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. They also wanted to deal a blow to the world, especially France, whose capital houses the headquarters of UNESCO, the organization which recognized and elevated Timbuktu's monuments to its list of World Heritage sites. 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...There's more at the link. A thousand blessings upon Abba Alhadi and Abdoulaye Cisse.
The first people who spotted the column of black smoke on Jan. 23 were the residents whose homes surround the library, and they ran to tell the center's employees. The bookbinders, manuscript restorers and security guards who work for the institute broke down and cried. Just about the only person who didn't was Abdoulaye Cisse, the acting director, who for months had harbored a secret. Starting last year, he and a handful of associates had conspired to save the documents so crucial to this 1,000-year-old town...
Their final act before leaving 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.
However, they didn't bother searching the old building, where an elderly man named Abba Alhadi has spent 40 of his 72 years on earth 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.
So last August, Alhadi began 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, over 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) 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," said Alhadi. "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...
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.
11 February 2013
An update on the situation in Mali
After I posted a couple weeks ago about the potential holocaust of ancient documents, several readers commented that they had heard reports that the damage had been mitigated. Here's a report from February 4 by AP: