The Treasures of Timbuktu
Scholars in the fabled African city, once a great center of learning and trade, areracing to save a still emerging cache of ancient manuscripts
By Joshua Hammer
White robe fluttering in the desert breeze, Moctar Sidi Yayia al-Wangari leads me down a sandy alley pastdonkeys, idle men and knapsack-toting children rushing off to school. It is a bright morning, my second inTimbuktu, in the geographic center of Mali, and al-Wangari is taking me to see the project that hasconsumed him for the past three years. We duck through a Moorish-style archway and enter his home, atwo-story stone structure built around a concrete courtyard. With an iron key, he unlocks the door to astorage room. Filigrees of light stream through a filthy window. The air inside is stale, redolent of mildew and earth."
," he says. As my eyes adjust to the semidarkness, I take in the scene: cracked brown walls, rusting bicycles, pots,pans, burlap sacks of rice labeled PRODUCT OF VIETNAM. At my feet lie two dozen wood-and-metalchests blanketed in dust. Al-Wangari flips the lid of one of them, revealing stacks of old volumes bound inmottled leather. I pick up a book and turn the yellowing pages, gazing at elegant Arabic calligraphy andintricate geometric designs, some leafed in gold. Turquoise and red dyes are still visible inside grooveddiamonds and polygons that decorate the cover.Perusing the volumes, I draw back: the brittle leather has begun to break apart in my hands. Centuries-oldpages flutter from broken bindings and crumble into scraps. Some volumes are bloated and misshapen by moisture; others are covered by white or yellow mold. I open a manuscript on astrology, with annotationscarefully handwritten in minute letters in the margins: the ink on most pages has blurred into illegibility."This one is rotten," al-Wangari mutters, setting aside a waterlogged 16th-century Koran. "I am afraid thatit is destroyed completely."In the mid-16th century, Mohammed abu Bakr al-Wangari, an Islamic scholar from the town of Djenné,migrated north to Timbuktu, then a city of perhaps 100,000 and a religious, educational and tradingcenter, and founded the University of Sankoré, a loose affiliation of mosques and private homes thatprovided subsidized instruction to thousands of students. During the next 30 years, al-Wangari amassedhandwritten books on subjects ranging from history to poetry to astronomy, from both Timbuktu andother parts of the Islamic world. After the scholar's death in 1594, the books passed to his seven sons, andsubsequently dispersed to an ever-widening circle of family members. And there they remained untilthree years ago, when al-Wangari, 15 generations removed from the original collector, set out to recoverhis family's treasures. "It's a colossal task," says al-Wangari, 42. Slim and intense, he studied Arabicliterature in Fez, Morocco, and later worked as a UNESCO consultant in Dakar, Senegal. "I'm working atthis every waking minute, and I'm not even getting paid a franc." A little later he leads me farther down the alley to a half-finished building, marked by a sign that reads AL-WANGARI LIBRARY RESTORATION PROJECT, where laborers are mortaring concrete-block wallsand laying bricks to dry in the sun. We cross a courtyard, enter a gloomy interior and walk past dangling wires, stacks of marble tiles and gaping holes awaiting windows. "This will be the reading room," he tellsme, gesturing to a bare cell with a dirt floor. "Over here, the workshop to repair the manuscripts." Then al- Wangari points out the centerpiece of his new creation: a vault reserved for the bones of his ancestor,Mohammed abu Bakr al-Wangari, who lived in the house that once stood on this spot. "He would behappy to know what's happening here," he says.For centuries, manuscripts such as these remained some of Africa's best-kept secrets. Western explorers who passed through Timbuktu in the early 1800s, some disguised as Muslim pilgrims, made no mentionof them. French colonizers carted off a handful to museums and libraries in Paris, but for the most partleft the desert empty-handed. Even most Malians have known nothing about the writings, believing that