Shambhala, Timbuktu, Zanzibar. The names roll off the tongue like poetry, but the stories and legends are so ingrained in the popular imagination that we sometimes can’t remember whether they are real destinations or myths. That’s why I enjoyed this recent Lonely Planet piece about “10 places of myth and legend.” An excerpt:
Shambhala, Tibet – The kingdom of Shambhala hides somewhere deep within the snow-stained peaks of the Himalayas. An enlightened, peaceful ‘Pure Land’ of Buddhist lore, it can be reached only by individuals who have racked up the appropriate karma. Explorers in the past century have set out to find Shambhala in Tibet, which is also where James Hilton placed it in his novel Lost Horizon (under the name of Shangri-la). Since no one has yet discovered the kingdom, perhaps the next best thing is the town of Zhongdian on the China–Tibet border. It was renamed Shangri-la in 2001, claiming to be the place’s inspiration.
Zanzibar, Tanzania – Just the name ‘Zanzibar’ conjures images of harem girls giggling behind gauzy veils, carved wooden doors opening to spice-filled rooms and other images from The Thousand and One Nights. Only in this case, they’re not fiction. Zanzibar grew into a powerful city state between the 12th and 15th centuries, sending ships laden with slaves, gold, ivory and wood to Arabia and beyond. Eventually the Sultan of Oman moved his court here – 100 concubines and eunuchs included – and started Zanzibar’s famous clove plantations. He’s long gone, but an Arabic influence and the scent of sweet spice still lingers over the sultry island.
Timbuktu, Mali – A byword for ‘place that’s way the hell out there’, Timbuktu earned its reputation early on as the terminus of a rich trade route linking West Africa and the Mediterranean. All you had to do to get your gold, slaves and ivory north (or salt to come south) was join a camel caravan and plod for months across the Sahara through sandstorms, blazing heat and insanity-inducing isolation. It’s still a mighty trek to reach Timbuktu, and though salt caravans continue to pass through led by blue-clad Tuaregs, the city only hints at its 15th-century grandeur of wealthy merchants and mosques.
Check out the full article for seven more places of myth and legend, from King Arthur’s Avalon to Egypt’s Valley of the Kings and beyond.
Photo credit: lylevincent