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Rescuing the priceless manuscripts of Timbuktu

March 10, 2015 at 6:25 PM EST
For centuries, Timbuktu was a center of learning, home to a university and a vast collection of manuscripts containing priceless written records of Islamic and African history. When, a few years ago, jihadists invaded the city and set about to destroy its cultural treasures, one man organized a mission to smuggle out most of the manuscripts. Jeffrey Brown reports from Mali.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s an enormous and hugely important written record of African and Islamic history, threatened repeatedly by war, time and the elements.

In the second of his reports about Culture at Risk from the African nation of Mali, Jeffrey Brown looks at the effort to save the famed manuscripts of Timbuktu.

JEFFREY BROWN: An historic mosque in Timbuktu on the edge of the Sahara Desert in the remote north of Mali, North Africa, it’s a beautiful, magical setting.

But, today, Timbuktu remains traumatized after a 10-month occupation in 2012 by Islamic militants tied to al-Qaida. French and Malian forces drove them out, but the jihadists continue to threaten the area. It’s the latest twist in the storied idea history of this city.

For the Western world, Timbuktu was long thought to be the very ends of the earth, a fabled city of gold made wealthy from desert caravans. Less well known is that this was long a place of scholarship and learning.

But that legacy now lives here in Mali’s capital of Bamako in these pages from a collection of more than 400,000 manuscripts, most of them written between the 14th and 16th centuries, Arabic writings on science, philosophy, poetry and more. Collectively, it’s a priceless record of Islamic and African history from a time when Timbuktu was home to a major university and was a center of learning.

ABDUL KADER HAIDARA, Ahmed Baba Institute (through interpreter): Me, I’m the guardian of the manuscripts. I love all the manuscripts.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, like children.

ABDUL KADER HAIDARA (through interpreter): Like children.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Timbuktu native Dr. Abdul Kader Haidara, whose family has owned some oft manuscripts for generations, is now custodian of the entire collection.

ABDUL KADER HAIDARA (through interpreter): There are subjects in them that are very, very important that even today could help the world to resolve a lot of problems.

JEFFREY BROWN: When jihadists invaded Timbuktu and set about to destroy many of its cultural treasures, it was Haidara who organized a rescue mission, smuggling the great majority of the manuscripts 400 miles over land and by boat to safety in Bamako.

This was very dangerous work, right?

ABDUL KADER HAIDARA (through interpreter): At the time, it was very dangerous, because, in the north, there were many problems. There were jihadists. There were rebels. There were bandits. And also in the south at the time, there was a coup d’etat.

So it was very dangerous throughout Mali at the time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ten thousand manuscripts remained in a large library built in 2009 to house and study them. Some were burned by the rebels in a final act of barbarism. And two years later, the charred pages remain.

Luckily, though, the jihadists never looked in the basement, where the most valuable manuscripts were hidden.

MOHAMED DIAGAYETE, Researcher, Ahmed Baba Institute (through interpreter): You have more than 10,000 manuscripts inside. They didn’t touch them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really? So that was the miracle, 10,000 and they didn’t touch them?

MOHAMED DIAGAYETE (through interpreter): They didn’t touch them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Written on parchment paper, the manuscripts are fragile. Their worst enemy now is the humidity in Bamako. The process of restoring them is painstaking, involving careful cleaning and placement in acid-free, specially crafted box.

Page by page, the team is also creating a digital inventory, the goal, to save the manuscripts and allow eager scholars around the world to study this wealth of material.

ABDUL KADER HAIDARA (through interpreter): Manuscript, jurisprudence.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jurisprudence, huh?

Abdul Kader Haidara cited a 19th century of work about religious tolerance as an example of something that could have an impact today.

ABDUL KADER HAIDARA (through interpreter): Today, we have a lot of problems, a lot. So, in my opinion, if we take out these manuscripts, the ones about good governance, and translate them, develop them, publicize them, I think that would help us with today’s reality.

JEFFREY BROWN: The manuscript project, in fact, is just part of a larger effort to revive Timbuktu and its people.

SALEM OULD EL HADJ, Journalist: Some people say, everywhere you go in the world, when you are a native of Timbuktu, you always come back.

JEFFREY BROWN: Salem Ould El Hadj is a blogger and freelance journalist who stayed in his hometown during they occupation. He said that while Timbuktu is known to the world as the end of the earth, for him, it is a beginning, one that can have a vibrant future.

SALEM OULD EL HADJ: A place, a melting pot.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, a melting pot?

SALEM OULD EL HADJ: Yes, a melting pot where you can find all kind of ethnic — different ethnic living together.

JEFFREY BROWN: Timbuktu might become a crossroads again. The U.N.’s Cultural Agency is reconstructing sacred tombs that were smashed to pieces by jihadists.

And, as unlikely as it seems now, there are plans to build a new university in the desert. And an international initiative called the Timbuktu Renaissance is raising awareness of the city’s plight through music and cultural events.

N’Diaye Ramatoulaye Diallo is Mali’s culture minister.

N’DIAYE RAMATOULAYE DIALLO, Minister of Culture, Mali: All Malian are really counting on culture to use a crucial role in this peace process. Mali is definitely a poor country when it comes to the budget, but when it comes to civilization, culture and dignity, Mali is a very rich country.

JEFFREY BROWN: Khaira Arby, known as the Nightingale of the Desert, is a musician who faced death threats in Timbuktu and fled to Bamako with her family. She hopes to return some time soon, she told us.

For now, from her rooftop, Arby sang a traditional Timbuktu song, both a lament for and a celebration of her homeland.

From the West African nation of Mali, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

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