Mali Bamako Timbuktu Mopti Niger river election pooling station vote market people landscape manuscript library books mosque travel village boat
Mali Bamako Timbuktu Mopti Niger river election pooling station vote market people landscape manuscript library books mosque travel village boat
Abdel Kader Haidara spirited thousands of manuscripts out of Timbuktu and into a safe house in Bamako. The parchment at top right survived the bonfire at Timbuktu’s Ahmed Baba Institute. (Marco Di Lauro)

The Real Rebels of Timbuktu

Tuareg nomads have stormed out of the desert again, threatening a return to culture war in the Sahara’s legendary lost city. Patrick Symmes on the rebel alliance, and the fire next time.

Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.

People dress like kings and queens in the capital of Mali, even in the dirt streets on the far side of the river. The women walk down mud lanes wearing immaculate gowns with puffed shoulders, gold detailing, and beadwork. The dudes are natty, too, in safari suits, crisp office boy outfits, or the grand boubou, the national robing that makes any man walk like a giant. Only the heroic boys everywhere—young teens carrying loads, pushing groceries, directing trucks—go around in recycled jeans and T-shirts. In squalor the people must be regal.

We’d been circling the outskirts of Bamako for an hour, driving in a taxi from street to street, block to block, the confusion more effective than any blindfold. Out here, far from the government compounds and hotel towers of downtown, was the striving Africa, endless rows of two-story cement houses, barbershops, and mobile-phone kiosks. Finally, a boy on a motorcycle was sent to fetch us, and we followed him back through the sprawling neighborhood and into a courtyard, where the gate was quickly locked behind us.

Here a man in a red fez escorted me through the cool, dark house to an iron door painted red and freshly reinforced with cement and a strong padlock. It took a while for my eyes to adjust. Boxes. Boxes and boxes. There were 2,400 footlockers in this room.

The air reeked of decaying paper, the acid tang of the back stacks at a forgotten university. The trunks were brightly painted in the Malian style: black, green, and silver, with waving lines and diagonals and dots. They shone even in the deep shade of this cavernous room. Some were as small as suitcases, others large enough to hold a body. They climbed to the ceiling on three sides, with only a narrow passage down the middle.

The man who opened the door to this trove was Abdel Kader Haidara, 44, a round-bellied scholar from the Sahara, with a cloudy left eye and a simple white robe.

“Here,” said Haidara, gesturing for me to advance.

Before me was a vast cache of knowledge pulled literally from the fires of war. These were the famed manuscripts of Timbuktu, the legendary caravan town that had thrived here between the 12th and 16th centuries. Relics of a sophisticated African trading culture that stretched from Mauritania to Zanzibar, they had emerged in the past decade as one of the great archaeological discoveries of our time, a hidden-in-plain-sight secret. Inside wrappings of rag paper or gazelle leather, scribed onto camel- and goatskin parchments, written on Italian Renaissance paper and even stones, the Timbuktu books were a mountain of literature in a supposedly illiterate part of Africa, the secret history of a continent before Europeans arrived.

And then, in January 2013, they were burned. Jihadi rebels occupying Timbuktu entered the town’s great library and set the manuscripts ablaze. The world condemned it as the most despicable act of vandalism since the Taliban dynamited the monumental Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001.

So how could this room exist?

I was having an Indiana Jones moment. I opened a trunk and gently swept my fingers over the tooled-leather bindings and the soft edges of rag paper. I picked out a book and opened it, the pages crackling, the calligraphy stunning after some 500 years of sitting in dark rooms. I found myself stroking the books, inhaling their smell.

Mali Bamako Timbuktu Mopti Niger river election pooling station vote market people landscape manuscript library books mosque travel village boat
Malian calligrapher Boubacar Sadeck consults an ancient manuscript at his home in Bamako, Mali. (Marco Di Lauro/Reportage by Getty Images)

I opened cases at random, discovering treasures that I would never be allowed to touch in a museum. The pages were caverned out by millimeter-wide book worms, some more tunnel than text. I opened another metal trunk and a cloud of dust emerged, the books inside more confetti than pages.

