Inside the Secret Operation to Rescue Timbuktu’s Manuscripts

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Beyond the reports of beatings, hand-choppings and other grim Shari’a punishments carried out in the ten months Islamists held the historic Malian city of Timbuktu, the fear that gripped many observers in the outside world was of what would happen to the contents of the city’s ancient libraries. As it was, an extremist, al-Qaeda-linked militia had already set about demolishing and desecrating many of Timbuktu’s UNESCO-recognized tombs of medieval saints—the puritanical brand of their faith was at odds with the syncretic, Sufi Islam that flourished in the Sahara at the apex of the Malian empire in the 14th and 15th centuries. The treasured libraries, whose manuscripts encompassed a vast eclectic realm of jurisprudence, astrology and other medieval African scholarship, were reportedly also in the line of fire.

But after a French-led offensive drove the Islamist militias out of Timbuktu and other northern Malian cities in January, it emerged that the vast bulk of Timbutku’s manuscripts—95% of them—were known to be intact. How? A clandestine operation, backed by the Netherlands’ Prince Claus Fund, had begun in October the stealthy ferreting away of folios and other precious volumes. The exact location of the archives is hidden, in case lingering extremist elements still seek their destruction. The following are undated images of what remains, to our knowledge, thankfully safe.

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