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A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa Hardcover – June 25, 2012
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“...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)
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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.
When he returned to Britain, he wrote a five-volume, 3500 hundred page work about his journey, which apparently has been indispensable to African scholars ever since, from the many explorers who followed in his footsteps, to modern scholars who have only Barth's descriptions of places now gone and events not recorded elsewhere. I was surprised to learn that there hasn't been a biography in English about him before now. I would have thought some Brit would take on the task at some point. It's also amazing he isn't more well known today, considering his accomplishments, but the reasons for that are covered by the author.
The only map in the book is fine, but I found myself googling for more detailed ones, which helped in visualizing some legs of the journey. I obviously loved the book and would recommend it to anyone interested in history and exploration. It's packed with interesting historical asides, ranging from charming and amusing to grim and disturbing. The author's blog is also worth checking out. It chronicles his research trip to some of the places Barth traveled, including Timbuktu. It's interesting to see how things have changed since the mid-nineteenth century.
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.
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. Because of this, unfortunately Dr. Barth's story and legacy are almost completely unknown today, except to a small group of academics. That's a shame, for his story has much to teach us about not making unfounded assumptions about people and places about which we know next to nothing.