I won’t look good in 500 years, either.

The bonfire was the last act in a war that has simmered for decades in the Saharan desert, pitting the nomads who have traditionally controlled northern Mali against its weak national government. It’s no wonder you don’t know where Mali is: one of the world’s 25 poorest countries, this landlocked nation has seven neighbors and no luck, more than 30 languages, including the French of its colonizers, and its feet in wet West Africa and its head in the arid Arab north; it lies where the Sahara yields to the Sahel, the grassy promise of the tropics. The northerners are mostly Tuaregs, the blue-clad tribesmen who’ve roamed across borders for centuries, recognizing no governments unless paid to do so. (They’ve rebelled against Mali three times just since the 1990s.) Their version of Islam has long been relaxed and idiosyncratic, allowing relative freedom to women and embracing music, especially the electric guitar. In the 1990s, before things took a harder turn, Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghali wrote a song for the biggest rock band in the Sahara.

Timbuktu was known for tolerance as well, and for its love of sensual pleasures like music and tobacco. Founded around 1100 A.D. where the Sahara meets the Niger River, it became a trade hub fed by caravans that crossed the desert with salt and books, connected by camel to Cordoba and Constantinople. By the 15th century, Timbuktu was home to 100,000 people, with as many as 25,000 scholars crowding its dirt lanes. One urban quarter served as a medieval xerox machine, lined with scriptoriums where calligraphers churned out handmade copies. Only the rise of European sailing ships pushed it into obscurity.

In modern times, Timbuktu attracted musicians and Western seekers, a mixture of Afro-pop gods, young rockers, and ecstatic backpackers who gathered every January for the Festival of the Desert in the dunes west of town. That groovy vibe peaked in 2007, when Bono and Jimmy Buffet crashed the party, but the consensus of desert life was breaking down. Ag Ghali stopped smoking and dancing and embraced the arch-conservative Islam of Ansardine, a homegrown jihadi group, and AQIM, the North African affiliate of Al Qaeda, run by a one-eyed Algerian named Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who’d perfected the art of kidnapping for profit. In 2009, a Briton was grabbed—and later executed—after another music festival, and soon there were nine Western hostages in northern Mali. European governments paid $65 million in ransoms, which only emboldened the Tuaregs and drew in more cash-hungry fighters. Malian musicians were threatened with death for participating in the Festival of the Desert, and the 2012 event—held right outside Timbuktu, for safety—was the last.

Mali Bamako Timbuktu Mopti Niger river election pooling station vote market people landscape manuscript library books mosque travel village boat Djenné
The Niger River: the books' conduit to safety and the author's route back into the conflict zone. (Marco Di Lauro/Reportage by Getty Images)

Then the jihad arrived. Belmokhtar united about 2,000 Tuareg fighters with a smaller, hardened force of jihadis—a quicksand mixture of smugglers and holy warriors bolstered by perhaps 1,000 heavily armed mercenaries returning from Libya. That April, the Malian army abruptly collapsed and the rebels captured Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal, the desert’s main population centers. In Timbuktu, the Tuaregs promised tolerance and respect. But when the troops of Ansardine arrived, flying the black flags of Al Qaeda, the rebels set up Taliban-style rule across northern Mali, a place they called Azawad and governed with harsh sharia laws.

In previous wars—a Moroccan invasion at the end of the 16th century and a jihadi uprising in the 15th—manuscripts had been destroyed or looted, too. But centuries later, mountains of old paper were still there, in small family collections, preserved by the desert climate and Islam’s reverence for the written word. “We don’t care about books,” one Tuareg rebel had assured a local collector, but that didn’t last. While overwhelmingly Islamic, the books embraced secular science, Sufi magic, and intellectual argument—the wrong kind of Islam, at least for Al Qaeda.

The occupation lasted ten months. Then, on January 26, 2013, as a French military expedition approached the city, the retreating rebels paused to commit one final crime. Entering Timbuktu’s modern new library, the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research, they carried more than 4,000 manuscripts into a courtyard, where they built a bonfire of words. One match and about 30 minutes of stirring was all it took.

