TIMBUKTU, Mali – For eight days after the Islamists set fire to one of the world’s most precious collections of ancient manuscripts, the alarm inside the building blared. It was an eerie, repetitive beeping, a cry from the innards of the injured library that echoed around the world.
The al-Qaida-linked extremists who ransacked the institute wanted to deal a final blow to Mali, whose northern half they had held for 10 months before retreating in the face of a French-led military advance.
So as they left, they torched the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research, aiming to destroy a heritage of 30,000 manuscripts that date back to the 13th century.
These manuscripts are our identity, said Abdoulaye Cisse, the library’s acting director. It’s through these manuscripts that we have been able to reconstruct our own history, the history of Africa. People think that our history is only oral, not written. What proves that we had a written history are these documents.
But starting last year, Cisse and a handful of associates had conspired to save the documents so crucial to this 1,000-year-old town.
The fighters commandeered the new center, turning it into a dormitory for one of their units of foreign fighters, Cisse said. They didn’t realize only about 2,000 manuscripts had been moved there, the bulk of the collection remaining at the old library, he said.
In April, the Islamists came in, as they did in Afghanistan, with their own, severe interpretation of Islam, intent on rooting out what they saw as the veneration of idols instead of the pure worship of Allah. During their 10-month rule, they eviscerated much of the identity of this storied city, starting with the mausoleums of their saints, which were reduced to rubble.
The turbaned fighters made women hide their faces and blotted out their images on billboards. They closed hair salons, banned makeup and forbade the music for which Mali is known.
At the time, the institute was in the process of moving its collection into a new, state-of-the-art building.
The fighters’ final act before leaving last month was to go through the exhibition room in the institute, as well as the whitewashed laboratory used to restore the age-old parchments. They grabbed the books they found and burned them.
They never bothered to search the old building, where an elderly man named Abba Alhadi has spent 40 of his 72 years taking care of rare manuscripts. The illiterate old man, who walks with a cane and looks like a character from the Bible, was the perfect foil for the Islamists. They wrongly assumed that the city’s European-educated elite would be the ones trying to save the manuscripts, he said.
Starting last August, Alhadi had begun stuffing the thousands of books into empty rice and millet sacks. At night, he loaded the millet sacks onto the type of trolley used to cart boxes of vegetables to the market. He pushed them across town and piled them into a lorry and onto the backs of motorcycles, which drove them to the banks of the Niger River.
From there, they floated down to the central Malian town of Mopti in a pinasse, a narrow, canoe-like boat. Then cars drove them from Mopti, the first government-controlled town, to Mali’s capital, Bamako, more than 600 miles from here.
I have spent my life protecting these manuscripts. This has been my life’s work. And I had to come to terms with the fact that I could no longer protect them here, Alhadi said. It hurt me deeply to see them go, but I took strength knowing that they were being sent to a safe place.
It took two weeks in all to spirit out the bulk of the collection, around 28,000 texts housed in the old building covering the subjects of theology, astronomy, geography and more.
There was nothing they could do, however, for the 2,000 documents that had already been transferred to the new library, to its exhibition and restoration rooms, and to a basement vault. Cisse took solace knowing that most of the texts in the new library had been digitized.
Cisse estimates that what was lost in the end is less than 5 percent of the Ahmed Baba collection. Which texts were burned is not yet known.
He stresses that all the manuscripts, which date back more than 700 years, are irreplaceable. They are handwritten in a variety of scripts, and include ornate illustrations embedded within the text.
The collection is itself only a portion of the estimated 101,820 manuscripts stored in private libraries here, the product of the confluence of caravan routes which passed through Timbuktu and fostered an extensive trading network, including in books.
We lost a lot of our riches. But we were also able to save a great deal of our riches, and for that I am overcome with joy, Cisse said.