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The Librarians of Timbuktu

The “Golden Age” of Timbuktu was from the late fifteenth century to the late sixteenth century, when the city was not only a vibrant commercial centre, but also a university town and an important meeting place for scholars from across the Arabic-speaking world.

Timbuktu imported academic works from across the Middle East, and also produced thousands of original works.

These were not only Qu‘rans and Hadith, the standard stuff of Islamic scholarship, but also secular volumes, including histories, works of poetry, inquiries into music and art, astronomical and medical treatises, even a guide to better sex.

They captured the dynamism of Islamic and North African culture during this period, and the seamless coexistence of secular and religious ideas. This kind of open society that they reflected, this tolerant form of Islam that they stemmed from, was considered heretical to the fundamentalist and Wahhabist idealogues in 2012 who formed the leadership of AQIM and Ansar Dine. They began their occupation by destroying the shrines to Islamic saints where Timbuktu’s Sufi citizens had worshiped for centuries, and eventually they began to set their sights on the manuscripts, as another symbol of “heretical” thinking that had to be eliminated.

However, the world can thank Abdel Kader Haidara - a mild-mannered archivist and historian from the legendary city of Timbuktu - who organized a successful effort to outwit Al-Qaeda and preserve Mali’s greatest treasures.

Thanks to Haidara, who secretly moved the priceless manuscripts out of Timbuktu, almost all of them survived the Islamist occupation. About 377,000 of them have been collected under one roof in Bamako, Mali’s capital, where a Minnesota-based foundation run by a Benedictine monk and ancient manuscript expert, Columba Stewart, is digitizing them and helping to restore those that are disintegrating.

Haidara spends his time between Bamako and Europe, overseeing the manuscript conservation effort and trying to raise money, and public awareness, about the collections. Of course he still dreams of returning to Timbuktu, and organizing a massive boat lift down the Niger River, returning all of the manuscripts to the libraries where, he believes, they rightfully belong.

If you're interested in knowing more, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, by journalist Joshua Hammer, tells the incredible story of Abdel Kader Haidara.


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