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Polgreen reports: "When the moment of danger came, Ali Imam Ben Essayouti knew just what to do. The delicate, unbound parchment manuscripts in the 14th-century mosque he leads had already survived hundreds of years in the storied city of Timbuktu."

Abdoulaye Cissé of the Ahmed Baba Institute with a manuscript that was hidden from extremists, who set fire to others. (photo: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
Abdoulaye Cissé of the Ahmed Baba Institute with a manuscript that was hidden from extremists, who set fire to others. (photo: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

Timbuktu, Under Siege, Hid Artifacts of a Golden Age

By Lydia Polgreen, The New York Times

04 Febuary 13


hen the moment of danger came, Ali Imam Ben Essayouti knew just what to do. The delicate, unbound parchment manuscripts in the 14th-century mosque he leads had already survived hundreds of years in the storied city of Timbuktu. He was not about to allow its latest invaders, Tuareg nationalist rebels and Islamic extremists from across the region, to destroy them now.

So he gingerly bundled the 8,000 volumes in sackcloth, carefully stacked them in crates, then quietly moved them to a bunker in an undisclosed location.

"These manuscripts, they are not just for us in Timbuktu," Mr. Essayouti said. "They belong to all of humanity. It is our duty to save them."

The residents of Timbuktu suffered grievously under Islamic militant rule. Almost all of life's pleasures, even the seemingly innocent ones like listening to music and dancing, were forbidden. With the arrival of French and Malian troops here on Jan. 28, life is slowly returning to normal.

But the city's rich historical patrimony suffered terrible losses. Timbuktu is known as the City of 333 Saints, a reference to the Sufi preachers and scholars who are venerated by Muslims here. The Islamic rebels destroyed several earthen tombs of those saints, claiming such shrines were forbidden.

During their hasty departure from the city last weekend, the fighters struck another parting blow, setting fire to dozens of ancient manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Institute, the city's biggest and most important library.

Irina Bokova, the director general of Unesco, accompanied President François Hollande of France on his visit here on Saturday to get a firsthand look at the damage the city's cultural artifacts had sustained. She said that plans are already being made to rebuild the tombs of the saints.

"We are going to reconstruct the mausoleums as soon as possible," Ms. Bokova said. "We have the plans, we have the ability to do it. We think this is important for the future of the Malian people, their dignity and their pride."

In modern times Timbuktu has become a synonym for a remote place. But the city thrived for centuries at the crossroads of the region's two great highways: the caravan route across the Sahara passed right by its narrow warren of streets, bringing salt, spices and cloth from the north, and the Niger River brought gold and slaves from West Africa. Traders brought books, and the city's scribes earned their living by copying them out by hand. These manuscripts cover a vast range of human knowledge - Islamic philosophy and law, of course, but medicine, botany and astronomy as well.

"You will find all forms of knowledge in these manuscripts," Mr. Essayouti said. "Every topic under the sun."

Beyond their physical presence, Timbuktu's artifacts are a priceless reminder that sub-Saharan Africa has a long history of deep intellectual endeavor, and that some of that history is written down, not just transmitted orally down the generations.

"This is the record of the golden ages of the Malian empire," Ms. Bokova said. "If you let this disappear, it would be a crime against all of humanity."

The cultural artifacts in Timbuktu - whose population of around 50,000 has shrunk with the latest troubles - have faced many dangers over the centuries. Harsh climate, termites and the ravages of time have taken a toll, along with repeated invasions - by the Songhai emperors, nomadic bandits, Moroccan princes and France. Yet many of the antiquities have endured.

"It is a miracle that these things have survived so long," Mr. Essayouti said.

Their survival is a testament to the habit of Timbuktu's families of hiding away their valuable relics whenever danger is near, burying them deep in the desert.

Konaté Alpha's family has had a collection of about 3,000 manuscripts for generations, and when the Islamist rebels arrived Mr. Alpha called a family meeting.

