When Abdel Kader Haidara was 17 years old, he took a vow. Among the families of Timbuktu with manuscript collections (and the Haidaras had one of the largest), it’s traditional for one family member from each generation to swear publicly that he will protect the library for as long as he lives. The families revere their manuscripts, even honoring them once a year through a holiday called Maouloud, on which imams and family elders perform a reading from the ancient prayer books to mark the birth of the Prophet Mohammed. “Those manuscripts were my father’s life,” Haidara told me. “They became my life as well.”
That life came under serious threat last year, when a military coup ousted Mali’s democratically elected leader just as a loose alliance of Tuareg separatists and three Islamist militias began conquering broad swaths of the north. The rebels quickly routed the Malian army, and Timbuktu fell in April 2012.
As the militias poured into his city, Haidara knew he had to do something to protect the approximately 300,000 manuscripts in different libraries and homes in and around Timbuktu.
The amazing rescue of Timbuktu’s medieval manuscripts.
“Abba al-Hadi could not read any of the priceless manuscripts he gingerly placed into empty rice sacks each evening last August before spiriting them through Timbuktu’s darkening streets. The wiry septuagenarian had never learned to read or write but, having spent four decades working as a guard at the Ahmed Baba Institute, a state-run body responsible for the restoration and preservation of much of this storied town’s written heritage, he was all too aware of the value of the brittle pages bound in leather cases.
“For Abdoulaye Cissé and other guardians of Timbuktu’s heritage, the fact the crumbling manuscripts were almost lost forever has served to further reinforce their importance. Cissé points out that the books, which document so much about life as it was lived during Timbuktu’s rise and fall over centuries, challenge the notion that Africa’s history was exclusively oral until the arrival of European colonialists.
“‘These manuscripts are important not just for Timbuktu to remember its history but also to remind the world that Africa has a rich, written history contrary to what some once believed,’ says Cissé. ‘Losing even a fraction is a tragedy.’”
Now, stories have begun to emerge that nearly all the manuscripts from the Ahmed Baba institute and the city’s many private collections may be safe. First Lila Adam Zanganeh wrote about the crisis for the New Yorker, noting reassurances that the many private collections were in fact safe, though the state of those manuscripts that had been housed in the Centre was still uncertain. Then, Monday, both Harper’s and the Global Post have followed up with the incredible news that in fact almost all of the manuscripts were secreted away even before the city had fallen to rebel groups.
Islamist rebels have burnt down a library full of ancient manuscripts in the Malian town of Timbuktu as they fled, according to officials. The South African-funded library contained thousands of priceless documents dating back to the 13th century. “The rebels sit fire to the newly-constructed Ahmed Baba Institute built by the South Africans … this happened four days ago,” Timbuktu Mayor Halle Ousmane Ciffe told Reuters by telephone from Bamako. According to the official, he received the information from his chief of communications, who had traveled south from the town on Sunday. The manuscripts were being kept in two different locations, an old warehouse and a new research center – the Ahmed Baba Institute. Both buildings were burned down, according to the mayor, who was unable to say immediately if any of the manuscripts had survived in fire. Named after a Timbuktu-born contemporary of William Shakespeare, the Ahmed Baba Institute housed more than 20,000 scholarly manuscripts. Some were stored in underground vaults.