The Niger River narrows as it nears Lake Debo, an inland sea formed by the seasonal flooding of central Mali’s Niger Delta. With sandy banks covered in reeds and tall grass, this stretch of the river makes an ideal sanctuary for bandits, and on January 20, 2013, the area was particularly violent and lawless. French military helicopters swept through the skies, bound for Timbuktu, to drive out militants who had occupied the city. Skirmishes between French ground troops and jihadists were breaking out just a few dozen miles away.
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Into this chaos came a fleet of 20 motorized skiffs, sticking close to the center of the waterway. At the entrance to Lake Debo, dozens of turbaned men brandishing Kalashnikovs appeared on both banks, and ordered the boats ashore. The men eyed the cargo—300 metal footlockers, 15 to a boat—with curiosity. Inside they found stacks of crumbling manuscripts, some bound in leather. Dense Arabic texts and brightly colored geometric patterns covered the brittle pages. It was clear that the books were old, and from the worried looks of the young men guarding them, they seemed valuable. The gunmen told the escorts that they would have to pay a ransom if they ever wanted to see the volumes again.
The young men tried to placate the hijackers. They peeled off their cheap Casio watches and proffered them, along with silver bracelets, rings and necklaces. “All the kids in the north wear jewelry, that’s part of their look,” says Stephanie Diakité, an American lawyer and manuscript restorer in Bamako, Mali’s capital, who helped organize the boatlift. “They gave them all of that, like that was going to suffice, but it didn’t do the job.”
At last the couriers called Abdel Kader Haidara, a Timbuktu native who had amassed Mali’s most valuable private collection of manuscripts, and also oversaw an association of Timbuktu residents holding their own libraries of manuscripts. “Abdel Kader got on the phone, and he said to the hijackers, ‘Trust me on this, we will get you your money,’” says Diakité. After some consideration, the gunmen allowed the boats and their footlockers, containing 75,000 manuscripts, to continue. “And we paid them four days later,” says Diakité. “We knew we had more boats coming.”
Contemporary scholars consider Timbuktu’s Arabic-language manuscripts to be among the glories of the medieval Islamic world. Produced for the most part between the 13th and 17th centuries, when Timbuktu was a vibrant commercial and academic crossroads at the edge of the Sahara, the volumes include Korans, books of poetry, history and scholarly treatises. Fields of inquiry ranged from the religious traditions of Sufi saints to the development of mathematics and surveys of breakthroughs in Graeco-Roman and Islamic astronomy. Merchants traded the literary treasures in Timbuktu’s markets alongside slaves, gold and salt, and local families passed them down from one generation to the next. The works reveal Timbuktu to have been a center of scientific inquiry and religious tolerance, an intellectual hub that drew scholars from across the Islamic world.
At a time when Europe was just emerging from the Middle Ages, Timbuktu’s historians were chronicling the rise and fall of Saharan and Sudanese monarchs. Physicians documented therapeutic properties of desert plants, and ethicists debated the morality of polygamy and smoking tobacco. “These manuscripts show a multiethnic, multilayered community in which science and religion coexisted,” says Deborah Stolk of the Prince Claus Fund in the Netherlands, which has supported manuscript preservation in Timbuktu. The family collections, she adds, “are filled with works laden with gold and beautiful drawings. We’re still discovering what is there.”
The crisis in Timbuktu began in the spring of 2012, when rebels from the Tuareg tribe—who have long aspired to create an independent state in northern Mali—allied with Islamic militants. The joint force, armed with heavy weapons looted from the armories of the late Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi, overran the northern parts of the country and seized control of Timbuktu and other towns. The jihadists soon shoved aside the secular Tuaregs, declared sharia law and began attacking anything they perceived as haram—forbidden—according to their strict definitions of Islam. They banned singing and dancing, and forbade the celebration of Sufi Islamic festivals. They demolished 16 mausoleums of Timbuktu’s beloved Sufi saints and scholars, claiming that veneration of such figures was a sacrilege. Eventually the militants set their sights on the city’s ultimate symbols of open-mindedness and reasoned discourse: its manuscripts.
