Though armed Islamists have left their town, the grand old families of Timbuktu are still wary of revealing the secret of how they safeguarded thousands of ancient manuscripts from destruction by extremists.
Before they fled the fabled desert town in northern Mali at the end of January, the Islamists sacked part of the public Ahmed Baba Centre library, burning some 3,000 documents they considered sacrilegious.
It was their second attempt to harm Timbuktu’s rich cultural heritage, after destroying the mausoleums of 11 saints there in April last year.
In mid-February, the UN cultural body UNESCO announced an action plan worth 10 million dollars (7.5 million euros) to restore the cultural heritage of northern Mali and preserve manuscripts that attest to the intellectual and spiritual flourishing of Timbuktu — listed a world heritage site — in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Unlike the Ahmed Baba Centre, about 30 private libraries in the ancient town were spared by the Islamists. For several months, their owners had dispersed their collections to put them in safe places, as their ancestors did in the past.
When the Islamists entered Timbuktu last April, Ismael Diadie Haidara al-Quti, a descendant of Mali’s imperial Askia family and of Ali al-Quti, a Visigoth from Toledo in Spain who converted to Islam, fled with his family and took a dozen manuscripts with him.
“We hid them among clothes and embarked on a boat to head down the river towards the south,” said his wife Hawa Toure, manager of the Mahmud Kati (al-Quti) Fund, the main private library in Timbuktu, which keeps almost 13,000 recorded manuscripts.
“Afterwards, we looked for people who could help us, ordinary people who were not being watched. They bought caskets and keys. Some of them fled with the caskets by boat, others buried them in the sand.”
Hawa added that her husband, who has been in Spain for several months, was the only person to know “who hid the manuscripts and how to get them back”.
It is not the first time Ismael al-Quti’s precious collection has had to be smuggled to safety.
“Our library has already suffered four dispersals in five centuries, since my ancestor fled Toledo in 1467 until the last dispersal in the 19th century to protect manuscripts from the fundamentalists of the Peul kingdom of Massina” in central Mali, he told AFP by telephone.
“Unfortunately in 2012, we again found ourselves forced to disperse them. It’s like pushing a stone up a mountain and watching it roll down again,” he added.
At 55, Ismael, a renowned historian, poet and philosopher, has spent almost a third of his life looking to retrieve these scattered treasures to bring them together in a library that opened in 2003, with the help of Spanish government aid.
“Our manuscripts are mostly Korans, but there are also legal and scientific texts on mathematics, astronomy and medicine… The special feature of these writings — in Arabic, in Peul, in English or in French — is the annotations made in the margins,” al-Quti said.
Some of these notes are even concealed within the covers of the texts.
“They are family secrets, rulings, but also sometimes indications that enable ‘the keeper of the secret’ to find hidden manuscripts again,” said his wife Hawa, now a refugee with her children in a working class district of the capital, Bamako.
“Today, nobody will tell you where he has hidden manuscripts”, the 45-year-old added in a gentle voice.
“If families had agreed, like the ministry and aid donors wanted, to put the manuscripts at the disposal of the Ahmed Baba Centre, they would all be lost.”
“We’re back in the time of secrecy,” her husband said. “When I decided to create this library, a part of the family said ‘No, it’s dangerous.’ But as a historian, I felt they should be displayed. Alas, now I ask myself if my family wasn’t right.”
Funds alone will not save the manuscripts from being destroyed or trafficked abroad in the future and sold, said al-Quti, who was sceptical of the UN action plan. “UNESCO should rethink its heritage policy.”
“It’s not just money that is needed. UNESCO should directly involve the librarians and define a legal, administrative and security framework. If they don’t do that, they will fail again,” he warned.
In the meantime, al-Quti will keep the location of his manuscripts secret. “For five centuries our library has faced upheavals. We’re in no hurry.”