The mayor of Timbuktu told The Guardian that the fire had destroyed not one but two libraries, “a devastating blow.” But smoke gets in your eyes. Although pictures emerged of torched manuscripts lying in piles, Malian officials soon backtracked. Only some books had been lost. Over the next few months, news reports emerged of a remarkable effort by ordinary Malians to smuggle out these treasures, by truck and trunk, donkey and canoe. The jihadis never knew how badly they themselves had been burned: before they lit their blaze of ignorance, the vast majority of the city’s manuscripts were already gone.

Mali Bamako Timbuktu Mopti Niger river election pooling station vote market people landscape manuscript library books mosque travel village boat
A Malian child holding a chicken in a Bamako market. (Marco Di Lauro/Reportage by Getty Images)

I learned some details about all this by speaking with Stephanie Diakité, a Seattle attorney and expert in West African law. She’d been so taken with the books when she first saw them 20 years ago that she’d trained as a conservator. Months after the war, Diakité was still preoccupied with their security and would not reveal their whereabouts or how Abdel Kader Haidara, with her assistance, had orchestrated much of the daring escape. Even in their current hiding places—that secret location I’d later visit in Bamako, as well as homes along the roads to Timbuktu—the books were at risk, she said, vulnerable to rain, theft, or another war.

Haidara revealed even less, concerned that the Timbuktu citizens who actually moved the books would be punished if the jihadis returned. The government’s official catalog listed 9,000 manuscripts, but rumors were circulating that the town had held 20 or even 30 times that. Less than one percent had been cataloged, let alone copied, and almost no scholars could reach the books or even read the necessary languages. Surprises were waiting inside those crumbling pages.

The problem with paper is that it goes out of date. My Lonely Planet West Africa was only two years old but radically, dangerously obsolete. It was August, seven months after the liberation of Timbuktu, and after glimpsing the surviving books in Bamako, Italian photographer Marco Di Lauro and I were determined to reach the old city, to meet the heroic, but unnamed, smugglers who’d gotten the books out. We wasted ten full days in Bamako trying to catch one of the rare UN flights that carried African peacekeeping troops into Timbuktu. There is a northern road through the Sahara, and a southern route through the Sahel, but fresh reports of shootings and kidnappings convinced us to avoid both. Instead we’d travel down the Niger, a 2,600-mile watercourse that flows west to east through five countries, curving like a question mark toward the Sahara. The river was the way many of the books had escaped and would be our route back.

Full-Column Inline Image with Caption:
Bus Chris McCandless Bus 142 Te
The Yarnell Hill fire picks up steam. (Diana Saverin)

After a day of driving, we spent the night in Djenné, a magical, mud-walled city surrounded by the rushing waters of the Bani River. Djenné is a sister city to Timbuktu, equally venerable, with a mind-blowing mud mosque and its own small library of worm-eaten medieval manuscripts in gold leaf.

An hour up the road was Mopti, the main port on the Niger. We slipped down the stone quay at 4:15 A.M., picking our way over exhausted stevedores sleeping on cardboard. Hundreds of these men and boys crowd Mopti’s teeming waterfront by day, shouting and dusty, but here was Africa motionless, silent, and cool. After shimmying over smaller pirogues to reach our boat, the captain cast off, and we drifted into the current of Africa’s third-largest river.

LP’s cigarette-paper pages described a peacetime world of swift tourist boats here, with cabins and meals, gliding backpackers past riverside mosques. What we got was a smelly cargo vessel on a rescue mission. Called a pinnace, it had the proportions of a river canoe but was larger: 130 feet long and 12 feet wide, made from planked boards held together with hope. A waterline cargo deck supported two thundering diesels made in France, a score of crated motorcycles, and 6,300 sacks of yellow split peas donated by the World Food Program. The food was destined for the war-displaced nomads and starving villagers we would pass during the next 300 miles of riverbank. The motorcycles were a side business.

