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A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa [Kindle Edition]

Steve Kemper
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)

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Book Description

A true story that rivals the travels of Burton or Stanley for excitement, and surpasses them in scientific achievements.

In 1849 Heinrich Barth joined a small British expedition into unexplored regions of Islamic North and Central Africa. One by one his companions died, but he carried on alone, eventually reaching the fabled city of gold, Timbuktu. His five-and-a-half-year, 10,000-mile adventure ranks among the greatest journeys in the annals of exploration, and his discoveries are considered indispensable by modern scholars of Africa.

Yet because of shifting politics, European preconceptions about Africa, and his own thorny personality, Barth has been almost forgotten. The general public has never heard of him, his epic journey, or his still-pertinent observations about Africa and Islam; and his monumental five-volume Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa is rare even in libraries. By delivering the first biography on Barth in English, Steve Kemper goes a long way to rescue this fascinating figure from obscurity.

Editorial Reviews


“A spirited reconstruction of the arduous five-year trek into Central Africa by Heinrich Barth (1821–1865), a German scientist exploring for England.... A nicely rounded literary study of an intrepid explorer undone by the cultural biases of the time.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“...He approached his expedition with an open mind and a willingness to engage with those around him regardless of their social status. Barth’s insights into the commonalities that exist among different cultures remain relevant today.” (Booklist)

“Steve Kemper’s elegant, richly rewarding biography should go a long way toward correcting [Barth’s obscurity]. On one level, the book is a superb chronicle of Barth’s travels, from the harrowing heat and physical danger to the dazzling diversity of people he encountered on his path. It’s also an astute character study of a relentlessly curious scientific personality.” (Kate Tuttle - Boston Globe)

“Sometimes a book grabs you by the throat and won’t let you put it down. I recently experienced that with Steve Kemper’s A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles Through Islamic Africa.” (Pamela Toler, author of History in the Margins)

“If you have an ounce of historical exploratory curiosity in your veins, course through this forgotten tale. Timbuktu awaits.” (Robert F. Wells - Expedition News)

About the Author

Steve Kemper is the author of Code Name Ginger. His work has appeared in many national publications, including Smithsonian and National Geographic. He lives in West Hartford, Connecticut.

Product Details

  • File Size: 2265 KB
  • Print Length: 448 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (June 18, 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
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  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #275,758 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Story of a great, little known explorer. July 8, 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Wow. This is a fascinating, carefully researched biography of a mid-nineteenth century German explorer who is quite likely the greatest explorer you've never heard of. I've long been an admirer of Richard Francis Burton, and am acquainted with the most famous of the explorers of Africa, but I hadn't heard of Barth.

The book is almost entirely focused on his epic 5+ year journey and seemingly has it all: desert caravans, slave raids, treacherous/opportunistic guides, hostile tribes, robbers and thieves, exotic disease, forced marches through brutal climates and punishing terrain, trade centers, rebellions, bungled communications, political intrigue, suspicious chieftains, eunuchs, harems, etc. You get the idea- it more than holds its own as an adventure story. Considering the many dangers and frequent setbacks, it's incredible he survived.

But what sets Barth apart from other explorers, especially considering the time he lived in, is that he was insatiably curious about, and respectful of, the many cultures he came into contact with as he navigated through several African Kingdoms and many different spheres of political influence. He was a Christian, but was well versed in Islam. He became intimate with sheiks, emirs and other rulers, as well as many ordinary Africans; and as a result he found scholarship, an esteem for learning, complex politics, and probably most surprisingly to Europeans of the time- a history. And he meticulously recorded it all. He was fluent in Arabic, and literally collected African languages as he went along. His treatment of Africans as fellow human beings went a long way in adding to the immense amount of knowledge he came away with.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
By Dr.Du
Having read Philbrick's books on sailing adventures I was ready to venture into Africa. The story is about this 1850's adventurer and scientist, H. Barth, a German who travels 10K throughout the continent. The author Kemper has the difficult task of reading Barth's journals and history, along with his own personal travel log to Africa in order to follow Barth's trip. The story is remarkable on many levels, and perhaps more important today than ever as it open the portals of the mind to the often tragic Islamic history, slavery, disease, and beauty of the "undiscovered world" to European scientist.

At times the content can bog the reader down, just by the shear volume of science and descriptions, which can over shadow Barth and his personality. This artful trick lures the reader into the mind of Barth and finally as you close the book the reader becomes one with the scientist as a tragic and yet brilliant figure.

150 years after one of the worlds greatest adventure some things have not changed. Wars, cabal,sickness spiced with cloaks of color and a Murdock like press makes A Labyrinth of Kingdoms a worthy read.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Exploring central Africa October 18, 2012
Most folks today, if they think about Africa at all, believe it to be the Africa you would see in movies or the old television show "Ramar of the Jungle", a place populated exclusively by natives in loincloths carrying spears and speaking almost unintelligibly. This book shows that these ideas are not the realities that existed before the coming of the European colonial era in the second half of the 19th century.

