How Timbuktu Protected Its Trove of Manuscripts

By jeep, canoe, and cart, discover how the city’s ancient writings were saved

By Google Arts & Culture

Words by Kanishk Tharoor

A Soldier Patrols (2015-02) by Molly Knight RaskinTimbuktu Renaissance

In the spring of 2012, Islamist fighters seized the city of Timbuktu. Nearby, Libya was in upheaval after the toppling of long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi. A military coup was plunging Mali into chaos. In that vacuum, bands of Tuareg rebels and Islamist militants wrested control of much of northern Mali, including the ancient and much-storied city.

The fall of Timbuktu shook the world. It also spread concern among scholars and conservationists about the fate of the city’s immense cultural heritage: its monuments, art, and manuscripts.

2013 Evacuation manuscripts Timbuktu, copyright Prince Claus Fund (3)SAVAMA-DCI

Like the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the militants sought to impress their austere and severe piety on Timbuktu. Ansar Dine, the Islamist group that took over the city, imposed sharia law, ordering the veiling of women, the mutilation of thieves, and the stoning of adulterers. They banned music through much of northern Mali, a preposterous move in a region steeped in diverse and beloved musical traditions.

They also trained their cudgels and explosives on several famous shrines to Muslim saints. The worship of these holy men violated Ansar Dine’s puritanical interpretation of Islam. The group’s religious police smashed mausoleums and controversially knocked down the doors of the Sidi Yahya Mosque, which according to legend were only supposed to be opened at the end of the world.

The Holy QuranSAVAMA-DCI

Timbuktu’s most extensive cultural legacy lay in its enormous trove of manuscripts. Nobody knew exactly how many texts there were in and around Timbuktu. Dating largely from between the 14th and 16th centuries, there are thought to be around 377,000 texts, though the true figure could be much greater.

Their condition was the source of great anxiety. Would the manuscripts meet the same fate as the shrines, symbols of Timbuktu’s eclectic past?

Destruction de manuscrits par les djihadistes à l'Institut Ahmed Baba à Tombouctou en 2012SAVAMA-DCI

When French and Malian forces advanced on Timbuktu in January 2013, Ansar Dine and their al-Qaida allies fled without putting up much of a fight. But before they ran out of town, they committed one last desecration. They torched the contents of a major library, the Ahmed Baba Institute, destroying thousands of ancient manuscripts. The rich textual heritage of Timbuktu was thought to have gone up in smoke.

Conservation de manuscrits dans des malles avant le déménagementSAVAMA-DCI

But an amazing discovery awaited. Officials soon learned that the vast bulk of Timbuktu’s manuscripts were already safe, far from the reach of the militants. Led by the collector and Timbuktu-native Abdel Kader Haidara, a team of scholars, librarians, and smugglers had secretly removed nearly 350,000 manuscripts from Timbuktu.   

Boîtes des manuscrits détruits par les djihadistes à l'institut Ahmed Baba à Tombouctou en 2012SAVAMA-DCI

They brought the texts south to Mali’s capital, Bamako, by jeep, canoe, and cart, often under crates of fruit and vegetables. In this way, the extraordinary trove was saved from the mujahideen.

Manuscrit d'astronomie, SAVAMA-DCISAVAMA-DCI

The textual heritage of Timbuktu is testament to a rich period in the city’s history. English-speakers are in the habit of invoking Timbuktu to conjure some place remote, at the edge of the world. But for centuries, the city was an extraordinary centre, at the heart of networks of trade, pilgrimage, and scholarship.

Top Afri (W) French Soudan (Mali) TimbuctooLIFE Photo Collection

At its medieval zenith, the city was a hub between the commerce coming up the Niger river and the trading caravans that crossed the Sahara desert. Salt, gold, slaves, and textiles passed through its markets. A babel of languages would have been spoken within its walls, West African tongues mingling with Tuareg dialects and other Berber languages from the desert, and with Arabic, the language of scholarship, law, and religion. 

Timbuktu became an important commercial and political centre under the rule of successive West African dynasties, first the Malian empire, then the Songhai empire, under whom the city reached its peak in the 16th century.

2013 Evacuation manuscripts Timbuktu, copyright Prince Claus Fund (2)SAVAMA-DCI

That era was distinguished not just by its wealth – fanciful tales of the golden domes of Timbuktu reached Renaissance-era Europe – but by scholarship, writing, and book-collecting. The city’s collectors gathered Arabic-language texts from across the Muslim world. After visiting Timbuktu in 1510, the Moroccan traveller Al-Wazzan (known in the West as Leo Africanus) claimed that despite the city’s splendid wealth, books were the most precious commodities in its markets.

By some counts, a quarter of the 100,000 people living in 16th century Timbuktu were students. They crowded over 150 schools, including the great centre of learning at Sankore, which still stands today. Surviving manuscripts from this period cover everything from religious law to mathematics to romantic poetry to magic. That breadth offers a glimpse of the wide erudition of Timbuktu.

Timbuktu 7 by UNESCOUNESCO World Heritage

The city’s commercial and intellectual richness drew the attention of Saadian dynasty of Morocco. A Moroccan army captured and pillaged the city in 1591, carting off manuscripts and some of Timbuktu’s esteemed scholars. But while the city never really regained the stature and centrality it enjoyed before the Moroccan conquest, its traditions of learning persisted.

Explanation of Sharh Mukhtasar Al-Khalil (Al-Khalīl's Concise Handbook) by Al-DirdīrīSAVAMA-DCI

When the French conquered Timbuktu in 1893, they also plundered texts from the city’s libraries. But many scholarly families preserved manuscripts in secret, passing them down over generations. Thanks to this practice of custodianship, Timbuktu’s vast trove of documents survived.

Un manuscrit relié au fil by SAVAMA-DCISAVAMA-DCI

The manuscripts themselves are often loose collections of pages bound in goatskin. Their Arabic is written in various scripts, including the blocky Kufic style associated with older Arabic texts, the thicker strokes in the Hausa tradition of West Africa, and in the more curved Maghrebi style of North Africa.

2013 Evacuation manuscripts Timbuktu, copyright Prince Claus Fund (6)SAVAMA-DCI

A handful of these texts have been digitized and published online by the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. They include an astronomical treatise on the structure of the heavens, an inventory of local Sufi saints, administrative advice for governors, and medical wisdom on diseases and their cures.

Camel Riders in the Desert of Timbuktu (2011) by Festival au DesertTimbuktu Renaissance

That probing and eclectic tradition of Islamic inquiry stands in stark contrast to the rigidity of the militants who occupied Timbuktu for ten months in 2012. The north of Mali remains tumultuous; four years after the recapture of Timbuktu, security concerns have prevented organizers from convening the Festival in the Desert, Timbuktu’s world-renowned music festival last held in January 2012. 

Timbuktu couverture 1 by UNESCOUNESCO World Heritage

In 2016, the International Criminal Court found Ahmad al-Mahdi, a member of Ansar Dine, guilty of demolishing religious monuments in Timbuktu (including the door of the Sidi Yahya Mosque) and sentenced him to nine years in prison. His case marks the court’s first ruling over the destruction of cultural heritage.

La bibliothèque Mama Haidara à Tombouctou by Photo El Hadj Djitteye 2017SAVAMA-DCI

If there is a silver lining to the depredations of Ansar Dine in Timbuktu, it’s that the city’s manuscripts and history have now won international attention. There may be many more ancient texts in the region in private hands or buried under the sand. Their incorporation into the great archive of city’s textual history remains a task for the next generation of Timbuktu’s scholars.

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