Mali Bamako Timbuktu Mopti Niger river election pooling station vote market people landscape manuscript library books mosque travel village boat Djenné
Malian boat passengers on their way from Mopti to Timbuktu. (Marco Di Lauro/Reportage by Getty Images)

Swinging up an exterior ladder brought you to the lido deck, a passenger area sheltered by a very low roof of corrugated tin. There was room only to sit or lie down; bed was the tin deck and dinner was riz sauce, a fiery brown stew made with goat (once) or fish heads (the rest of the time). There were 14 others on board, all crew or their families. Seven months after the war, people were still paying to get out of Timbuktu, not in.

August was the low point for the river, but the first rains had arrived upstream, and our capitaine was attempting his debut passage of the season. Sitting at a wood steering wheel at the front of the top deck, he assured me that we would make the trip between Mopti and Timbuktu in two days and one night. “La nonstop,”he said. It turned out neither of us spoke French.

The boat marched down the brown river at the pace of a slow bicyclist, hour after hour of featureless mud banks and a couple of barren villages where police officers looked over our credentials. Twice on the first day we paused to pass down the heavy bags of yellow peas or the motorcycles, which were placed in canoes and paddled ashore by strong men.

But that afternoon, we came through widening channels to a village on an island and, despite all plans and pleas, la stop. Our captain and crew were members of the Bozo tribe, known since ancient times as the masters of the river. This was their largest village, Barkinelba, on the reedy edge of Lake Débo, a seasonal body of water that forms in the Niger.

In a gibberish of Bozo to Bambara to French to English, we heard that it was too windy to cross the lake. A quick walk across the island proved the point: whitecaps tore up the surface, and the Bozo fishing pirogues were all sheltered in back creeks, tied fore and aft. We were spending the night right here.

Barkinelba was nice, in the way of insanely poor places at sunset. A few thousand people lived in reed huts with dirt floors, but they were clean, well dressed, and working hard. By day the men fished with monofilament nets while the women pounded millet. At night I sat on the roof of our boat as people with flashlights wandered the dark lanes. The average life span in Mali is 55; children in villages like this die all the time for lack of clean water. Yet there was something romantic, even immortal, in the sight of women embroidering by the light of a battery-powered television set, filling the darkness with gossip and laughter.

The skies had been smudged with Saharan sands all day, but this blew out at night, leaving an enormous Milky Way overhead. When Scottish explorer Mungo Park first came down this river in 1795, he was astonished by what people requested: they wanted paper. In the 1840s, the explorer Heinrich Barth gave away reams of the stuff and described traders wandering the desert with nothing but books to sell. Illiterate Africa was a myth. Words—books—had always been necessary.

If going there is a dream, and getting there a nightmare, arriving in Timbuktu is one of the world’s great disappointments. Hungry and nearly insane with boredom, we endured days three and four of the two-day trip, staring limply at the banks of the Niger until the north shore gradually turned into the high khaki dunes of the Sahara. The south shore, the Sahel, offered a smattering of restorative grass, and this was Timbuktu’s real advantage. On the desert crossings that connected the Mediterranean world to Africa, it was the first or last stop, the place, they said, where the camel met the canoe.

Our big canoe ran aground just 400 yards off the quay at Kabara, Timbuktu’s port. We crossed through a sandy no-man’s-land in a dented Mercedes taxi with desert-soft tires. In ancient times, attacks on travelers were so common here that this patch of sand had its own sinister name, They Don’t Hear, reflecting the cries of victims.

We passed through rings of increasingly tense security, first Malian soldiers cradling AK-47’s, then technicals (weaponized pickup trucks), then African Union soldiers lurking behind sandbagged positions. There had been five suicide bombings linked to Al Qaeda affiliates in northern Mali since the occupation ended; now UN and African diplomats were overseeing the deployment of Minusma, a West African peacekeeping force that was supposed to replace French troops and create stability.

The problem with paper is that it goes out of date. My Lonely Planet West Africa was only two years old but radically, dangerously obsolete. Its cigarette-paper pages described a peacetime world of swift tourist boats with cabins and meals.

