Timbuktu’s manuscripts were saved from jihadists

(May 26, 2013)

How Timbuktu’s manuscripts were saved from jihadists

By Sudarsan Raghavan,May 26, 2013
Alkamiss Cisse (L) and Abdoulaye Cisse (R) -- no relation -- work inside the Ahmed Baba Institute amongst emptied boxes and burned manuscripts on April 27, 2013 in Timbuktu.

It was 7 o’clock on a hot night in August, and Hassine Traore was nervous. Behind him were 10 donkeys, each strapped with two large rice bags filled with ancient manuscripts. The bags were covered in plastic to shield them from a light rain.

Radical Islamists had entered Timbuktu four months earlier, and they had set about destroying everything they deemed a sin.

They had demolished the tombs of Sufi saints. They had beaten up women for not covering their faces and flogged men for smoking or drinking. They most certainly would have burned the manuscripts — nearly 300,000 pages on a variety of subjects, including the teachings of Islam, law, medicine, mathematics and astronomy — housed in public and private libraries across the city.

The scholarly documents depicted Islam as a historically moderate and intellectual religion and were considered cultural treasures by Western institutions — reasons enough for the ultraconservative jihadists to destroy them.

But a secret operation had been set in motion within weeks of the jihadist takeover. It included donkeys, safe houses and smugglers, all deployed to protect the manuscripts by sneaking them out of town.

This is the story of how nearly all the documents were saved, based on interviews with an unlikely cast of characters who detailed their roles for the first time. They included Traore, a 30-year-old part-time janitor, and his grandfather, a guard.

“We knew that if we attracted any attention, the Islamists would arrest us,” Traore recalled.

The New York-based Ford Foundation, the German and Dutch governments, and an Islamic center in Dubai provided most of the funds for the operation, which cost about $1 million.

“We took a big risk to save our heritage,” said Abdel Kader Haidara, a prominent preservationist who once loaned 16th- and 18th-century manuscripts from his family’s private collection to the Library of Congress. “This is not only the city’s heritage, it is the heritage of all humanity.”

The jihadists who took control of Timbuktu in April 2012 quickly chose as their headquarters the Ahmed Baba Institute, a state-run library and research center named after a 17th-century Timbuktu scholar. The center, painted in tan and pink hues, was built in 2009 to replace an older library with the same name in another part of the city.

The militants kicked out the employees and scrawled the name of their organization on a wall in Arabic: “Ansar al-Dine,” or “Defenders of the Faith.”

The jihadists, along with fighters from al-Qaeda’s affiliate in West and North Africa, had piggybacked on a Tuareg separatist rebellion that had taken advantage of a military coup in March to overrun the north. Within weeks, the radicals pushed out the Tuareg rebels and asserted control over Timbuktu and other cities in the north.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Timbuktu was a center of Islamic culture under several African empires. It had a university and many Islamic schools that attracted scholars and students from Cairo, Baghdad and other corners of the Middle East. Some brought along sacred Muslim texts. Others produced several hundred thousand manuscripts, handwritten in Arabic and African languages, sometimes in gold lettering.

The jihadists initially appeared not to know the value of the manuscripts kept in Timbuktu — or didn’t seem to care. But after local television reports about the manuscripts, some Islamists, clutching guns, came by the old Ahmed Baba Institute and asked the employees whether any documents were inside.

“We told them the center was empty and that all the manuscripts had been transferred to the new center,” said Abba al-Hadi, the 72-year-old guard and Traore’s grandfather, who had the keys to the place.

But in reality, most of the institute’s manuscripts, about 24,500 pages, were inside. The workers knew that it was only a matter of time before the militants would force their way in.

“The Islamists were destroying everything. We knew that once they heard of the manuscripts’ importance to the world, they would destroy them,” said Alkamiss Cisse, who worked in the restoration department of the institute.

‘We had to move fast’

The director of the Ahmed Baba Institute was worried. As a government official, Abdoulkadri Maiga knew that the jihadists would target him. So he fled to Bamako, the capital. By June, his employees in Timbuktu had informed him of the threat to the manuscripts.

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