The Hill of the Christians

One of the most fascinating and perilous segments of Barth’s journey occurred in the district of Aïr in the Sahara, in present-day Niger. About 300 miles long and 200 miles wide, Aïr consists of steep disconnected massifs and volcanic cones, some rising more than 6,000 feet from the desert floor. Barth called it “the Switzerland of the desert.” Until he described it, Europeans were unaware that the Sahara contained such landscapes. Before Barth’s party entered the region, no European had ever set foot there. European visitors would be extremely rare for many decades afterwards.

The landscape of Aïr. From Travels and Discoveries.

In Barth’s day, Aïr was an isolated redoubt occupied by gangs of Tuareg brigands who had never been subdued by an outside power. This remained true, off and on, for next 150 years. I had hoped to visit Aïr while researching my book, but the district was off-limits to travelers because Tuareg rebels had a base there.

At the time of Barth’s journey,  the capital of Aïr was Tintellust, deep in the region’s heart. Barth’s group reached there soon after being plundered and nearly murdered by Tuaregs in Aïr. The Europeans expected Tintellust to be a city, but it turned out to be a village of 250 dwellings shaded by trees in a pleasant mountain valley. The explorers weren’t too disappointed, because for the first time in weeks they felt safe. Tintellust was the home of Sultan Annur, leader of the Kel Owis, a Tuareg tribe. For a large sum, Annur agreed to protect the expedition.

Annur told the Christians to camp at a spot 800 yards from the village on some sand hills. The location offered sweeping views of the valley and the mountains. Barth predicted that the place would henceforth be called the “English Hill” or the “Hill of the Christians.”


Francis Rennell Rodd, a British explorer, traveled in Aïr in the 1920s and wrote a wonderful book about it called People of the Veil. Rodd found Aïr and its Tuareg inhabitants exactly as Barth had described them 75 years earlier. I especially like Rodd’s description of male Tuaregs: “The men never grow fat: they are hard and fit and dry like the nerve of a bow, or a spring in tension. Of all their characteristics the one I have most vividly in mind is their grace of carriage. The men are born to walk and move as kings, they stride along swiftly and easily, like Princes of the Earth, fearing no man, cringing before none, and consciously superior to other people.” Their belligerence and opportunism, noted Rodd, hadn’t changed either, as expressed in one of their sayings: “Kiss the hand you cannot cut off.”

Rodd wanted to visit Tintellust to look for traces of Barth, whom he called “perhaps the greatest traveler there has ever been in Africa.” Tintellust wasn’t on any map, but Rodd’s guide knew the village and took him there. As they reached the outskirts, the guide pointed out a place called “the House of the Christians.” When Rodd asked why, the guide said that in the olden days three white Christians who weren’t French had come to Tintellust—not as conquerors, like the French, but as friends of Chief Annur—so the thatch huts where they camped had never been inhabited or pulled down. All that remained of the camp, noted Rodd, were “the traces of two straw huts and a shelter, a wooden water trough, and some broken pots.”

In 2005 Julia Winckler, a British photographer and teacher fascinated by Barth, traveled to Tintellust. She too was shown Barth’s old encampment. She documented her visit to Tintellust (and Agadez) with photographs and videos: In Tintellust, according to Winckler, a story persists that Barth buried treasure nearby, and the villagers occasionally still dig for it. Barth would be amused–by the time he and his ragged group reached Tintellust, they had been pillaged several times and had no surplus to bury.

Fanatics, Infidels, and Guides

Barth’s journey had three key locales, which formed a rough triangle. The triangle’s northern point was Aïr, a Saharan mountain range in present-day Niger, where Barth’s party was pillaged by Tuareg raiders and barely escaped execution. The triangle’s eastern point was Lake Chad, Barth’s base for a year and a half. The western point was Timbuktu in present-day Mali, where he was detained under threat of death for seven months.

Aïr, from Travels and Discoveries

I wanted to see the cultures and landscapes that Barth had seen, to smell some of the same odors, touch some of the same textures, eat some of the same foods. Politics and tight restrictions on travel eliminated Libya from my itinerary. Political unrest eliminated Niger; Aïr, still a stronghold of rebellious Tuaregs, was off-limits to travelers.

That left the stretch between Lake Chad and Timbuktu. I eventually decided to travel east from Kano in northern Nigeria to Lake Chad, about 350 miles as the crow flies. In Barth’s day Kano had been the largest and most important city in north-central Africa, a position it retains, with a population of more than five million. (Some estimates say nine million. Until I read Barth, I had never heard of Kano, despite its size. In some ways Africa is still unknown.) From Lake Chad I would make my way by air to Timbuktu.

In Barth’s era, travel in remote areas of Islamic Africa could be fatal for a white Christian. Christians were evil infidels, odious unbelievers, fit only for slavery or death. Barth heard that a lot. Yet he also found tolerance and hospitality.

North-central Africa still breeds Islamic fanatics. As in Barth’s day, their religious zeal is sometimes a veneer to justify thuggery and greed—for example, the small terrorist group that calls itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) plants bombs and occasionally kidnaps Western travelers, whom they ransom or murder. Other factions, such as Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria, are more old-school in their ways and religious fervor, simply condemning everything Christian and Western in their sometimes violent quest to force a return to what they consider a purer form of Islam. AQIM and Boko Haram both would be familiar types to Barth.

Like him, I wanted a savvy guide to help me negotiate the complexities of northern Nigeria. The internet made it easy to throw out many lines asking for help. Most were ignored, but a professor named Abdalla Uba Adamu at Bayero University in Kano wrote that he knew the perfect man: Nasiru Wada Khalil, head of IT for the Sharia court of Kano, who had a scholarly bent. In our email exchanges before the trip, Nasiru wisely persuaded me to hire Nasiru Datti Ahmed, a teacher at an Islamic secondary school for girls in Kano, as our driver. These two learned, curious men provided invaluable guidance of many kinds, as well as amiable company and friendship. All this, too, would have been familiar to Barth.

At Lake Chad: infidel flanked by Nasiru Datti (left) and Nasiru Wada (right). Abdul in back.