But the streets of Timbuktu seemed empty, the population of 54,000 gutted by war. Only a trickle of men attended prayers at the 14th-century mosque, built by the great emperor Musa, the ruler who gilded Timbuktu’s reputation forever by marching all the way to Mecca with so much West African gold that he crashed the Egyptian economy. Europeans absorbed this story like blood absorbs alcohol and spent centuries searching the Sahara for Tombouctou, a wondrous city of golden castles. When Frenchman René-Auguste Caillié finally reported in 1828 that it was actually a small and downtrodden oasis of mud houses, he was initially met with suspicion.

Alas, he was right. The Atlantis of the desert was a dumpy little place, 600 years past its prime, with sand in the streets and plastic bags in the trees. Almost every hotel and restaurant had closed, and when we found a room it was just in time, for a sandstorm blew in, followed by a chilly downpour that flattened the wattle roofs of poor herders in the backstreets, turning the avatar of mystery into a shivering hovel of mud.

In the morning, we went straight to the Ahmed Baba Institute. After seven months, you could still see not merely the sooty starburst left on the floor by the bonfire of books, but the actual shreds and cinders of manuscripts themselves, which were swirling around in a sheltered area by the men’s room. I took a step to investigate and heard the crunching of ancient knowledge under my feet. Had I just crushed the only existing copy of an Ottoman geography or the final verses of a Moorish poet? It smelled like the fire happened yesterday.

The institute was founded in 1973 but only gained real traction in 1984, when Haidara joined, bridging the gap between state researchers and some 65 families with private collections. Like most, he retained physical control of his books, and his own 45,000 items make up by far the largest collection in Timbuktu. These were not just piles of old scraps. Often they were high-quality works with spectacular Arabic calligraphy, illuminated with bright red and blue inks and graced with gold-leaf arabesques that wrapped in infinite loops, reflecting the never-ending nature of God. In 2000, Mali greatly expanded the institute, and this new building opened in 2009 with a staff of 50 Malians trained to protect and digitize the books.

This was Big Data, Sahara edition. The books are “heirlooms of an African renaissance,” says South African historian Shamil Jeppie, who runs the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project at the University of Cape Town. They include everything from astronomy to zoology, from Turkish maps to Jewish wedding contracts, along with a mother lode of commercial records about caravans and the salt trade. One of the few scholars to have examined the works firsthand, Jeppie has found law and theology but also poetry, a history of tea, and two sex manuals, which he describes as “very practical—I mean, very impractical.”

Yet, by 2012, the institute had digitized just 2,000 manuscripts. You couldn’t exactly slap them on a scanner: the paper was as fragile as a mummy, and the ink (typically made of charcoal mixed with gum arabic) could burst into flames from the hot beam of light. When the jihadis arrived to trash the library, this inefficiency turned out to be a partial blessing: compared with the tens of thousands in state hands, there were hundreds of thousands still in private homes, waiting their turn for restoration and copying with cold-circuit photography. The people of Timbuktu had been careful, even grudging, with their books. As in centuries past, this was a winning strategy.

The State Library building is big for Timbuktu—a whole block—but blends in nicely, with the trapezoidal walls and open galleries of a Saharan home. Out in the ochre-colored courtyard was Bouya Haidara. Short and sober faced, with a scruff of white chin hair and a white scholar’s cap, he was the guardian of the library, an important position with elements of security chief and casino greeter. From a loose pile of burned books sitting against a wall—books that had been outdoors for seven months—he pulled a cardboard box, black all over. Inside were stacked pages of beautiful calligraphy, perhaps a hundred sheets, all scorched around the edges.

Mali Bamako Timbuktu Mopti Niger river election pooling station vote market people landscape manuscript library books mosque travel village boat Djenné
Manuscripts burned by the Islamists rebels, housed at the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu, Mali. (Marco Di Lauro/Reportage by Getty Images)

I asked Bouya what this manuscript had been. A consultation was held; a bony man lounging on a mattress by the front door turned out to be a locally prominent scholar. He casually flicked through the charred contents, turning ancient pages that crumbled at his touch. “Botany,” he said, in French. “The useful plants of the desert. Flowers. Herbal medicines.”

He probed deeper into the pile. “Verses of the Holy Koran.” Yes, the jihadi warriors had thoughtlessly burned their own sacred book—multiple copies were destroyed in the fire, Bouya noted.

