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.

Tending the Low Flame

Like most people, Nasiru Wada had never heard of Barth. When Nasiru agreed to be my guide, I sent him a link to a digital edition of Travels and Discoveries. By the time I reached Kano, he was deep into the book and had printed hundreds of pages to bring on the trip. “I think he’s superhuman,” he said. “To do everything he did, to notice it and to write it all down—I am amazed. I want to be him.”

One of the Foreign Office volumes on the Central African Expedition

Over the years, similar responses have kept Barth from falling completely off the world’s radar. His work remained valuable to scholars, his name familiar to aficionados of exploration. Basil Davidson, for instance, a prominent historian of Africa, wrote that Barth was “surely the most intelligent of all the nineteenth century travelers in Africa, and sailed these historical narrows with a mastery and brilliance that none has yet repeated.”

A few other comments about him:

“Perhaps the greatest traveler there has ever been in Africa.”–Francis Rennell Rodd, explorer and author of People of the Veil 

“Of the major African explorers, there is no doubt that Heinrich Barth has been much neglected . . . He deserves greater attention, at least equal to what has been given to other African explorers of the nineteenth century.”–R. Mansell Prothero, British historian and geographer of Africa

“Barth had the temper and training which led him to ask historical questions of a kind no European has asked before. He never described the contemporary situation of the various African communities through which he travelled without attempting to relate it to the past; so that his work, unlike almost all preceding European studies, is a work of exploration in a double sense—in time as well as space.”–Thomas Hodgkin, British historian

“It is one of the fascinating paradoxes of the history of African exploration that the greatest of the explorers is the most neglected.”–Adu Boahen, historian of Africa

“Of Africa’s eminent explorers, none has been so neglected by posterity as Heinrich Barth.”–A. H. M. Kirk-Greene, historian of Africa

The thought that rings through these like a chorus is “neglect.” No one tended Barth’s low flame more faithfully than A. H. M. Kirk-Greene. He became fascinated by Barth while serving as a British district officer in northeastern Nigeria (Adamawa and Bornu) before going on to an eminent academic career at Oxford. Between the late 1950s and early 1970s he wrote half a dozen enlightening essays about the explorer. He also persuaded Oxford to publish Barth’s Travels in Nigeria, a book of edited extracts from the Nigerian section of Barth’s account, to which Kirk-Greene added a 70-page biographical introduction, by far the longest such essay about Barth in English.

Kirk-Greene was following in the footsteps of another British district officer named P. A. Benton, who also had come under Barth’s spell while serving in northern Nigeria. Benton turned into a productive part-time scholar about the Central African expedition. For instance, he knew that in 1852 Barth had sent a letter from Kukawa, capital of the Bornu empire, that included the vocabularies of twenty-four dialects collected during the expedition’s first stage. But the vocabularies had been missing for nearly 60 years.

In 1910 Benton found the vocabularies in a Foreign Office file. He culled many treasures about the expedition from those huge repositories, and sometimes added clarifying commentary. His findings and writings were collected in The Languages and Peoples of Bornu (Frank Cass, 1968), with a helpful introduction by his worthy successor—A. H. M. Kirk-Greene.

Comparative vocabulary from Barth's notebooks