Jason Burke

Cultural Desert

The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu: The Quest for This Storied City and the Race to Save Its Treasures

By

William Collins 400pp £20 order from our bookshop

In late April 2012, frightened inhabitants of Timbuktu reported a ghostly figure criss-crossing the town on a white horse. He was ‘dressed all in white, with a length of cotton bound round his face in the Tuareg style’. He warned local lovers to cease their public canoodling and head home. This was al-Farouk, a djinn (or spirit) who had watched over the city for many centuries.

Timbuktu’s fifty thousand or so inhabitants were in need of protection. Just weeks before, the city had been captured by Tuareg fighters who swept out of the deserts of northern Mali armed with weapons looted from Colonel Gaddafi’s armouries. The triumph of these ethnic nationalists was short-lived. Within days a coalition of Islamic militants terminated their chaotic rule. A mix of Malians, Algerians and others, many aligned with al-Qaeda, these extremists swiftly put an end to the looting that had broken out and re-established a semblance of order.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • The entertaining Howard Jacobson is in conversation with Prof John Mullan at the Queen’s Park Book Festival on Sund… ,
    • 'A modest and retiring man, Thompson spent his life describing apple varieties and recommending the best – Ribston… ,
    • 'Macfarlane is a poet with the instincts of a thriller writer, an autodidact in botany, mycology, geology and palae… ,
    • 'Some scholars attribute Shakespeare’s pre-eminence to four centuries of propaganda and not to the fact that Hamlet… ,
    • RT : We would appreciate any retweets ,
    • We've just stumbled on a gem from the LR archive. The emoluments page from May 1995, in which one reviewer asked to… ,
    • Unlike Mary Shelley's monstrous creation, Jeanette Winterson's Frankenstein-inspired novel feels 'barely alive', sa… ,