The true story of the librarians who risked their lives to rescue a priceless cultural heritage from the destructive rampage of Islamist fundamentalism.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Is there a book that you value more than your own life? If a barbarian horde was closing in, would you willingly shed your blood to preserve it from the flames?

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, by journalist Joshua Hammer, is a true story of the brave librarians who faced that very dilemma.

Although the name of Timbuktu seems to evoke a mythical place, it’s a very real city on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, in the modern nation of Mali. It lay at a crossroads of caravan routes, and in medieval times prospered from trade in gold and salt. Over the centuries, it was absorbed by a succession of powerful African empires: the Ghana, the Mali, and the Songhai.

Like the better-known Alexandria and its famous library, Timbuktu was renowned as a mecca of learning and scholarship. In the 13th and 14th centuries, during the late Islamic Golden Age, the city’s scholars collected tens of thousands of manuscripts, many of them single copies of important works, making the city an intellectual mecca for seekers of knowledge across the Islamic world. Timbuktu’s schools acquired thousands of works on philosophy, law, politics, biography, astronomy, geometry, and medicine—even an Islamic guide to sexual pleasure. This was an era of intellectual curiosity and tolerance, led by the mystical and relatively liberal sect of Sufism.

The region was later conquered by Morocco, then colonized by France. In the 1970s, when Timbuktu’s importance became clear to the wider world, the United Nations—together with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, as well as Western cultural foundations—contributed funding for research foundations to preserve the city’s intellectual heritage.

But Timbuktu had no libraries. Its fabulous ancient manuscripts were dispersed throughout the city, stored in basements or in trunks in the homes of influential families. A few were even secretly buried in the desert. Although the dry climate preserved most of them, more than a few were lost to decay or disaster.

The main character of this story, a man named Abdel Kaider Haidara, was born and raised in Timbuktu, son of an influential jurist. Haidara spearheaded the effort to persuade the city’s families to contribute their precious books so they could be catalogued, scanned, and preserved in climate-controlled conditions.

At first, it was slow going. Families that had sheltered and protected their books for generations were understandably reluctant to give them up to strangers. But Haidara was a winning evangelist, and his campaign bore fruit. The growing libraries of Timbuktu acquired thousands of priceless manuscripts.

Then al-Qaeda came to town.

In 2012, an Islamic insurgency spread through northern Africa. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, as the group was called, funded itself through drug smuggling and by kidnapping Western tourists and holding them for ransom. Armed with heavy weapons looted from the fallen Qaddafi regime, AQIM routed the Malian army and conquered the north of the country, including Timbuktu.

In accordance with the tenets of their harsh sect, the Islamists forced a bleak austerity on Timbuktu. The city’s thriving local music scene was stamped out; radio stations were ordered to play recitations of Qur’anic verses 24 hours a day. Bars and restaurants had to smash their stocks of alcohol. Women were forced into smothering veils, and the new rulers doled out brutal punishments like floggings and amputations. AQIM set about destroying everything they deemed idolatrous, including the tombs and shrines of Sufi saints. (I wrote about this at the time.)

AQIM claimed that they represented the only genuine sect of Islam, but the people disagreed. In one account that stuck with me, an imam of Timbuktu’s Sidi Yahya Mosque, built in 1440, berated the occupiers, “How dare you say you’re going to teach us Islam? We were born with Islam. We have had Islam in this city for one thousand years.” (They didn’t kill him.)

Haidara and the other librarians of Timbuktu knew it was only a matter of time until the Islamist fanatics turned their attention to the manuscripts. So they devised an audacious plan to smuggle them to safety.

Haidara and the other librarians of Timbuktu knew it was only a matter of time until the Islamist fanatics turned their attention to the manuscripts. So they devised an audacious plan to smuggle them to safety.

After dark, they snuck into the libraries, avoiding Islamist patrols in the streets. They reversed the painstaking process of collection, taking the manuscripts out and hiding them in safe houses across the city. Later on, when the coast was clear, they packed them into trunks and secretly took them out of Timbuktu to government-controlled territory in the south, first by car caravan, then by boat. More than once, they had to resort to fast talking to get past checkpoints manned by al-Qaeda guards. If they had been caught, it would have meant certain death.

This story has a happy ending. Despite a few close shaves, the librarians pulled off the impossible. They rescued tens of thousands of manuscripts, losing not a single book or a single life in transit.

When AQIM’s atrocities drew worldwide condemnation and Mali’s government asked for international help, France—the former colonial power of the region—stepped in. The French army dealt a string of crushing defeats to the Islamists and sent them fleeing into the desert. But before they abandoned Timbuktu, exactly as the librarians had feared, they ransacked the city’s libraries and made a bonfire of the handful of books left behind. If it hadn’t been for the librarians’ courage, the entire collection would have been lost, erasing centuries of history with it.

This is a story that deserves to be more widely known, and not just as a Mission: Impossible tale of bravery. The broader context refutes the false notion that Africa has no history or culture to speak of, that everything worth knowing about happened in Europe.

The broader context refutes the false notion that Africa has no history or culture to speak of, that everything worth knowing about happened in Europe.

This is a longstanding stereotype. Joshua Hammer provides examples of renowned thinkers who believed this. For example, David Hume, a philosopher I’ve admired, wrote of people of African descent: “There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion… No ingenious manufactures among them, no arts, no sciences.” Immanuel Kant agreed, “The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling… not a single one was ever found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality.” Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel said of Africa, “It is no historical part of the world; it has no movement or development to exhibit… What we properly understand by Africa is the unhistorical, undeveloped spirit.”

These beliefs linger today, even if few people would be willing to state them so baldly. Bringing the true, rich history of the region to light—its long tradition of of intellectual curiosity and bold inquiry and tolerance—is a powerful response, not just to Western prejudice, but to the religious fundamentalist vandals who want to purge every idea from the world that doesn’t fit with their own stifling and intolerant notions.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...