Deep in the heart of Mali, a treasure of inestimable value is being slowly, painstakingly resurrected from the Saharan desert. In Timbuktu, where sand storms have raised the street level to a point that citizen have to step down through the front door to enter their homes, a vast collection of volumes dating as far back as the 10th century is being resurrected. Books bound in crumbling leather, desiccated texts, scrolls and centuries-old
vellum are being rescued from trunks and abandoned rooms, then catalogued, copied and conserved in the town’s new research centers. Family book collections are being turned into a collection for all mankind.
Ismael Diadie Haidara, a local historian, gently cradles one such treasure: a slim leather-encased volume that has been conserved by his family for 11 generations. First written in 1519 in flowing Arabic script, the book tells his family’s story, recording genealogies all the way back to the Visigoths and the early Songhai emperors who ruled this city at the height of its power.
Today this book and others like it represent a new beginning for Timbuktu; a chance to capitalize on the vast wealth of learning that has been stored here for generations, bringing new energy and vitality to an impoverished city.
Timbuktu was first founded in the 11th century as a trading post, and for centuries the city was central to African commerce. Saharan caravan routes passed through the city, and trade ships plied the nearby Niger River, making Timbuktu a nexus for everything from spices and salt to gold and West African slaves.
It wasn’t long before books found their way into its flourishing markets. Scrolls and manuscripts from across the Mediterranean and the Middle East were traded here, and one of the world’s earliest institutes of higher learning – the University of Sankore – was founded within the city walls. Everything, from astronomy to pharmacology titles, was available for purchase from passing travelers. Many of the texts were duly copied and added to the private collections of prominent local families. Korans, books of Islamic law and decorated biographies of the Prophet Muhammad were gathered alongside medical texts on botany, biology, and more. At one point the University of Sankore boasted more than 25,000 scholars, and the city was filled with scribes and calligraphers drawn to the wealth of knowledge conserved in Timbuktu.
But as civilization advanced, the trading routes that had once transformed Timbuktu into the cultural center of Africa were slowly, inexorably abandoned. Sea travel replaced inland trade, and the rise of coastal cities doomed Timbuktu to increasing isolation and its marvelous book collections to slow submersion beneath the Saharan sands. Books that were once prized possessions were abandoned, lost or simply forgotten, and the word ‘Timbuktu’ became synonymous with the edge of nowhere.
Now all that is changing. Over the past decade, a renewed interest in the city’s bibliographic bounty has brought grant money pouring in from the West in an effort to resurrect its treasures. In turn, these funds have attracted a host of international scholars interested in translating and publishing the manuscripts that time has forgotten. The South African government is paying for a new library to be build, and Libya is building a luxury hotel as well as a canal that will reroute the Niger River to Timbuktu’s doorstep.
Timbuktu has rediscovered hope, and its townspeople are proud that the knowledge they’ve accumulated over centuries in buildings made of dried mud is being brought back into the light. Many talk of a modern renaissance. Between the pages of dusty volumes that haven’t been cracked open for centuries, Timbuktu has found the inspiration to make a fresh start.