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Timbuktu’s Priceless Manuscripts Are Safe After All

Rebels set fire to the library, but the precious documents were already gone

Part of the Holy Koran, written on fish skin. Photo: Robert Goldwater Library

Last week, a group of armed, al-Qaeda-aligned fighters, says the Guardian, swept through the ancient city of Timbuktu. As Smart News wrote at the time, the forces set fire to one of the city’s main libraries, which housed thousands of incredibly precious documents—hand-written texts that represent the region’s unique history of trade and Islamic thought.

“Timbuktu’s manuscripts are incredibly varied, in both length and subject. Some are fragments, single pages or a couple of leafs, while others are entire bound volumes hundreds of pages long,” says the Global PostMany of the documents are unique in the world.

But now, reassuring news comes that many of the manuscripts may have survived after all—stashed away in secret stores or swept from the city for safekeeping.

Global Post:

The manuscripts are safe,” said Abdel Kader Haidara, the owner of the city’s largest private collection and head of a local association of owners tasked with the protection of the manuscripts.

… Haidara described how, soon after the rebels reached Timbuktu, he and 15 others worked for a month at night packing manuscripts into metal trunks, cataloguing them, locking the boxes with two keys and then hiding them. He would not say exactly where, only that the manuscripts had been “dispersed” in more than 1,000 boxes.

Unfortunately for the city, located at the center of Mali, such covert preservation procedures are not without precedent:

Each time foreign invaders threaten Timbuktu — whether a Moroccan army in the 16th century, European explorers in the 18th, French colonialists in the 19th or Al Qaeda militants in the 21st — the manuscripts disappear beneath mud floors, into cupboards, boxes, sacks and secret rooms, into caves in the desert or upriver to the safety of Mopti or Bamako, Mali’s capital.

According to the New York Times, though the city is back under the control of the government, the documents are still being hidden:

None of the city’s libraries are in a hurry to return their collections from their hiding places… 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.”

More from Smithsonian.com:

The Last Working Copyist in Mali Is Trying To Save Timbuktu’s Manuscripts
Library Full of Precious Manuscripts Burned in Timbuktu
Timbuktu’s Ancient Relics Lay In Ruins At Hands of Militant Group

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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