The Sahara's Fabled City of Gold
Written by and
Format: Trade Paperback, 320 pages
Publisher: Emblem Editions
ISBN: 978-0-7710-2647-8 (0-7710-2647-1)
Pub Date: October 28, 2008
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So why was it important, this now faded and dusty desert capital? In a curious way, the reputation, or reputations, that accreted to Timbuktu predate its actual founding by many years, perhaps by a millennium or more. Or put the other way, Timbuktu itself became a shorthand metaphor for a much greater body of stories and legends about other places altogether. Some of the images inserted into outside imaginations over the centuries were grafted onto the city in the days of its magnificence under the Malian king Mansa Musa. Some of these, in turn, were legends that enveloped the earliest of the Arab invaders, in the seventh and eighth centuries, which in their turn were based on folklore derived at least in part from hints and suggestions of travelers going back to earliest antiquity.
Europe and the Maghreb, or Christianity and Islam, always had differing views of Timbuktu. In both places the city’s reputation shifted over time, and the various versions overlapped, but they were never the same.
It’s true that in both places gold was at the heart of the matter, at least at first. Before the Arabs were routinely traversing the desert and seeing for themselves, their geographers had stitched together from obscure fragments of folktale and legend a dream of riches untold, of gold lying on the ground for the taking, of immense wealth just waiting for the intrepid. But that romantic notion had faded by the fourteenth century, for traders followed the stories, and traders had harder heads than the storytellers, and saw for themselves what was, rather than what should be. The renowned traveler Ibn Battuta and his medieval colleagues did report on the great wealth of the Malian Empire and its storehouses of gold, for the trade in that and other commodities was the city’s reason for being, and Timbuktu really was very wealthy; but Timbuktu also took on a reputation among Muslims for its learning. Many of the Arab travelers remarked on the city’s thirst for books, as well as its traffic in gold, and wrote commentaries on its savants as well as its opulence.
From the fourteenth century on, pilgrims from Timbuktu went to the Holy Places of Islam, sometimes in great numbers and in immense caravans, but scholars from Mecca and Medina also went to live and study in Timbuktu, where they found themselves (sometimes to their evident chagrin) not as eminent or as learned as they had supposed. The university at Fez and the University of Sankoré in Timbuktu were said to be equivalent; commentaries on the Qur’an produced at Sankoré were read in Jeddah and Cairo, and the eminent of both places corresponded over time and great distance, to the profit of both.
This Islamic combination of reputations, those of civilized affluence and scholarly erudition, were eventually fused in the mind of Moulay al-Mansur the Magnificent of Morocco, who in 1591 sent his armies across the desert hoping both to capture the gold trade and to extend his empire, and instead precipitated the city’s gradual decay. The soldiers may have been emissaries from what they considered a high culture, but they killed or exiled most of the scholars, equating learning with disaffection, as conquerors are wont to do.
After that, the Arabs essentially lost interest, and for several dismal centuries the city was repeatedly besieged and sacked by a rolling roster of enemies–the Bambara, the Fulani jihadists and the Tuareg–until the French took it in 1893 and restored a semblance of order. Now the Bambara, who are in charge of Mali, are once again in charge of the city’s destiny.
In Europe, where they knew and understood much less, the legend of Timbuktu took on a different color; or rather, retained a single color, the yellow of gold. Stories of caches of gold were teased out of the tales of Arab travelers, and the city became in the minds of the geographers and the merchants they served a fabulous place whose skyline was pierced with spires of gold, dreaming under the desert sun, rich beyond measure.
The legends were not entirely without merit. Of the gold that reached North Africa in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, two-thirds came from, or at least through, Timbuktu, and thence across the Sahara. The coins of the doges were Ghanaian gold from Timbuktu; the guineas that fueled the English commercial expansion were from Ghana (on the Guinea coast) and came to England via the markets of Timbuktu. It was natural, therefore, to think that Timbuktu was itself the origin of the gold and not just a way station on its route. In this way the city took on an almost luminous eminence in the European imagination, a fantastic land groaning under the ineffable weight of its affluence. Unlike the mutated Arab view, it was the pretty legends that seized the European imagination, not the reality. It was loot, not lore, that they coveted.
This image of great riches and a wondrous desert civilization lasted until colonial times; grafted onto it was the newer notion of its very remoteness–never mind that Arab travelers had been going there for seven hundred years and more; Christians were forbidden, and often killed when they were caught. As late as Victoria’s reign a popular saying in England was still “from here to Timbuktu,” which meant “from here to as far away as you can get,” adding a layer of inaccessibility and mystery to the legends of great opulence. Few men who went there, or tried to go there, or even went into the deep Sahara, ever returned to Europe, “and those who did so told almost incoherent stories of madness through thirst, unspeakable cruelties of mirages, a fierce and terrible sun, and a vast limitless ocean of sand.”1 Nothing much about money, though they knew it was there somewhere.
Why go, otherwise?
From the Hardcover edition.
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