A Schindler’s list for medieval manuscripts in Timbuktu


The “Timbuktu Manuscripts” show the legacy of astronomy and mathematics in medieval Islam.

The fascinating story of the courageous rescue of thousands of Timbuktu’s medieval manuscripts, in the face of the Saharan branch of al-Qaida, and its jihadist reign of terror and destruction in Mali’s ancient city.

From William Dalyrmple‘s review of Charlie English’s The Book Smuggler’s of Timbuktu  in The Guardian this week:

The realisation that Timbuktu’s fragile heritage was in danger set off alarm bells across the world. The city was once one of Africa’s most revered centres of learning and the arts. From the 13th century onwards, but particularly during the great days of the Songhai empire, which reached its peak during the 15th and 16th centuries, Timbuktu became the West African equivalent of Oxbridge or the Ivy League, pullulating with scholars busy copying out old Arabic manuscripts and composing new works of theology, history and science.

He burst into tears.

In 2012 the literary remains of this golden age still lay stacked in libraries around the city. Only in recent decades had scholars come to appreciate the extraordinary intellectual wealth that lay hidden in private homes in this now remote but once cosmopolitan centre of learning. Searches had recently revealed the city to be groaning with medieval manuscripts “so numerous”, English writes, “that no one really knows quite how many there are, though they are reckoned [to be] in the tens or even hundreds of thousands”.

For African historians, the realisation during the late 1990s of the full scale of Timbuktu’s intellectual heritage was the equivalent of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls for scholars of Judaism in the 1950s. When the African American academic Henry Louis Gates Jr. visited Timbuktu in 1997 he actually burst into tears at the discovery of the extraordinary literary riches.

He had always taught his Harvard students that “there was no written history in Africa, that it was all oral. Now that he had seen these manuscripts, “everything had changed.”

Yet with the coming of al-Qaida, there was now a widespread fear that this huge treasure trove, the study of which had only just begun, could go the way of the Baghdad, Kabul or Palmyra museums, or the Bamiyan Buddhas. Before long, efforts began to smuggle the most important of the manuscripts out of Timbuktu and to somehow get them to safety in Bamako, the capital of Mali. The story of how this was done forms the narrative backbone of The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu, which consequently reads like a sort of Schindler’s list for medieval African manuscripts, “a modern day folk tale that proved irresistible, with such resonant, universal themes of good versus evil, books versus guns, fanatics versus moderates”. …

There is no doubt that al-Qaida did represent a threat to the Timbuktu libraries, and indeed around 4,200 manuscripts were burned by the jihadists as they were leaving town – just as Isis last month destroyed the great mosque of Mosul during its retreat. Equally, there is no doubt that the librarians went to heroic lengths to protect the treasures under their guardianship, burying some and smuggling out others. But as his research progressed, he became increasingly suspicious that the scale of the rescue operation had been exaggerated by the heroes of his tale, as they began to understand the extent of the willingness of western donors to wire vast quantities of money to Mali in order to get the precious manuscripts out to safety.

Read the whole thing here.

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One Response to “A Schindler’s list for medieval manuscripts in Timbuktu”

  1. Ed Darian Says:

    How is this not a rip-off of “The Bad-ass Librarians of Timbuktu”?