“From here to Timbuktu,” was an expression frequently heard in childhood days. If someone wanted to suggest somewhere was a great distance from our village they would say it was as far as going to Timbuktu. Timbuktu seemed an imaginary place, a mythical place; its name seemed like something from a storybook. If places were so distant that you would never think of travelling to them, if they were so far that you could do no more than imagine them, then a place from the pages of a story would have seemed a reasonable way of describing them.
Standing in a friend’s house one day, there was a large map of the world on the wall. Maps were always a source of fascination and I stood looking at the map of Africa – probably prompted by some war game we were playing with the huge armies of Airfix figures he owned. He was always fascinated by Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, the man who had commanded Hitler’s army in North Africa and my friend and I would fight battles with him in charge of by the Afrika Korps figures and I in charge of those of the British Eighth Army. My eye must strayed southward, for in the midst of the vast spaciousness of the African continent I caught sight of Timbuktu.
It was a moment of surprise, that somewhere that had seemed to belong to the realm of the imagination actually existed. Timbuktu was not just something that people said, it was a location on a real map of the world. It has been baffling ever since that the placename had crept into the vocabulary of people living in a deeply rural English community.
Reading The No-Nonense Guide to Islam by Ziauddin Sardar and Merry Wyn Davies, there is a sense of how important was that name on that map, and, possibly, a clue as to how it had come into usage in our community.
The great trading city of Timbuktu was founded around 1000. It was incorporated into successive regional empires but it was principally a city governed by its scholars. The city’s most important institution was the Sankore mosque, which like so many great mosques across the Muslim world was also a university. Leo Africanus, the Muslim Moorish writer who was kidnapped by pirates and adopted by Pope Leo X, had visited Timbuktu in 1510-1513. The book he wrote while incarcerated in the Vatican after his abduction became Europe’s principal source of information about the interior of Africa until the mid-19th century. Leo Africanus wrote of Timbuktu: “Here there are many scholars, judges, priests and other learned men that are well maintained at the king’s cost”.
Anyone who has read of the Islamic Golden Age will know how advanced a city Timbuktu would have been. If the writings of Leo Africanus were Europe’s principal source of information about the interior of Africa until the mid-19th Century, then, given the length of time that books were kept, and given the scarcity of resources for public education, there were probably people in our village who had learned at school of the importance of places lie Timbuktu. There is an irony in them probably having a greater awareness of such placenames than most people would today.