I leaned over for a whiff, but a desert blast swept the fine, powdery ash up my nose, into my eyes, into my suddenly gasping mouth. I gagged and couldn’t find water anywhere. In Mali, Koranic scholars sometimes sell amulets that contain tiny verses, and in extreme cases of need customers may soak the paper in a glass of water and drink the inky result, literally absorbing the words into their bodies. Maybe snorting parts of the Holy Koran was not blasphemy but a blessing.

We followed Bouya into the basement, where he showed me how he stood back that afternoon as the rebels ripped a locked gate off its hinges and entered the storage rooms, tossing books into piles on the floor.

Thousands of manuscripts were added to the fire, but French fighter jets were overhead, and the rebels left many behind. Even better, they missed two rooms entirely, including the Sale de Manuscripts No. 4, which held 14 shelves of uncataloged volumes. These were recent donations that no one had even opened yet: piles of paper were stacked everywhere. Some manuscripts were big and neatly bundled; others were tiny scraps, stuffed into French air-mail envelopes from decades ago.

Aboubacrine Abdou Maiga, the library director’s representative, was grieving like a man who had been stabbed—“Four hundred books from Andalusia were burned!” he moaned to me—but he produced a final tally: 4,203 books had been destroyed by fire, but another 10,487 had survived.

The librarians had smuggled out some of the most important books inside their robe-like boubous. Bouya mimed stuffing a parchment into his underpants and laughed at the awkward gait and unseemly bulge that ancient literature created.

That’s not counting the works that had already been spirited out. Even though the rebels had been camping for ten months in the institute’s courtyard, Bouya and others had smuggled out some of the most important books inside their robe-like boubous. He mimed stuffing a parchment into his underwear and laughed at the awkward gait and unseemly bulge that ancient literature created.

This is why I had gone all the way to Timbuktu. To see how people acted under pressure, when there was no plan, only instinct. The librarians simply grabbed books and walked out, passing with fake confidence by armed men ready to kill them. The sound of a culture surviving was the discreet rustling of men’s underpants.

The news kept getting better. Bouya pointed out that thousands of other books were still across town at an old archive called the dispensary. The next day, we drove over to a one-story mud and stone building in a walled compound. There we met Hassine Traore, a 32-year-old whose grandfather had been the dispensary’s official guardian.

“The first day they penetrated the town, the rebels came,” Traore said. They looted computers and other equipment. The dispensary books—another mound of uncataloged mysteries—were in locked storerooms, and the rebels demanded entry.

“They came and faced us and said, ‘Give me the key to the manuscripts,’ and we answered that we didn’t have it,” Traore said. “They pushed. They came every day, asking, ‘Where are the manuscripts?’ ”

The rebels were put off again and again, for four long months, but the pressure was continuous, Traore said, and he and his father grew desperate. They talked with neighbors, with families that had donated the books, and with Haidara, who had fled to Bamako. Government officials in the capital were sympathetic but helpless.

“Then, in August, we found the solution,” Traore said. Late at night, they began to pack up manuscripts, stuffing them into old rice sacks. Just the packing took a full month and involved dozens of men from several book-owning families. Traore hired five donkey drivers to carry the thousands of manuscripts—no one could count them all—out of the dispensary around midnight, every night for a week. They loaded the donkeys, and then Traore’s 72-year-old grandfather, the retired guardian, walked point, scouting for jihadi patrols. Each night, they distributed books to a different house, joining the small number of high-priority works smuggled out of the main library by underwear.

Mali Bamako Timbuktu Mopti Niger river election pooling station vote market people landscape manuscript library books mosque travel village boat Djenné
Malians wait to cast their ballots during the second round of the 2013 presidential election in Timbuktu, Mali. (Marco Di Lauro/Reportage by Getty Images)

Traore’s grandfather, Abba al-Hadi, was dozing in a chair nearby, his beard of white scruff touching his chest. He woke up when I approached; like me, he spoke little French, but he understood my question well enough: Can you read?

