To Westerners, the name Timbuktu long conjured a tantalizing paradise, an African El Dorado where even the slaves wore gold. Beginning in the late 18th century, a series of explorers gripped by the fever for "discovery" tried repeatedly to reach the fabled city. But one expedition after another went disastrously awry, succumbing to attack, the climate, and disease.
Timbuktu was rich in another way, too. A medieval center of learning, it was home to tens of thousands - according to some, hundreds of thousands - of ancient manuscripts on subjects ranging from religion to poetry, law to history, pharmacology, and astronomy. When al-Qaeda-linked jihadists surged across Mali in 2012, threatening the existence of these precious documents, a remarkable thing happened: a team of librarians and archivists joined forces to spirit the manuscripts into hiding.
Relying on extensive research and firsthand reporting, Charlie English expertly twines these two suspenseful strands into a fraught and fascinating account of one of the planet's extraordinary places and the myths from which it has become inseparable.
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