How the Books Survived.

I’ve long been interested in Mali, and I’ve posted several times about the incredible manuscript collections of Timbuktu (2003, 2006, 2007). Needless to say, I was upset at reports that Islamist rebels were destroying them, and relieved when news started emerging that many or most of them had been saved; you can now read a riveting account by Patrick Symmes of the rescue. A brief snippet, to give you a taste:

In the morning, we went straight to the Ahmed Baba Institute. After seven months, you could still see not merely the sooty starburst left on the floor by the bonfire of books, but the actual shreds and cinders of manuscripts themselves, which were swirling around in a sheltered area by the men’s room. I took a step to investigate and heard the crunching of ancient knowledge under my feet. Had I just crushed the only existing copy of an Ottoman geography or the final verses of a Moorish poet? It smelled like the fire happened yesterday.

The institute was founded in 1973 but only gained real traction in 1984, when Haidara joined, bridging the gap between state researchers and some 65 families with private collections. Like most, he retained physical control of his books, and his own 45,000 items make up by far the largest collection in Timbuktu. These were not just piles of old scraps. Often they were high-quality works with spectacular Arabic calligraphy, illuminated with bright red and blue inks and graced with gold-leaf arabesques that wrapped in infinite loops, reflecting the never-ending nature of God. In 2000, Mali greatly expanded the institute, and this new building opened in 2009 with a staff of 50 Malians trained to protect and digitize the books.

Via this MetaFilter post, which has further links.


  1. That is one hell of a story.

  2. The scholars of Mali, and ordinary Malians who make their scholarship possible, are new heroes of mine. I hope the manuscripts go back to Timbuktu, preserved and guarded. Why isn’t UNESCO involved? I wonder.

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