Catholic monks in Minnesota are helping to save a trove of Islamic treasures in Mali
THE secret evacuations began at night. Ancient books were packed in small metal
shoe-lockers and loaded three or four to a car to reduce the danger to the
driver and minimise possible losses. The manuscript-traffickers passed through
the checkpoints of their Islamist occupiers on the journey south across the
desert from Timbuktu to Bamako. Later, when that road was blocked, they
transported their cargo down the Niger river by canoe.
It formed part of a fabulous selection of Islamic literary treasures that had
survived floods, heat and invasion over centuries in Timbuktu. But in April
2012 Tuareg rebels had occupied the city. They were soon displaced by the
Islamists with whom they had foolishly allied, a group linked to al-Qaeda in
the Islamic Maghreb. The militants issued edicts to control behaviour, dress
and entertainment. Music and football were banned. They destroyed Sufi shrines
that had stood for centuries. It was assumed books would be next.
Such fears were not overblown. Islamists had been ruthless with libraries and
holy sites in Libya earlier in the year. So in October, the evacuation began.
By the time French troops liberated Timbuktu in January 2013 and journalists
saw a wing of the city’s grandest new library still smouldering, most of the
precious manuscripts had already been spirited away. [...]