling medieval books out of the city in order to preserve them from the jihadists. He was not the first Westerner to be obsessed with the city and its treasures: throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries European explorers had tried to find their way to the legendary golden city of Africa.*
In The Storied City: The Quest for Timbuktu and the Fantastic Mission to Save Its Past, English intertwines the history of Europe’s relationship with and quest to “discover” a city that few Europeans had ever seen and first-hand reporting on the threat to Timbuktu’s historical heritage. The result is a parallel set of adventures, both of which are shaped by personal danger, the search for funding, the difficulties of traveling across the desert, the possibility of being stopped by armed bandits, the frustrations of dealing with international cultural organizations, and a passion for medieval documents.
The contemporary story will be familiar to readers of The Bad-ass Librarians of Timbuktu. English adds a layer of complexity to that story by placing it in the context 100 years of European attempts to reach a city that had taken on a mythic quality in the collective imagination and their failure to understand Timbuktu’s continued importance as a treasure trove of knowledge.
*If English leaves you with a taste for a more in-depth account of European explorers in the Sahara, I strongly recommend Steve Kemper’s A Labyrinth of Kingdoms, one of the best works of historical non-fiction that I’ve read in recent years.
Most of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.