top of page

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer

We seldom think of librarians as being heroic yet that has indeed been the case many times throughout human history.

We often think of the destruction of great libraries in terms of "The Library of Alexandria"but actually many smaller collections nhave been saved over time.

The Dead Sea Scrolls comes to mind but little has been said about the wealth of knowledge found in places like Timbuktu.

But the librarians of Timbuktu were beyond brave as they hide and protected tomes and books found no where else in the world.

Here is their story.

"Timbuktu, city in the western African country of Mali, historically important as a trading post on the trans-Saharan caravan route and as a centre of Islamicculture (c. 1400–1600). It is located on the southern edge of the Sahara, about 8 miles (13 km) north of the Niger River. The city was designated a UNESCOWorld Heritage site in 1988. In 2012, in response to armed conflict in the region, Timbuktu was added to the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger." from the article: Timbuktu

Video from History in Five

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer

"To save precious centuries-old Arabic texts from Al Qaeda, a band of librarians in Timbuktu pulls off a brazen heist worthy of Ocean’s Eleven. Read more about it in Joshua Hammer's THE BAD-ASS LIBRARIANS OF TIMBUKTU." from video introduction

‘The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu,’ by Joshua Hammer

A cache of African manuscripts stored in Abdel Kader Haidara’s home, 2009.Credit...Brent Stirton/Getty Images Reportage
A cache of African manuscripts stored in Abdel Kader Haidara’s home, 2009.Credit...Brent Stirton/Getty Images Reportage

THE BAD-ASS LIBRARIANS OF TIMBUKTU (By Ben Macintyre April 28, 2016) And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts By Joshua Hammer 278 pp. Simon & Schuster. $26. "In the summer of 1826, a Scotsman named Alexander Gordon Laing became the first European to set foot in Timbuktu, a city that would become synonymous with mysterious remoteness. The inhabitants of Timbuktu would have been amused by the British imperialist assumption that their city had been “discovered.” By the time Laing reached the place, it had been a thriving international center for centuries, the economic and intellectual heart of the sub-Saharan world, where travelers, traders and thinkers, ­Africans, Berbers, Arabs, Tuaregs and others gathered to trade gold, salt, slaves, spices, ivory — and knowledge. While Europe was still groping its way through the dark ages, Timbuktu was a beacon of intellectual enlightenment, and probably the most bibliophilic city on earth. Scientists, engineers, poets and philosophers flocked there to exchange and debate ideas and commit these to paper in hundreds of thousands of manuscripts written in Arabic and various African languages. The British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper once remarked: “There is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness.” Timbuktu’s staggering manuscript hoard is the most vivid proof of how wrong he was. That ancient literary heritage, and the threat it faces from radical Islam, is the subject of Joshua Hammer’s book “The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu,” part history, part scholarly adventure story and part journalistic survey of the volatile religious politics of the Maghreb region. The title is quite irritating; the rest of it is very good.

Hammer delights in the explosion of medieval scholarship that took place in Timbuktu. By the 16th century, a quarter of the 100,000-strong population were students, drawn from as far away as the Arabian Peninsula. As one proverb puts it: “Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, and silver from the country of the white men, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom are only to be found in Timbuctoo.” As well as religious texts, those treasures included works of poetry, algebra, physics, medicine, jurisprudence, magic, mathematics, history, botany, geography and astronomy. Ethicists debated polygamy, usury, conflict resolution and the ­morality of smoking. The thinkers of Timbuktu even compiled sex advice, as imaginative and unreliable in the 16th century as it is today: “The dried, pulverized penis of a lizard placed tenderly into honey then licked will let a man experience full sexual desire and satisfaction.” The city’s scribes wrote in a variety of calligraphic styles, inks and colors: the African tradition of Hausa with thick brush strokes, the angled Kufic script from Persia and the curved and looping Maghrebi style. The city was a readers’ paradise, its inhabitants “searching with a real passion for volumes they did not possess, and making copies when they were too poor to buy what they wanted.” Eclectic scholarship thrived under the mystical, tolerant form of Sufism that dominated what is now Mali. The city, as Hammer puts it, was an “incubator for the richness of Islam.” But the tradition of open-­minded academic inquiry was also subject to periodic attack from bigots and looters, from bouts of anti-Semitism aimed at the city’s substantial Jewish population, and the ­anti-intellectual rigidity of successive waves of jihadis. The history of Timbuktu, Hammer writes, is marked by “the confrontation between these two Islamic ideologies — one open and tolerant, the other inflexible and violent.” Radical Islamists saw the manuscripts as heretical, and French colonial forces in the 19th century viewed them as plunder, and so another tradition emerged: that of concealment. The custodians of these priceless documents took to hiding them — inside their homes, in holes or in desert caves. Timbuktu’s intellectual inheritance was not only among the richest in the world, but also one of the most secret. The hero of Hammer’s story is Abdel Kader Haidara, inheritor and protector of a uniquely fine manuscript collection, a gentle, scholarly man who began gathering manuscripts in the 1980s on behalf of the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research in Timbuktu. Over the course of two decades, Haidara and other dedicated antiquarians scoured the region, buying up ancient texts from remote villages. Hammer estimates that the intellectual patrimony of Timbuktu now amounts to a staggering 377,000 manuscripts..." from the article: ‘The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu,’ by Joshua Hammer


2 views0 comments
bottom of page