966: Timbuktu by Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle

by Gerard


966.23: De Villiers, Marq & Sheila Hirtle. Timbuktu: The Sahara’s Fabled City of Gold. New York: Walker & Company, 2007. 266 pp. ISBN 978-0-8027-1497-8.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 900: History and Geography
  • 960: History of Africa
  • 966: History of West Africa and offshore islands
  • 966.2: History of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger
  • 966.23: History of Mali

For many around the world, the mention of Timbuktu conjures images of a far-off land so remote that very few have even been there. Even the well-traveled have never been there. Many still consider it a mythical place. But for the 54,000 people who still live there, in a town mainly constructed from mud bricks, the city holds a rich place in the history of West Africa and Mali in particular. It was a part of the great Saharan trade routes, visited by the medieval explorers Leo Africanus and Shabeni, and ruled by the wondrous Mansa Musa during the 14th century. Marq de Villiers’s and Sheila Hirtle’s  Timbuktu is a rich journey into this long-forgotten place.

No one really knows exactly how Timbuktu came to be or how it was named. Some say it is a Songhai construction meaning the “Wall of Butu.” Others propose it derives from the Berber timbouctou, meaning “a place covered by small dunes.” Others still point to a Zenaga phrase meaning “a hidden place.” In any case, the town of Timbuktu occupies a central place in the Malian countryside, having been a part of the Malian Empire since the early 1300s with the coronation of Musa I. Since then, with each new regime or leader, Timbuktu has absorbed a new culture and identity. Under Musa I, it became a center of learning and attracted many medieval scholars. Each one brought tales of the city to their homelands, and thus, the mystique of Timbuktu grew.

I read this one while on vacation and it was like a vacation in a vacation. De Villiers’s and Hirtle’s text is rich, expansive, beautiful, and a little sad all at the same time. While the city may not be much to look at today, they make it seem like the only place on Earth worth visiting. Their travels take them across Mali to learn and trade stories with other scholars. Each one offers a new and exciting piece of the puzzle of Timbuktu’s history and current place in the African landscape. While the luster of the city may have dimmed over the years, the stories have not. Any lover of medieval or African history will find this book thoroughly enjoyable.