Meet the unlikely group that saved Timbuktu's manuscripts

Men recover burnt manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Center for Documentation and Research in Timbuktu, Mali, on Jan. 29, 2013. As French-led forces recaptured Mali's desert city of Timbuktu, fleeing Islamists set fire to a building that housed priceless ancient manuscripts.
Eric Feferberg

BAMAKO, Mali — The saving of Timbuktu’s priceless manuscripts owes everything to the bravery of an unlikely group — librarians.

The coalition of Tuareg separatists and Islamic militants who overran the city last April were just the latest in a series of foreign invaders to sweep into the fabled desert city, so the owners of Timbuktu’s manuscripts did what they have always done — they hid them.

An ancient city squeezed between the Niger River and the Sahara Desert, Timbuktu was a center of Islamic scholarship and trans-African trade in its Medieval heyday but has gradually declined in the centuries that followed. The city's manuscripts are a unique treasure trove of scholarly information. Handwritten and many hundreds of years old, they are irreplaceable.

Each time foreign invaders threaten Timbuktu — whether a Moroccan army in the 16th century, European explorers in the 18th, French colonialists in the 19th or Al Qaeda militants in the 21st — the manuscripts disappear beneath mud floors, into cupboards, boxes, sacks and secret rooms, into caves in the desert or upriver to the safety of Mopti or Bamako, Mali’s capital.

It is a tried and tested form of conservation in extremes and last year was no different.

“The manuscripts are safe,” said Abdel Kader Haidara, the owner of the city’s largest private collection and head of a local association of owners tasked with the protection of the manuscripts.

During an interview in Bamako, where he fled for safety, Haidara told GlobalPost that his Mamma Haidara Manuscripts Library — which houses 45,000 documents — now stands empty, as do two-dozen other private libraries in the city.

The testimony of manuscript owners has convinced many that the vast majority, if not all, of Timbuktu’s manuscripts have in fact been saved from the depredations of vandals who attacked and destroyed Timbuktu’s UNESCO-designated graveyards, mausoleums and tombs.

“The private library owners are convinced their materials are safe. Some hid their manuscripts in Timbuktu, others took them with them to Bamako,” Professor Shamil Jeppie, an expert on the manuscripts and director of the Cape Town-based Tombouctou Manuscripts Project, told GlobalPost.

At first there was less certainty about the fate of documents stored at the state-owned Ahmed Baba Institute, established in 1973. It was considered more of a target because of its government links, (administrative buildings, along with churches, were usually the first to be attacked) and as they quit Timbuktu the Islamists attempted to set it on fire.

The first visitors to the Institute found empty shelves, boxes and smoldering papers, but the vast cache of manuscripts was missing. Some assumed they had been looted, but Haidara and others with close links to the Institute insist the manuscripts are safe.

Haidara described how, soon after the rebels reached Timbuktu, he and 15 others worked for a month at night packing manuscripts into metal trunks, cataloguing them, locking the boxes with two keys and then hiding them. He would not say exactly where, only that the manuscripts had been “dispersed” in more than 1,000 boxes.

“The manuscripts are hidden in different places where nothing can happen to them,” he said.

Timbuktu’s manuscripts are incredibly varied, in both length and subject. Some are fragments, single pages or a couple of leafs, while others are entire bound volumes hundreds of pages long.

They cover topics as diverse as science, medicine, history, human rights, law, poetry and literature, but the vast majority are of a religious nature: handwritten Korans, accounts of the life of the Prophet, prayers and expositions of Islamic philosophy.

The value of the manuscripts is in their documentation of Timbuktu’s lost heyday as a center of Islamic scholarship and the trans-Saharan trade routes of the 15th and 16th centuries, proving the lie — in carefully rendered calligraphy — that Africa was a place of exclusively oral history until the colonialists came.

“For many, African history begins with European explorers,” Haidara said. “People don’t know the manuscripts [that predated them].”

“The manuscripts are a reflection of a rich written culture from the 14th century onwards, which is not often recognized,” Jeppie said.

The saving of the manuscripts is a remarkable example of resistance. And a testimony to the their value.

“If the manuscripts are destroyed, we lose our history,” Haidara said.