Magazine article Natural History

Long Ago and Far Away

Magazine article Natural History

Long Ago and Far Away

Article excerpt

If you had to name a town, a landscape, a place so remote that getting there would take you to the ends of the earth, few would quarrel it you answered, "Timbuktu." To many people, at least in the West, Timbuktu is the stuff of legend, far more remote and unreal than Garrison Keillor's fictional Lake Wobegon. According to the BBC, a small survey made last year among young people in England found that a third of them did not think Timbuktu existed at all, and the other two-thirds regarded it as a mythical place.

Of course, Timbuktu is much more than just a romantic state of mind. It's as real as the hot sand from the encroaching Sahara, as real as poverty and resignation, a city of 30,000 souls built a thousand years ago next to a vast floodplain of the Niger River, now a part of the West African nation of Mali. Shortly after we prepared our cover story for this issue, "Space, Time, and Timbuktu" (page 22), I spoke to Marq de Villiers about the time he spent in Timbuktu with his wife and coauthor Sheila Hirtle, doing the research for their forthcoming book, on which their article is based. (For a full audio recording of my interview with de Villiers, go to our Web site for the July/August issue, www.naturalhistorymag.com; a link to the interview will appear under the heading "Featured Story.")

One of the most remarkable things about Timbuktu," de Villiers told me, "is that the city was a major center of Islamic scholarship. There was a university in Timbuktu [the University of Sankoré] that rivaled the great centers of Islamic learning in Egypt and even in Mecca. …

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