Heritage saved in Timbuktu

Nieuws | de redactie
5 februari 2013 | 72-year old Abba Alhadi singlehandedly saved a large part of the Ahmed Baba-library in Timbuktu from Al Qaida. He hid unique ancient manuscripts in empty rice and millet bags.

Many scientists must have shivered at the news that Timbuktu’s library was under attack of the Al-Qaida linked extremists in Mali. The Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research contains around 30.000 manuscripts, some dating back to the 13th century.

The city of Timbuktu is on UNESCO’s world heritage list, because of its unique position as intellectual and spiritual centre during the 15th and 16th century. It was also a crossroads and an important market place where the trading of manuscripts was negotiated and salt and gold were sold form the north and cattle and grain from the south.

One brave librarian

Ever since the militia of Al Qaida had entered Timbuktu in April 2012, the elderly and illiterate library employee Abba Alhadi has been secretly organizing the evacuation of the most important pieces of the rich and ancient contents of the Ahmed Baba library. It has a treasure of works covering theology, mathematics, astronomy and more. The destruction of medieval sacred buildings by the militias was a sign of the fate that was probably waiting for these texts and manuscripts.

After Abba Alhadi disguised the books as rice and millet, the bags went on a journey on motorcycles and in canoes to the Malian capital Mopti, still controlled by the government. When on the 27th of January the militias set fire to the new building of the Ahmed Baba library, most of the valuable manuscripts were already 1.000 kilometers away.

Still, five per cent is lost

“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,” Mr. Alhadi said to AP. “It hurt me deeply to see them go, but I took strength knowing that they were being sent to a safe place.”

The library’s director Abdoulaye Cisse, estimates that five per cent of the library’s collection has been destroyed. Which documents are gone for ever, is not yet sure. Of the manuscripts in the new library building that was set on fire many had been digitized already.

Many of Timbuktu’s digitized manuscripts can be studied through this website.

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