A network of activists was determined to thwart them. For five months, smugglers mounted a huge and secret operation whose full details are only now coming to light. The objective: to carry 350,000 manuscripts to safety in the government-held south. The treasures moved by road and by river, by day and by night, past checkpoints manned by armed Islamic police. Haidara and Diakité raised $1 million to finance the rescue, then arranged for safe storage once the manuscripts arrived in Bamako.
The risks were great. Rescuers faced the possibility of arrest, imprisonment or worse at the hands of the thugs who had taken over the north. Militants from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb were capable of acts of enormous cruelty. They flogged women who went about uncovered, chopped the hands off thieves, carried out public executions and held opponents in dank, overcrowded jails for days without food or water. One resident watched Islamic police stomp on the belly of a pregnant woman who had dared to step outside to fetch water without putting on her veil; she miscarried the baby on the spot, he says. “We knew they were brutal, and we were terrified of what would happen to us if we were caught,” said one courier who transported manuscripts to Bamako. Months later, many of those involved in the manuscript evacuation are still afraid to divulge their roles. They are worried that the jihadists could reconstitute themselves in Mali’s north and take revenge on those who humiliated them.
Abdel Kader Haidara, 49, could hardly have imagined that he would be thrust into the center of a dangerous scheme to outwit Al Qaeda. A large man with a boisterous laugh and gregarious manner, he was born in Bamba, not far from Timbuktu. His father, Mamma Haidara, was a scholar, archaeologist and adventurer who searched villages and desert oases for manuscripts on behalf of the Ahmed Baba Center, a government library that had opened in Timbuktu in 1973 with funding from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. When he died in 1981, Abdel Kader took over his work. “I traveled by pirogue, by camel, negotiating with village chiefs,” Haidara told me in March 2006 in Timbuktu, where I had flown to write a Smithsonian article about the city’s rediscovery of its literary treasures after centuries of neglect. Haidara had grown up surrounded by manuscripts and instinctively could assess their value. Through persistence and shrewd bargaining, he acquired thousands of them for the Ahmed Baba Center.
Then he decided he wanted a library of his own. “I tried to get funding, but it wasn’t easy,” he said. His breakthrough came in 1997, when Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard University professor, visited Haidara in Timbuktu while making a television documentary series about Africa and saw his family’s manuscript collection. “Gates was moved, he cried, he said, ‘I’m going to try and aid you.’” Gates secured initial funding from the Mellon Foundation, and the Bibliothèque Mamma Haidara was born.
In January 2009, when I again passed through Timbuktu, Haidara had put the finishing touches on a handsome building filled with vacuum-sealed glass cases in which some of his prizes were on display. They included an 1853 letter from Sheik al-Bakkay al-Kounti, a spiritual leader in Timbuktu, beseeching the reigning sultan to spare the life of the German explorer Heinrich Barth. The sultan had barred all non-Muslims from the city under penalty of death, but al-Kounti’s eloquent plea persuaded him to release Barth unharmed. “The manuscripts show that Islam is a religion of tolerance,” Haidara told me back then. Scholars from around the world were visiting Timbuktu to study his collection, which numbered 40,000 volumes, as well as those of dozens of libraries opened in the last few years.
On April 1, 2012, when Tuareg rebels and jihadists rolled into Timbuktu, Haidara was apprehensive, but he took a wait-and-see approach. “We had no idea what their program was,” Haidara told me when I encountered him again in August 2013, while he was living in self-imposed exile in Bamako. “We thought they might leave after a few days.”
At the time Haidara also had no idea if the militants knew how many manuscripts were in Timbuktu or how valuable they were. But quietly, determined not to attract attention, he laid contingency plans. With funds that Haidara’s library association already had on hand from foreign donors, he began purchasing footlockers in the markets of Timbuktu and Mopti, and delivered them, two or three at a time, to the city’s 40 libraries. During the day, behind closed doors, Haidara and his assistants packed the manuscripts into the chests. Then, in the dead of night, when the militants slept, mule carts transported the chests to safe houses scattered around the city. Over three months, they bought, distributed and packed nearly 2,500 footlockers.