In the pages of this excellent work, the reader will find the tale of a tenacious German explorer who was part of an expedition to central Africa sponsored by the British government. He spent almost 5 years roaming throughout the middle of Africa, and seeing many kingdoms and "empires" populated by educated and quite learned folks. He was not your usual explorer, for he took the time and the effort to learn the local languages, and also Arabic, which was used in many places because of the establishment of Islam there. Copious notes were taken and drawings and maps created to aid him in describing the area to the world when he returned.

Perhaps the part of the book that may be the most fascinating to readers is his journey to, and stay in, the fabled city of Timbuktu, the "Holy Grail" of all African explorers, along with the search for the source of the Nile. Dr. Barth immersed himself in the local culture, and held educated discussions with both the rulers and learned men of the places where he visited. He went through some ghastly experiences and survived, but his book was not really well received because he downplayed his dangers and concentrated on relating his geographical and linguistic findings. The people at that time, and probably today, were more interested in stories of thrills and adventure, such as those written by Burton and Livingstone.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant! August 5, 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
What a fascinating story and compelling person. The book is beautifully written and fully researched. I loved all of the small details gathered from so many sources - a paragraph on roasted locusts, for instance. I only wish the world had remained as open and curious as Barth and not taken the turn towards imperialism.
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Format:Kindle Edition
A great non-sensationalist research on Western and Eastern African history, brilliantly written capturing various sub Saharan civilisations long forgotten, their influences on and by Islamic knowledge and trade, their customs and their people.
Not so much a fictitious novel of the journeys of Heinrich Barth but rather a very interesting historic account of various African kingdoms with the historical backdrop of the emerging British African colonialisation, European politics involving African discoveries.....
A fantastic read for anyone who is interested in the history of emergence of Islam in those African areas, the excruciating hardship of travel in the 19th century, the exceptional leaders and learned men at the time in those parts of Africa.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Story of a forgotten explorer
Interesting story of a remarkable journey in Africa from an explorer that nobody even knows about. Lots of great details and colorful characters. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic summary of travels in Africa by a great man ...
Fantastic summary of travels in Africa by a great man that is poorly recognized and reported. It inspired me to purchase the full volumes for my library.
Published 3 months ago by Ibrahim Muuta
4.0 out of 5 stars A very good read overall however
A well written account of a remarkable individual and journey. Long in parts, not helped by a map that was not particularly readable on the screen. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Hardy
5.0 out of 5 stars 4.8 stars ( .2 star deduction for lack of maps)
A Labyrinth of Kingdoms by Steve Kemper is far and away the best book this reviewer has read on the 19th Century exploration of African by Europeans. Read more
Published 9 months ago by Lance B. Hillsinger
4.0 out of 5 stars Page-turner
This is the story of Heinrich Barth, a German explorer working for British colonial interests. Barth is far less like Stanley and Livingstone and far more like Ibn Battuta. Read more
Published 11 months ago by C. Troutman
5.0 out of 5 stars Surprising new account of Africa in the 19th century.
The traveler in this book is a German scientist who just wants to know about Africa and African societies. Read more
Published 16 months ago by Joan K. Ham
5.0 out of 5 stars A lesson for the modern explorer
A lesson for us all in our efforts to investigate, understand and engage with foreign cultures. Heinrich Barth, a German of singular dedication, intelligence and objectivity -... Read more
Published 20 months ago by Gregogprahy
5.0 out of 5 stars FILLING A HUGE RESEACH GAP
This author has done a tremendous service for those of us who are constantly seeking to get to the truth and fill in the gaps in Islamic history. Read more
Published 22 months ago by Gentle Spirit
5.0 out of 5 stars references and recollections
Here is what I appreciate about this book by Steve Kemper--I am constantly referencing it in other readings, fiction, non-fiction, the news. Read more
Published 23 months ago by Hfineisen
5.0 out of 5 stars A real eye-opener! And all true!
Steve Kemper puts himself on a par with Byron Farwell with this wonderful book, which is the highest praise I myself can accord to any writer of biographical history. Read more
Published on December 23, 2012 by Larry N. Stout
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More About the Author

I've been a freelance journalist for more than 30 years and have written two books: A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles Through Islamic Africa, about the African explorer Heinrich Barth (June 2012), and Code Name Ginger: the Story Behind Segway and Dean Kamen's Quest to Invent a New World (2003), which was selected by Barnes & Noble for its Discover Great New Writers award. Harper published the paperback under the title Reinventing the Wheel.

I've written for many national publications, including Smithsonian, National Geographic, National Geographic Traveler, Outside, Wall Street Journal, and BBC Wildlife. I'm an adjunct professor at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, got a degree from the University of Detroit, then taught literature and writing at the University of Connecticut while earning a Ph.D. I live in Connecticut.

My website:
My blog:

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