This exemplary work tells a remarkable story of the saving of precious manuscripts and explores the meanings of the African Eldorado, but exposes a myth
In April 2012, the jihadist army of the Saharan branch of al-Qaida drove a fleet of their armoured pick-up trucks into the centre of the ancient caravan town of Timbuktu in northern Mali. As black flags were hoisted atop the minarets, and as trapped and terrified government conscripts scrambled out of their uniforms, the jihadists began imposing their own puritanical interpretation of sharia law.Music was forbidden, modest clothing was forced on the women, stoning was imposed as a punishment for adultery and a war declared on unIslamic superstition.
This began with an attack on Timbuktus most revered djinn. Al-Farouk was said to manifest himself as a ghostly figure dressed all in white, with a length of cotton bound around his face in the Tuareg style and riding a white horse. As Charlie English explains in The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu, the djinn was a guardian, looked on locally as a talismanic symbol of the city who for centuries had protected it from malicious spirits, with a monument on a traffic island in the Place de lIndpendence. But for the Salafists of the AQIM al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb he was merely a false idol, and soon after their arrival in Timbuktu, one of the jihadists climbed on to the monument and decapitated the statue of the horseman.
The many mausoleums of the citys saints were the next target: by June, the jihadists had embarked on a full-scale assault on the ancient tombs scattered around Timbuktu. They lectured the townspeople on the evils of their cult of protector-saints, then began to smash the intricate carvings with pickaxes and metal crowbars.
The realisation that Timbuktus fragile heritage was in danger set off alarm bells across the world. The city was once one of Africas most revered centres of learning and the arts. From the 13th century onwards, but particularly during the great days of the Songhai empire, which reached its peak during the 15th and 16th centuries, Timbuktu became the West African equivalent of Oxbridge or the Ivy League, pullulating with scholars busy copying out old Arabic manuscripts and composing new works of theology, history and science.