Islamic Scholars Stay One Step Ahead Of Vandals In Mali

When Islamists militants took control of the ancient city of Timbuktu in the North African nation of Mali, they destroyed several earthen tombs of saints, claiming such shrines were forbidden. To preserve other artifacts and documents, at least one citizen hid historic items away.

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Now to Mali, where the French are winding down their mission. As they do, librarians and scholars in the city of Timbuktu are breathing a sigh of relief. Timbuktu is home to an untold number of manuscripts and antiquities from Qurans to texts on medicine and mathematics, invaluable to Islamic history. But recently, Malian rebels and Islamic militants set the city's largest library on fire as they fled town. As it turns out, the scholars were one step ahead of the vandals. Only a very small percentage of the items were destroyed.

Here to talk about what happened is Lydia Polgreen, reporter for The New York Times. She joins us on the line from Mopti, Mali. She's just been in Timbuktu. And, Lydia, first of all, set the scene for us in Timbuktu. Explain why it is the site of such important antiquities.

LYDIA POLGREEN: Well, for most people, Timbuktu is the synonym for the middle of nowhere. And that's exactly what it is today. But for centuries, it lay as a great crossroads between the caravans that camels used to traverse (unintelligible) from the Mediterranean, and the Niger River which brought up slaves and gold from the West African coast. So you ended up with these manuscripts that were copies of books that were carried by traders, but were then left with families who built these extraordinary libraries.

CORNISH: And of course, the city's largest library, the Ahmed Baba Institute, just how many documents were stored there and how did the librarians try to protect them?

POLGREEN: There's about 40,000 manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Institute and quite early on, the interim director of the Institute sensed that these documents were likely to be in danger. And so, they decided that rather than leaving them in the library building that they would try to smuggle them out, bit by bit. They took the manuscripts and wrapped them in sackcloth and then loaded them onto motorcycles or into cars in small packages so that they wouldn't attract the attention of the Islamist rebels who are occupying the town.

In that way, they eventually got them out of Timbuktu to Mopti and then ultimately to Bamako, the capital of Mali.

CORNISH: You mentioned that the librarians wrapped these documents in sackcloth and hid them to preserve them. Tell us about some of the private owners you met. What kinds of things did they do to save their collections?

POLGREEN: Well, there are many libraries across the city and there are families that very jealously guard their manuscripts. And they've been doing this for centuries. There have been many, many invaders of Timbuktu. So they have their own traditions and ways that they preserve these manuscripts. One library owner told me that he essentially built a bunker somewhere in the desert where he could keep the books safely.

Another library owner told me that when he was renovating his house, he broke down a wall and found within that wall some manuscripts that had been hidden inside the wall by the previous owner of the property. So there are almost manuscripts under every stone in this ancient city. You know, everywhere you turn, in every corner, someone has stashed away some old pages with Arabic writing on them.

CORNISH: Lydia, what happens now? Will the librarians at the Institute, or the private collectors, for that matter, bring home the artifacts right away?

POLGREEN: No, I don't think so. I spoke to one library owner who told me that he's very concerned that while the French troops are in Timbuktu, he feels quite secure, but the fact is that these Islamist rebels, most of them were not killed, and so there's a great deal of concern that they could return.

CORNISH: Is there an irony here, given that there's been this big international effort to build a space for these manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Institute and collect them all there, and yet it seems like they're safer in a way with the community where everybody is in this tradition of hiding them when trouble comes?

POLGREEN: Well, I think the two are not mutually exclusive because the Ahmed Baba Institute exists within the community and is staffed by people from the community, those same impulses and instincts remain in place. And the very few documents that were burned were ones that had been slated to be examined and digitized. So I think that the really important thing, just from talking to scholars and people who were working with the manuscripts, is to get the documents digitized as quickly as possible.

Even if it's time that eats away at their pages, what's contained in them will be maintained through the ages.

CORNISH: Lydia Polgreen, thank you so much for speaking with me.

POLGREEN: It's my pleasure.

CORNISH: Lydia Polgreen of the New York Times, speaking with us from Mopti, Mali.

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