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Preservationists (including Allimam Achahi, far left, and Abdel Kader Haidara) are trying to rescue the city's rare manuscripts from centuries of neglect. "They must be protected," says Haidara. (Alyssa Banta (www.alyssabanta.com))

The Treasures of Timbuktu

Scholars in the fabled African city, once a great center of learning and trade, are racing to save a still emerging cache of ancient manuscripts

White robe fluttering in the desert breeze, Moctar Sidi Yayia al-Wangari leads me down a sandy alley past donkeys, idle men and knapsack-toting children rushing off to school. It is a bright morning, my second in Timbuktu, in the geographic center of Mali, and al-Wangari is taking me to see the project that has consumed him for the past three years. We duck through a Moorish-style archway and enter his home, a two-story stone structure built around a concrete courtyard. With an iron key, he unlocks the door to a storage room. Filigrees of light stream through a filthy window. The air inside is stale, redolent of mildew and earth.

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"Regardez," he says.

As my eyes adjust to the semidarkness, I take in the scene: cracked brown walls, rusting bicycles, pots, pans, burlap sacks of rice labeled PRODUCT OF VIETNAM. At my feet lie two dozen wood-and-metal chests blanketed in dust. Al-Wangari flips the lid of one of them, revealing stacks of old volumes bound in mottled leather. I pick up a book and turn the yellowing pages, gazing at elegant Arabic calligraphy and intricate geometric designs, some leafed in gold. Turquoise and red dyes are still visible inside grooved diamonds and polygons that decorate the cover.

Perusing the volumes, I draw back: the brittle leather has begun to break apart in my hands. Centuries-old pages flutter from broken bindings and crumble into scraps. Some volumes are bloated and misshapen by moisture; others are covered by white or yellow mold. I open a manuscript on astrology, with annotations carefully handwritten in minute letters in the margins: the ink on most pages has blurred into illegibility. "This one is rotten," al-Wangari mutters, setting aside a waterlogged 16th-century Koran. "I am afraid that it is destroyed completely."

In the mid-16th century, Mohammed abu Bakr al-Wangari, an Islamic scholar from the town of Djenné, migrated north to Timbuktu, then a city of perhaps 100,000 and a religious, educational and trading center, and founded the University of Sankoré, a loose affiliation of mosques and private homes that provided subsidized instruction to thousands of students. During the next 30 years, al-Wangari amassed handwritten books on subjects ranging from history to poetry to astronomy, from both Timbuktu and other parts of the Islamic world. After the scholar's death in 1594, the books passed to his seven sons, and subsequently dispersed to an ever-widening circle of family members. And there they remained until three years ago, when al-Wangari, 15 generations removed from the original collector, set out to recover his family's treasures. "It's a colossal task," says al-Wangari, 42. Slim and intense, he studied Arabic literature in Fez, Morocco, and later worked as a UNESCO consultant in Dakar, Senegal. "I'm working at this every waking minute, and I'm not even getting paid a franc."

A little later he leads me farther down the alley to a half-finished building, marked by a sign that reads AL-WANGARI LIBRARY RESTORATION PROJECT, where laborers are mortaring concrete-block walls and laying bricks to dry in the sun. We cross a courtyard, enter a gloomy interior and walk past dangling wires, stacks of marble tiles and gaping holes awaiting windows. "This will be the reading room," he tells me, gesturing to a bare cell with a dirt floor. "Over here, the workshop to repair the manuscripts." Then al-Wangari points out the centerpiece of his new creation: a vault reserved for the bones of his ancestor, Mohammed abu Bakr al-Wangari, who lived in the house that once stood on this spot. "He would be happy to know what's happening here," he says.

For centuries, manuscripts such as these remained some of Africa's best-kept secrets. Western explorers who passed through Timbuktu in the early 1800s, some disguised as Muslim pilgrims, made no mention of them. French colonizers carted off a handful to museums and libraries in Paris, but for the most part left the desert empty-handed. Even most Malians have known nothing about the writings, believing that the sole repositories of the region's history and culture were itinerant-musician-entertainers-oral historians known as griots. "We have no written history," I was assured in Bamako, Mali's capital, by Toumani Diabate, one of Mali's most famous musicians, who traces his griot lineage back 53 generations.

Lately, however, the manuscripts have begun to trickle out into the world. Local archaeologists are chasing down volumes buried in desert caves and hidden in underground chambers, and archivists are reassembling lost collections in libraries. South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. have lent their names and prestige to restoration projects. Foreign academics and book restorers have arrived in Timbuktu, providing expertise, money and materials to rescue the manuscripts before it is too late. Improperly stored for centuries, many of these works have already been ruined. Heat and aridity have made pages brittle, termites have devoured them, dust has caused further damage, and exposure to humidity during the rainy season has made the books vulnerable to mildew, which causes them to rot. "We are in a race against time," says Stephanie Diakité, an American based in Bamako who runs workshops in Timbuktu on book preservation.

The manuscripts paint a portrait of Timbuktu as the Cambridge or Oxford of its day, where from the 1300s to the late 1500s, students came from as far away as the Arabian Peninsula to learn at the feet of masters of law, literature and the sciences. At a time when Europe was emerging from the Middle Ages, African historians were chronicling the rise and fall of Saharan and Sudanese kings, replete with great battles and invasions. Astronomers charted the movement of the stars, physicians provided instructions on nutrition and the therapeutic properties of desert plants, and ethicists debated such issues as polygamy and the smoking of tobacco. Says Tal Tamari, a historian at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, who recently visited Timbuktu: "[These discoveries are] going to revolutionize what one thinks about West Africa."

Some scholars believe that the works might even help to bridge the widening gap between the West and the Islamic world. Sixteenth-century Islamic scholars advocate expanding the rights of women, explore methods of conflict resolution and debate how best to incorporate non-Muslims into an Islamic society. One of the later manuscripts discovered, an 1853 epistle by Sheik al-Bakkay al-Kounti, a spiritual leader in Timbuktu, asks the reigning monarch, the Sultan of Masina, to spare the life of German explorer Heinrich Barth. The sultan had ordered Barth's execution because non-Muslims were barred from entering the city, but al-Bakkay argued in an eloquent letter that Islamic law forbade the killing. "He is a human being, and he has not made war against us," al-Bakkay wrote. Barth remained under the protection of al-Bakkay and eventually made it back to Europe unscathed. "The manuscripts show that Islam is a religion of tolerance," says Abdel Kader Haidara, who owns one of the largest private collections of manuscripts in Timbuktu, including the letter from al-Bakkay. Haidara is raising funds to translate some of them into English and French. "We need to change people's minds about Islam," he says. "We need to show them the truth."

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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