BY Lydia Syson in Critic's Guides | 09 SEP 01
Featured in
Issue 61

Anywhere but here


BY Lydia Syson in Critic's Guides | 09 SEP 01

'It's not a place you can get to by a boat, or a train. It's far, far away, behind the moon, beyond the rain ...' [cue 'Over the Rainbow']

There's a curious symmetry between Dorothy's breathy directions to Toto and the description of hobo dog heaven given by Willy Christmas to his canine companion in Paul Auster's recent novel Timbuktu (1999): '... where the map of this world ends, that's where the map of Timbuktu begins.' Auster's casual literary appropriation of a no longer thriving but entirely real town on the edge of the Sahara in the West African country of Mali, indicates how detached Timbuctoo has become from all cartographic and historical origins. Calvino-esque, it's a city to which more people may have travelled in the imagination than by conventional means of transport.

There are a number of well-known cities that are purely fantastical: Atlantis or El Dorado spring to mind. Paris, Venice or St Petersburg are cities equally rich in literary mystique, but they are locatable places of cultural pilgrimage that might appear on any tourist's itinerary. Timbuctoo has a different status though. At once real and imaginary, it occupies multiple sites simultaneously.

Who hasn't heard of Timbuctoo? Yet, given the city's widespread fame, it's remarkable that the reality of the place is still so little known. Timbuctoo seems famous just for being famous, a Nowheresville that could be anywhere. After centuries of existence as no more than an idea in the European imagination Timbuctoo has been transformed into a symbol for the unimaginably remote, the impossibly distant. It's even in the dictionary. But when questioned more closely, most people dredge their childhood memories to reveal surprisingly different associations with the word. Some get it confused with Tipperary, others remember snatches of ditties or rhymes in which it features, still others are amazed to find it exists at all. Few these days have any idea that the origins of Timbuctoo's mythical status lie in the pivotal role the city once played in the global gold trade.

Even on modern maps Timbuctoo is subject to geographical folklore, retaining its symbolic hold by assuming a disproportionately bold typographic presence on contemporary globes and atlases.

An academic article in a 1950s geography journal complained peevishly of errors about the significance of the city being made by 'ordinarily reliable reference books'. The writer bemoaned the powerlessness of efforts 'to cut the popular concept down to the size of the town itself'. Yet the popular concept is not conducive to paring or trimming. It's too intangible, oddly devoid of visual reference and rarely even located in Africa.

In the late 18th century, Timbuctoo (or one of the many variants of that spelling) was for Europeans one of very few place-names floating in an otherwise reproachfully blank map of the African interior. The myth of Timbuctoo had been created largely by rumour, travelling since medieval times with caravans across trans-Saharan trade routes together with the West African gold that changed hands in the famous markets of the city itself. In Europe, where the gold ended up, Timbuctoo gained a reputation as an African El Dorado, a mysterious metropolis of dazzling wealth, overflowing with luscious women. When the activities of the Enlightenment were focussed on systematically filling in more far-flung cartographic spaces, Timbuctoo and its nearby river Niger remained determinedly elusive.

Outside its own continent the most recent written account of the city dated back to the 16th century, and was long out-of-date. A North African, Leo Africanus, had written his Description of Africa after visiting Timbuctoo during its cultural and economic heyday, under the Songhai empire. This report was published and republished widely, and it was largely due to Leo that the association between Timbuctoo and gold stuck so firmly in the European imagination.

By the early 19th century the quest for Timbuctoo had become positively frenzied, driven by mercantile and intellectual interests alike. The rumours of ancient libraries and possible lost classical texts seemed to meet the desires of those caught up in the craze for antiquities. Merchants sought new markets in what was believed to be the Great Emporium of Central Africa. And the newly emerging science of geography was finding its greatest challenge. Speculative geographers constructed maps of the African interior from the comfort of their firesides, based largely on information gleaned from ancient Greek and medieval Arab texts. They levelled mountains and created lakes to suit their hypotheses. Each theory received heated airing in the periodical press. Reports of Timbuctoo were collected by merchants and diplomats in North Africa, or incorporated into narratives of varying degrees of authenticity describing shipwrecks and white slavery. The hero-survivors of these catastrophes may not have actually discovered Timbuctoo's famed gold, but they realized that a certain amount could be spun out of tales of the city. At the same time a series of adventurers (some in full military uniform) were being dispatched from European capitals to reach what was referred to as 'the great desideratum of Discovery'. Effectively, they were sent to test the myth. Meanwhile in Cambridge, Tennyson and fellow undergraduates competed to win a gold medal for the best 200 lines of poetry on the subject of Timbuctoo. It was an astonishing obsession.

Several celebrated explorers set out for Timbuctoo and simply disappeared. Major Alexander Gordon Laing, who has gone down in history as the first European to reach the city, was murdered dramatically as he attempted to leave it in 1826. The disappearance of his journals and letters caused a diplomatic incident involving several nations, with British warships threatening Tripoli. When René Caillié emerged in Tangier two years later, disguised as a Moorish beggar and announcing that he had just returned from Timbuctoo, it was alleged in Britain that he had fabricated his account from Laing's stolen papers. In fact, a very different text had inspired Caillié's account: the French peasant's journey had been largely propelled by his reading of Robinson Crusoe (1719).

What Caillié found when he reached Timbuctoo was not the majestic civilization of legend, where learning and gold competed in value, but a desultory collection of mud buildings. What truth there had been in the rumours had long disappeared. In 1591 the Sultan of Morocco had sacked the city. Although reports had initially reached Britain of infinite treasures arriving in Marrakesh, the almost immediate breakdown of Moroccan rule in Timbuctoo was not recorded, nor the decline of the city itself.

After Caillié the myth began to mutate. The unreachable place that had for centuries been described in metaphorical terms began the process of transformation into a metaphor itself, an image of remoteness. From the mid-19th century, when the subject of Timbuctoo was addressed, it was in terms of mystery and romance rather than scientific accuracy. In one late Victorian periodical, Notes & Queries, the hot topic of debate, which also preoccupied The Times letters page, was the origin of various rhymes for Timbuctoo. (This was usually 'hymn book too', although less decent variations exist.)

Timbuctoo's imaginative contours are continually being redrawn. Twentieth-century travel writers visiting the city tended towards the solipsistic, getting most mileage in their prose out of the personal difficulties of merely arriving there. At the turn of the last century Timbuctoo became a useful media focus for anxieties about the state of the world at the millennium. The city was evoked not just as a symbol of extreme physical distance, but also as a representative of another extreme - that of poverty. In his controversial critique of a particular version of black history, Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (1998), Stephen Howe argues that the obsession with Timbuctoo, which he places near the heart of 'romantic Afrocentrism', reproduces earlier European fantasies about the city. He accuses certain Afrocentric writers of engaging in more or less deliberately deceptive anachronism in their representations of Timbuctoo's 16th-century university and its scholars. So although Timbuctoo is increasingly being located in its true geographical position, the mythologizing process continues.

Two centuries ago, when the net of discovery appeared to be closing in on the far-flung places of fable, there was a recognition that as 'fairy spots' retreated and transformed themselves under the gaze of encroaching exploration, others would take their place as repositories of human reverie. Our changing constructions of place seem to respond to that desire for desire to remain unfulfilled. Timbuctoo and its metamorphoses are a particularly resonant illustration of this phenomenon. Marco Polo's caveat to the emperor Kublai Khan in Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities (1972) seems apposite: 'With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear.'