Non. An illiterate old man had gone out ahead, keeping the ink moving, the blood flowing in this system of survival.

By August 2012, it was clear that the books had to escape not just the library buildings but Timbuktu itself. That meant transporting them over one of two roads. The road through the Sahara was one of the world’s most unsafe and difficult pieces of terrain, controlled partly by Tuareg sentries who regarded looting as a kind of divine right. The road through the Sahel began in rebel territory but reached Mopti and government control after ten hours. That was in the best vehicle and conditions; now the rainy season was here. On August 28, Bouya and his colleagues at the state institute loaded 781 manuscripts into boxes, rolled them across town in a vegetable cart, and put them in the back of a quatre-quatre, the 4x4s that plow the desert. It was a test shipment. When it reached Mopti safely, they began shipping every day. They got about 24,000 state-owned manuscripts out by vehicle. But rain made the passages worse, and bandits were taking advantage of the war, robbing people in any part of Mali. 

Although Haidara had fled Timbuktu by car himself, he left behind his own collection. In addition to the manuscripts escaping the library in those donkey-borne rice sacks, there were 27 major family collections still in Timbuktu houses, totaling at least 200,000 books. During the fall of 2012, Haidara urged those families to set up their own smuggling route. They bought up all the shipping trunks in Timbuktu’s Grand Marché and started sending them out by road to Bamako or hiding places along the way.

More than half the books were still stuck in Timbuktu, but war and chaos were about to close off the roads. The only other escape route—the Niger itself—was dangerous to the manuscripts in a new way.

Mali Bamako Timbuktu Mopti Niger river election pooling station vote market people landscape manuscript library books mosque travel village boat Djenné
Koranic expert Dramane Moulaye Haidara, like many in Timbuktu, hid his manuscripts ­during the jihadi occupation. (Marco Di Lauro/Reportage by Getty Images)

Old rag paper and soluble inks do not belong on a river. Stephanie Diakité, the lawyer and conservator, said she nearly panicked when Haidara told her of his scheme. One tippy canoe could erase centuries of irreplaceable work. Reluctantly, she agreed. During early January 2013, cargo motorcycles and beater taxis began carrying a few trunks at a time away from the family libraries, to Kabara, the river port. Only light pirogues were available, and each could hold maybe a dozen boxes. Strong boys carried the footlockers down to the waterline, working for coins. The little chugging motors of the canoes kicked in, and the books of Timbuktu went out of the desert and onto the water for the first time in their lives. Three or four canoes left every day, headed upriver toward Djenné or Mopti. 

By mid-January, the war had entered a more deadly phase: a French rapid-reaction force was attacking the rebel coalition, and Gazelle gunships appeared over the Sahara. 
Moving a few boxes at a time was suddenly no longer enough.

Haidara used his cell phone to encourage a book breakout. Diakité sat next to him some days. In the fall, she had been raising support from her international contacts: a Dutch royal charity gave money, and at one point a European embassy donated a paper bag full of cash. Now they had to funnel money to help comrades in Timbuktu pay off soldiers and functionaries. These traditional cadeaux, or gifts, are unsavory yet inescapable in Mali—when I refused to pay for an interview, one Koranic scholar told me, “You have your culture, we have ours.”

This makeshift book club then put together a bigger shipment: about 25 pirogues, leaving Timbuktu in one convoy. But as the boats crossed Lake Débo, they were intercepted by a French helicopter gunship. The Bozo skippers understood the innocence of paper; they opened some footlockers, showing that their cargo was not RPGs but worm-eaten books. The French pilot also understood; Diakité said that he saluted before flying away. 

The conspirators now made one final push, sending a true fleet upriver past Mopti to Djenné. This lengthy convoy—45 pirogues in a row—drew more unwelcome attention. In the narrow channels west of Lake Débo, armed men stopped the convoy and demanded (and eventually got) a large ransom. They were robbers, not holy warriors; once paid, they let the boats move on.

The final convoy reached Djenné just two weeks before the squad of jihadis arrived at the main library with orders to destroy every-thing they could find. But they were too late, or nearly so: hundreds of thousands of books had already escaped. Not one had been lost to the road or the river. 

