By Charlie English
May 12, 2017
On Jan. 28, 2013, news broke of an epic cultural catastrophe. That morning, the mayor of Timbuktu, Halle Ousmane Cissé, told journalists that the jihadist occupiers of the town had destroyed its famous literary heritage.
“They torched all the important ancient manuscripts,” Mr. Cissé told The Associated Press. “The ancient books of geography and science. It is the history of Timbuktu, of its people.”
Within hours, the internet was reverberating with paeans to these priceless documents of Islamic scholarship, some of which are said to date to the 12th century. Experts declared it to be a disaster of incalculable proportions, the greatest loss of the written word in Africa since the destruction of the library of Alexandria.
But The Story Was Not As It Seemed
It was true that a number of documents from the state-owned Ahmed Baba Institute had indeed been destroyed or stolen, but over the following days and weeks, the tale acquired a delicious twist. Almost all of Timbuktu’s precious manuscripts had been smuggled to safety in a daring rescue operation that a Ford Foundation executive described as “an Indiana Jones moment in real life.” The architect of this astonishing reversal was Abdel Kader Haidara, a titan of the Timbuktu manuscripts world, the owner of the largest privately held collection in the city and the founder of Savama, a nonprofit organization set up to safeguard the private libraries.
How had Mr. Haidara pulled it off? How had he and fellow Timbuktiens covertly carried hundreds of thousands of historic documents, from the institute and dozens of private collections, out from under the noses of the occupiers? Intrigued by both the story and the artefacts at its core, in 2014 I determined to find out.
The Malian town of Timbuktu lies at the point where the lifeblood of West Africa, the River Niger, bends into the Sahara. In the late medieval period, it was an important terminus in the network of trans-Sahara trade routes, the place, according to local tradition, where camel met canoe. Timbuktu grew wealthy, and with wealth came literature. Islamic scholars and holy men settled there, and in the 16th century, the traveller Leo Africanus reported that manuscripts were “more profitable than any other goods” in its markets.
Reports of the city’s riches crossed the desert to Europe, where they were spun into myth. As the British writer Bruce Chatwin has observed, there are two Timbuktus: One is the real place, a tired caravan town; the other is altogether more fabulous, a legendary city in a never-never land, the “Timbuktu of the mind.” For five centuries, until the first modern explorers stumbled, half dead, into the town’s precincts in the 1820s, this latter Timbuktu, an African El Dorado, dominated Western thinking about sub-Saharan Africa. The myth was founded on truth, but inflated by a mix of misinformation, wishful thinking and lust for gold.
There is little gold to be found in Timbuktu today. Beside its mosques and the mausoleums of its saints, the city’s greatest cultural treasures are its manuscripts.
At the end of March 2012, Timbuktu was overrun by a coalition of heavily armed rebels, many of whom had recently returned from fighting the Libyan regime of Muammar el-Qaddafi. They included the Tuareg separatists of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and an array of jihadist groups, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and others. For the next 10 months, Timbuktu would be governed by Shariah law.
The town was widely looted in the first days of occupation, and library owners responded by hiding their documents in their homes. Some manuscripts were taken out of the city, too, at this time: One proprietor smuggled his four most precious documents at the end of the first week. But it was several months before the evacuation began in earnest.
In May, Mr. Haidara was in Bamako, Mali’s capital, in government-held territory. There, he began to meet regularly with the new director of the Ahmed Baba Institute, Abdoulkadri Idrissa Maiga. The Ahmed Baba collection was by far the most vulnerable of Timbuktu’s libraries, since it was kept in two well-known city landmarks: an old building on the Rue de Chemnitz, and a new, South Africa-funded centre next to the Sankore mosque, which the rebels were using as a barracks.
By July, as the jihadists began to destroy Timbuktu’s centuries-old mausoleums, Mr. Maiga and Mr. Haidara decided that they must do what they could to move the state archive. On July 23, Mr. Maiga assigned agents for the secret mission to pack the manuscripts from the institute’s depository and transport them covertly across town to a safe house. There, an agent placed the documents in steel lockers of a sort that were used all over Mali for carrying goods. They were then passed to a trader who hid them deep in the cargo of trucks that continued on the route south.
By mid-September 2012, all 24,000 manuscripts in the old Ahmed Baba building had been packed. When they reached Bamako, Mr. Maiga organized a reception to show delighted government officials what he had done. Still, Mr. Haidara told them, the manuscript operations had to remain secret, since many privately owned collections remained in Timbuktu.
At this point, the two librarians parted company, and Mr. Haidara joined forces with a Seattle-based entrepreneur named Stephanie Diakité. Ms. Diakité, who founded a consultancy called D Intl, was well versed in the world of cultural development.
In October, Ms. Diakité and Mr. Haidara signed a 100,000-euro contract with a Dutch foundation, the Prince Claus Fund, to transport 200 more lockers of privately owned manuscripts south. This shipment contained roughly half of the 160,000 that still needed to be removed from Timbuktu, the Dutch were told. More money was raised from the Ford Foundation, the Al Majid centre in Dubai, the German foreign ministry and a second Dutch charity, DOEN. Toward the end of the 2012, staff members at the German Embassy in Bamako were told that between 80,000 and 120,000 manuscripts had been moved south.