"We need to find a way to safeguard these manuscripts," he told his brothers and his father.

He was intimately familiar with the many nooks and crannies in which the city's residents have long hid their treasured manuscripts. While expanding the family's compound a decade ago, he found a trove of manuscripts hidden inside a wall.

"The previous owners had hidden them so well they forgot them," he said with a shrug.

He took his family's collection and hid it well. He declined to say where.

"We hid them, that is all I will say," he said.

The manuscripts have been at the center of a broad international effort to preserve the fragile history of Timbuktu. The governments of South Africa and France, along with the Ford Foundation and others, have spent millions to build a new library to house the largest and most important collection of manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Institute.

When the Tuareg rebels first arrived in Timbuktu in April, they looted and burned many government buildings, and the institute's interim director, Abdoulaye Cissé, worried that the institute's sleek new library building would become a target.

But when the Islamist rebels arrived a few days later, the library's officials explained to them that the library was an Islamic institution worthy of their protection.

"One of the Islamist leaders gave his mobile phone number to the guard and told him, 'If anyone bothers you, call me and I will be here,' " he said.

But library officials began to worry that the Islamists would discover that the library received financing from the United States, so in August they decided to move almost the entire collection, Mr. Cissé said.

"We moved them little by little to avoid rousing suspicion," Mr. Cissé said. They were sent to Mopti, then on to Bamako, the capital, for safekeeping.

It turned out the worries were not unwarranted. In the chaotic final days of the Islamist occupation, all that changed. A group of militants stormed the library as they were fleeing and set fire to whatever they could find.

Fortunately, they got their hands on only a tiny portion of the library's collection.

"They managed to find less than 5 percent," he said. "Thank God they were not able to find anything else."

None of the city's libraries are in a hurry to return their collections from their hiding places, even though Timbuktu is back under government control. French forces are now stationed in Gao, Timbuktu and outside the town of Kidal, in the north, and airstrikes continue against the militants near the border with Algeria. The fighters have been chased away from major towns, but no one is sure whether they will come back.

"We will keep our manuscripts safely hidden until we are sure the situation is safe," Mr. Alpha said. "When that will be we cannot say." your social media marketing partner


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+11 # marilynrssll 2013-02-04 23:51
I'm so glad they were saved. We would be crushed if the original Bill of Rights were destroyed.... or other things that "are our identity."
+9 # angelfish 2013-02-05 00:07
How sad that the Fanatics hate knowledge and would drive us ALL back to the Dark Ages of Ignorance and Intolerance. We MUST stay alert and keep the SAME Fanatics in THIS Country from rewriting History and denying Natural Science. Ignorance IS bliss when the Know Nothings babble their trash and use their Smoke and Mirrors to distort and pervert what most of us know to be false. God Bless ALL the Truth Tellers and Keepers of the Truth! I wish we had more of them here at home.
+12 # WestWinds 2013-02-05 03:43
If I were them, I'd photocopy the books and allow the public to view the photocopies only. If these copies were destroyed, they can be replaced. The real books I would put somewhere else and keep them on a need-to-know basis. It is regrettable that even 5% were lost and it is wonderful that these guardians see the books as belonging to humanity.
+9 # Valleyboy 2013-02-05 06:15
Crude propoganda on behalf of the Pentagon, the second time RSN has shared a story like this in a week.
Pray tell, how much coverage did the NYT give when the Baghdad museum was looted of it's priceless treasures, while the Americans stood by and watched? You, know the events that prompted Donald Rumsfeld to shrug and say "stuff happens"??
+8 # Cassandra2012 2013-02-05 10:22
yes. But then one must remember the crude behavior of the uneducated extends everywhere. One must NOT forget the destruction of the beautiful, historic Buddhas of Bamian in Afghanistan by the narrow-minded Islamists.
'Conquerors'have always been narcissistic destroyers of others' cultural artifacts, from the invaders of Greece knocking noses and arms from elegant statue to the 'Christians' that built their churches on the ruins of 'pagan' religious sites in Northern England,to the invading Muslims in 'Palestine' and India that built their mosques on the ruins of temples.
+11 # mdhome 2013-02-05 11:39
The common theme for the destruction of knowledge seems to be religion. As the Spanish destroyed the knowledge of the native Americans when they landed on the shores of Mexico, and the English when they took the land from the natives in what was to become the United States. It is indeed a sad condition of the conquerors that they feel the need to destroy so much of the worlds heritage.
+4 # Doubter 2013-02-05 16:39
This comment deserves more pluses.
+5 # X Dane 2013-02-05 18:24

