Rescue Operations: the Libraries of Timbuktu

When rebels and militants took over Timbuktu in 2012, the world nearly saw a repeat of the tragedy of the Library of Alexandria: hundreds of thousands of priceless medieval manuscripts were in peril in the occupied city. Under the eye of militants intent on destroying the centuries of Sufi scholarship contained in Timbuktu’s libraries, mausoleums, and mosques, a courageous group of Malinese set out to protect the books.


Timbuktu, located at the confluence of trading routes for salt, ivory, and gold, was also a center of another precious trade, of books and knowledge. The University of Timbuktu was founded in 989 CE, and boasted as many as 25,000 students in the 12th century. The city’s golden age lasted until the 1600s, as a center of education and scholarship, scientific inquiry and religious study, that produced thousands of manuscripts of poetry, history, and religion.

In 2012, tensions in Mali erupted into a rebellion by secular Tuareg groups in the north. The conflict was quickly taken over by militant Islamist groups backed by al-Qaida, who took over Timbuktu and enforced sharia law. They brutalized the population, banned singing, dancing, and celebration of Sufi Islamic festivals, and demolished 16 mausoleums of Sufi saints and scholars, calling them idolatrous.

The caretakers of the libraries were braced for the militants to turn their attention to the books next. Abdel Kader Haidara, a curator at the Ahmed Baba Institute and a book collector himself, spearheaded the operation to outsmart them. Quietly, he started buying footlockers and distributing them to the libraries. In the dead of night, the manuscripts were packed and moved to safehouses elsewhere in the city. As lawlessness and looting rose, though, they worried that nowhere in the city would be safe. As soon as the jihadists relaxed roadblocks, teams of couriers began driving the books out through armed checkpoints, past guards who rifled through the fragile paper looking for smuggled arms, all the way to the capital, Bamako. The couriers were young men, often teenagers, who braved the two day journey back and forth, evacuating an average of 3,000 books a day.

But in January of 2013, all traffic in and out of Timbuktu was halted, while the militants prepared for a massive assault on government forces to the south. The rescue operations continued, switching from the roads to the river. The lockers were hidden in villages along the Niger until they could be taken by boat out of jihadist territory, risking bandits and hijackers in the place of checkpoints. French troops arrived in mid-January to assist the beleaguered Malinese forces, but as the tide of the conflict shifted, the risks only rose. The boatlift efforts increased frantically, worried that the desperate jihadist forces would hold the manuscripts hostage as the French approached. Several thousand that had been left at the Ahmed Baba Institute were in fact burnt as the jihadists fled, but although the militants had been living in the institute, they had never discovered even more manuscripts in the building’s basement. In the end, 350,000 books were safely evacuated through this extraordinary effort. Though safe from jihadists, the libraries in exile are now threatened by damp and mold in the humid capital; if you would like to contribute to the effort to conserve and catalog these fragile repositories of knowledge, a fundraiser can be found here:

Reposted from The Earth Story (




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