The threat now is from nature, not man. The arid Sahara has preserved this paper for centuries; Bamako’s humidity is a prescription for destroying it. (A calligrapher showed me works on salt slabs that were already fading.) Haidara’s stash, perhaps 90 percent of the known manuscripts, is still at risk, despite his efforts to install dehumidifiers and air-conditioning in the still-secret rooms. He estimated it would cost $10 million just to put them in acid-free boxes; conserving and copying them could take a decade. But, like the scores of families who trusted him with their books, he was determined to return them eventually, when Timbuktu was stable. “The books must go back,” he said.

Aside from the occasional suicide bombing, Mali was in recovery mode, and Marco and I witnessed a round of peaceful elections that returned popular ex-president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, known as IBK, to the national palace. The environment was hardly safe: in November, two French radio journalists working in the desert were kidnapped and then executed, presumably by Al Qaeda leftovers, and French and Malian forces were still conducting sporadic raids on jihadi holdouts in the far north. Yet normalcy kept building, and in 2014, Malians would restage a Festival on the Niger, in the town of Ségou, with some of Afropop’s biggest stars.

Last August, early in the rainy season, Timbuktu felt safe, even joyous. Marco and I walked the streets with caution, greeted with extraordinary warmth by a people hungry for outsiders, for tourists, for stability and trust. Grateful old men took my hand like I was Bill Clinton. We stumbled on an Islamic wedding, a noisy, wild event full of rapturous Sufis and unveiled women gyrating on the dance floor like so many Aretha Franklins. After the somber soldiers patrolling in technicals, after the nearly year-long rule of the jihadis, the dames of Timbuktu were literally letting their hair down, bursting out of short skirts and tight tops, throwing off head scarves and going down in butt-bumping contests.

Mali Bamako Timbuktu Mopti Niger river election pooling station vote market people landscape manuscript library books mosque travel village boat Djenné
Life goes back to normal in Djenné, Mali, another center of Islamic scholarship. (Marco Di Lauro/Reportage by Getty Images)

Verdict from the dance floor: the jihad was over, and Timbuktu had won. Yet we left the party quickly, Marco warning that our very presence could draw a suicide bomber down on these people.

We spent days touring the small libraries of Timbuktu, empty for the first time in centuries. In one low adobe home, a robed Koranic teacher named Dramane Moulaye Haidara opened a small trunk and displayed what he’d hidden from the occupiers: a few illuminated manuscripts in vermilion and gold, works full of astrological diagrams. He made a living casting fortunes and putting blessings on people. This was how the war had been won, he told us, not with bombs but with magic. “We bombed them with charms,” he said of the jihadis. “So many charms.”

We looked up. It had started raining. The books were sitting outside, the rag pages getting pelted with fat drops of water. We rushed out and pulled the 16th century back to safety.

Marco and I left soon after that, catching a ride on an elderly MD-80 jet painted white and labeled UNITED NATIONS—the flight we had waited for in vain back in Bamako. It was extracting a fact-finding mission, which arrived in a convoy of commando-staffed pickup trucks and some black SUVs, delivering a vital top-level Italian diplomat shaped like a meatball and his boss, a lean and silent Nigerian general. On the plane I squeezed in next to a red-bearded Swedish officer sweating in his jungle fatigues.

Under my arm I had a book. Not one of the actual books, just a single page, copied out in calligraphy by a Timbuktu artist. The passage was from Ahmed Baba, the namesake of the research institute. In 1591, an army from Morocco had sacked Timbuktu, destroying many books and forcing scholars like him to flee across the desert. The lonely passage urged any traveler to “make a detour by Timbuktu, murmur my name to my friends and bring them the scented greeting of the exile.”

In the end, after many trials, Ahmed Baba was able to return. Someday, scanned and measured, conserved and protected, the books of Timbuktu will follow him home.

Contributing Editor Patrick Symmes (@patricksymmes) is the author of The Boys from Dolores. 

From Outside Magazine, May 2014
Filed to:
Lead Photo: Marco Di Lauro

Read this next