I was thinking about Baghdad too, reading this article. When the priceless treasures were looted from the Museum. That should have made it CRYSTAL CLEAR for all,.... ...that we were NOT there to LIBERATE Iraq.

Bunk I NEVER believed. ....But there were many who DID believe. Just like there are STILL idiots, who believe that Saddam was involved in 9-11.

Rumsfeld really proved what a despicable bastard he was. He could have given orders to protect the cultural sites. There were young officers who were appalled by the destruction, because they had, had some education. But they were not able to do anything on their own.

And then the jerk stands there on TV and shrugs his shoulders....ST UFF HAPPENS. I remember still how infuriated I was, and it certainly made it obvious to the IRAQIS, that US was NOT there to LIBERATE them.

I am so glad that the people of Timbuktu were able to save most of their priceless documents.
+14 # RLF 2013-02-05 07:59
If you are looking for REAL heroes...these guys hiding books qualify in my mind!
+6 # Cassandra2012 2013-02-05 10:24
On the destruction of the Baghdad Museum*

War is peace and
peace is tyranny
A robot
mouthing words he’s been rehearsed to
whatever questions
he is asked
he answers in the currency
of plastic
flag, freedom, democracy
Security —
war is peace
peace is war
war is security
security is
we will destroy
this village / city / nation / child
to save it

We will bribe the Turk,
barbarians will burn the Library, let them
pillage 7, 000 years of history,
enrich the greed/
y to save freedom, peace, the nation
will sacrifice the young for our glorious

silence the speakers
to save liberty,
tax the poor,
kiss the oily feet of the wealthy
and loose the dogs of war
napalm, biting
at their open sores.

* At the beginning of the Iraq war, the few US soldiers there were told the priority was to protect the Oil Ministry building rather than stop the looting of the Baghdad Museum’s treasures of human history dating from 7, 000 B.C..
+4 # nancyw 2013-02-05 14:32
Humanity is at an all time risk. We know better now yet do the wrong things. Ignorance is one thing. Conscious destruction is worse. What will become of us? Who will remain? PIty the poor Earth and all her creatures.
+3 # rhgreen 2013-02-05 20:14
This is an incredibly heartening story.
These people have been doing this sort of thing for centuries. Next time poor isolated Muslim peoples are demonized for being uncivilized, let's remember these people and the heritage they have been protecting for many many generations - on their own, clan by clan and family by family, as a matter of honour.
+1 # Activista 2013-02-05 21:59
"France (educated!) says hundreds of Islamists killed in Mali fighting ...
Giving its first official toll since the offensive began on January 11, the defence ministry told AFP "several hundred" Islamist had died "in (French) air strikes" on ..."
we are civilized - we bomb from 2000 feet .. bet French (USA support) destroyed more in one month than "Islamists" in a century ...
+1 # Activista 2013-02-06 11:33
NYT - please find - Mali's (French Sudan) military junta (US trained colonels) have kept control of the capital, Bamako, after loyalists of the former president launch a counter-coup. But the junta has lost much of the country to Tuareg rebels (May 1st 2012). Another Obama/Hillary "US Made Democracy!)
MAJORITY of the Mali's people do NOT want French to bomb their country. This and previous war PROPAGANDA anecdotes are disturbing.

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