Lost Treasures of Timbuktu

Scholars are rushing to rescue the medieval manuscripts that put one of the world's most remote towns on the map. Saving Africa's literary history from destruction

  • Horst Friedrichs / www.anzenbergergallery.com

    More than words At a library in Timbuktu, an expert restores a damaged manuscript

    Stepping through a low doorway into his small house, Fida Ag Mohammed sits at a table and pats a pile of books in front of him. Even in the dim light it's clear that these are no ordinary volumes. The books are covered with intricately hand-tooled sheep- or goatskin; inside, hundreds of pages of yellowed paper are filled with Arabic calligraphy — the painstaking penmanship of Mohammed's forebears centuries ago. "One of my ancestors from the 12th century began our family library," Mohammed says. "There are hundreds of collections like this."

    Those collections — stashed in libraries, locked away in closets or buried in the desert sands — have been preserved, in large part, by Timbuktu's isolation from the rest of the world. Landing in this blisteringly hot Malian town in the southwestern corner of the Sahara feels a little like arriving at the end of the earth. Dirt tracks melt into the featureless desert sands. Chickens peck in the shade between mud-walled houses. Little wonder that Timbuktu is a byword for remoteness.

    But Timbuktu's manuscripts might just change that. The books date from between the 14th and 16th centuries, a time when the town was a thriving trading hub and intellectual center for West Africa. Now, scared that Timbuktu's 50,000 or so surviving books might disintegrate or be sold off to foreign collectors, African and Western organizations are racing to salvage the treasures, preserving them from the ravages of climate, dust and the passage of hundreds of years. Millions of dollars have been spent in laborious conservation and cataloguing of the works. A sleek new museum, completed last April, is scheduled to open to the public in November. The museum will display tens of thousands of Timbuktu's books to the world, and, its backers hope, shatter any lingering notion that Africa has no historic literary tradition of its own.

    There is a catch, though. As Timbuktu opens to outsiders and word of its treasures spreads, so too does the interest in the books from outside collectors. In some ways, saving these old manuscripts could imperil them further. In decades past only the hardy visited Timbuktu; the journey required days of travel up the malaria-infested Niger River. Today, dozens of tourists arrive several times a week on small commercial planes from Bamako, the capital of the former French colony. Timbuktu has become a favorite jumping-off point to explore the world's biggest desert. As the modern world rushes in, attitudes among Timbuktu's youth — the generation who will take custody of all those precious manuscripts — is changing fast. Entertainment in Timbuktu these days includes sitting under the stars watching European football matches on satellite television. "This generation has the Internet, they see movies, they go away to study," says Mohammed, who is astonished at the changes he has seen in his 42 years. To look after the books "we choose a child who can take care of the manuscripts: someone who's always going to stay here." But kids keep leaving, the world keeps rushing in. Timbuktu's books have survived centuries of isolation. Can they survive their modern-day fame?

    A Rush to Save the Treasures
    Sitting at a junction of the Sahara's historic commercial routes on a lazy bend of the Niger River, Timbuktu used to be a hectic crossroads where gold traders heading north met herders and salt merchants trekking south across the desert. The city's lucrative trade fueled Mali's empires as well as a rich ethnic blend of black Africans and Mediterranean people, and an intellectual ferment with dozens of Koranic schools. Refugees from the Inquisition in Spain brought their libraries with them, and soon began writing and buying more books. Timbuktu's literary output was enormous, and included works covering the history of Africa and southern Europe, religion, mathematics, medicine and law. There were manuscripts detailing the movement of the stars, possible cures for malaria and remedies for menstrual pain. "I have here my family's whole history," says Ismael Diadié Haidara, whose ancestors carried their books to Timbuktu from Toledo, Spain when they fled religious persecution in 1467, and later wrote and purchased thousands more. "Families which were exiled, which had no country, had their libraries. It was people's security. They could say, 'This is where we come from.' "

    About half the surviving works — some illuminated in gold and crimson, others illustrated with maps — are intact. But even the best works are fragile, the pages brittle, the covers damaged. "There are a lot of problems with the manuscripts," says Timbuktu's imam Ali Imam Ben Essayouti, 62, who has bought several manuscripts from locals who need the cash and sense they might otherwise lose them altogether. "Houses collapse in the rain. The termites eat them. People borrow them and never bring them back."

    Malian researchers were amazed at what they found when they began riding camels through the Sahara in the 1970s in search of older works. "We were totally astonished by the volume of manuscripts. There were boxes and boxes of them from the 16th and 17th centuries," says Mahmoud Zouber, who in 1976 became the first director of Timbuktu's Ahmed Baba Institute, the main government-run research center, and who is now counselor on Islamic affairs to Mali's President. Zouber says he immediately realized the manuscripts' primary source importance. "Colonizers had always argued that they were here to civilize Africa," he says. "But there were many points of light. Clearly Africa was not living in obscurity."

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