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.
The man behind the plan was Abdel Kader Haidara. Born in Timbuktu in 1965, he had grown up surrounded by the treasures: his father, an expert on ancient manuscripts, had inherited a 16th-century Islamic collection and spent his life expanding it. Dr Haidara’s ambitions were even broader. Since 1996 he had run an organisation called SAVAMA (Sauver et Valoriser les Manuscrits). In his office in Bamako, elegantly bound Korans line the bookshelves. Manuscripts lie in stacks, on tables, in corners. He has become their steward.
Dr Haidara, with priceless treasures
Dr Haidara describes Timbuktu as the Sahara’s capital of manuscript study. But the city was just one of several where north African Islamic learning flourished at the same time as the European Renaissance. Books were exchanged as caravans came through Timbuktu and, beginning in the late 16th century, they were copied there, too. Men who cared about learning bought or produced libraries full of books about the grammar, logic and rhetoric of the Koran and its teachings; the positions of stars; remedies and music. One 16th-century collector, Ahmed Baba, left behind such a wealth of notation and bibliography that historians call his period a scholarly zenith.
Leo Africanus, a Moorish traveller who visited Timbuktu early in the 16th century, said books from abroad traded at higher prices than fabrics, animals or salt. As it fell again and again over the centuries, families held tight to their collections. The city gained a boost from generous donors after independence from France in 1960, when scholars around the world, supported by agencies such as UNESCO, saw its potential as a centre for pan-African historical research. But in 2012, as the Islamists’ grip tightened, Dr Haidara appealed for donations to help evacuate the treasures.
Turning the page
The evacuation was funded by, among others, the Dutch lottery, the German government and private donors, to the tune of a reported $1m. Some $70,000 more was raised through crowdfunding. The details remained opaque until well after the operation was complete.
The cars travelled through the night on the bumpy roads of central Mali, their drivers sworn to secrecy. As they arrived in Bamako after more than 12 hours of driving, they were greeted by Dr Haidara, who distributed the documents to loyal friends to be stored. The drivers then turned around to make the trip all over again. Each of the hundreds of volunteers took these risks willingly, and often. More than 370,000 manuscripts now sit in safe houses in Bamako—roughly 95% of the total previously held in Timbuktu, Dr Haidara estimates. They are stored in extra rooms in secret apartments, stacked from floor to ceiling in windowless closets. In one room in Bakodjikoroni, a neighbourhood of Bamako, sit 200 of the metre-long metal cases, glittering with hand-painted filigree, each containing tens or even hundreds of books.
As he looked at the saved manuscripts, Dr Haidara saw another opportunity that his father could never have imagined: to preserve their contents in perpetuity. In 2013 he put out a request for help to digitise them. He received an answer from a monastery on the other side of the world.
Somewhere in the frozen north
There can be few places more different from Timbuktu—geographically, culturally or spiritually—than Collegeville, Minnesota. Swept by winds as icy as the Saharan ones are baking, it is encrusted with snow for more than half the year. Towns called St Michael, St Augusta and St Joseph along the 80-mile road north from Minneapolis hint at the region’s deep Christian roots. St John’s Abbey is the last turn-off on the right before St Cloud. When Dr Haidara put out his call for help, it passed via several intermediaries to a member of the abbey’s board, who delivered it to Father Columba Stewart. It had reached the right monk.
In the basement of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML) at St John’s, Father Columba flicks on the fluorescent lights. “It’s basically the manuscript culture of Europe in here,” he says, looking at four rows of long metal cabinets containing as many as 100,000 rolls of microfilm. He pulls out the first roll from the first drawer and snaps it into a reader. A white light projects a document on the screen. “This is a Codex,” he says as he rolls through the pages, “Benedictine sermons from the 13th to the 15th century, 880 pages.”
Father Columba has run the HMML for 12 years. He had known of the Mali manuscripts for some time, and was intimately familiar with both the centuries-long quest to preserve them and their immediate peril. The institute is blind to the borders of geography, language and faith.
Born in Texas in 1957, Father Columba attended both Harvard and Yale and received his doctorate in theology from Oxford University. Before taking his vows he imagined a life in law, but the call was stronger, and St John’s Abbey has been his home since 1982. He reluctantly admits that he holds diamond status on Delta Air Lines, earned from spending much of his time travelling from Minnesota’s enormous airport to monasteries in Ethiopia, India, Iraq, Israel and Lebanon.
St John’s Abbey was founded in 1862 and moved here in 1865. Its monks make honey, candles and fine furniture, but have not brewed beer since a temperate Minnesota archbishop forbade it in the 1880s. They spend each day gardening and teaching, following rules set down by St Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century that call for a balance of prayer and work in everyday life. Occupying a great deal of their affection, and most of Father Columba’s time, is the abbey’s library.
The Benedictines’ longevity is rooted in their intellectual instincts. “We had scriptoria for very practical reasons,” Father Columba says, referring to the “writing places” of medieval European monasteries. “You can’t do theology without philosophy,” he says, standing in his own 21st-century equivalent. “You can’t try to be a self-sustaining monastery if you can’t take science seriously.” So, as a policy, any relevant text was copied. Over one and a half millennia, knowledge has been a matter of survival for the Benedictines, allowing one collective to pick up where another left off, in low times and in high. Today, thanks to machines, the library is copying more efficiently.
There have always been threats. The Vikings, the Reformation, Napoleon’s looting spree and the second world war all scarred the writing places of Europe. American soldiers used ancient Benedictine manuscript pages as kindling to make a fire in a freezing European castle; Russian soldiers used them to roll their cigarettes because newspaper was too expensive. Monte Cassino, St Benedict’s original monastery, was bombed in 1944 as the Allies battled to take Rome.
So St John’s has a team of latter-day scribes scattered across the world who follow a protocol created half a century ago by one of Father Columba’s predecessors, a bibliographer named Oliver Kapsner who made the first backup of the Benedictine archives of Europe. After receiving a grant of $40,000 in 1965 ($302,000 in today’s money), Father Oliver began knocking on church doors in Austria and asking to make copies of their ancient texts. He spent most of the next decade in unheated chambers indexing microfilm images. His task was to save them in case of another world war. “We are seeing what happened in Europe in the 20th century now happening elsewhere in the 21st,” says Father Columba. It is the same mix of ignorance and barbarism, but more heavily armed.
Father Oliver’s work was widely admired and soon others wanted their libraries copied. HMML built studios in Austria, Spain, Portugal, England, Germany, Malta and Ethiopia, clicking their Recordak microfilm cameras and sending undeveloped microfilm via local mail services. The collection reached 93,000 manuscripts, safely arranged in cabinets in a basement north of Minneapolis. Father Oliver hated computers, preferring card stock in neat drawers.
Later librarians oversaw the archive’s growth until Father Columba took the position in 2003. He transformed the whole project through digitisation and from there it accelerated. His own scholarship brought the library to the Middle East, where he launched projects in East Jerusalem, Turkey and Lebanon backing up Syriac Orthodox and Christian Arab libraries that could provide insight into neighbouring Benedictine heritages. He started projects in the Syrian cities of Homs and Aleppo in 2005, and in Mosul, Iraq, in 2009. The teams photographed 50,000 endangered volumes in a decade.
Sometimes things get dicey. The project in Syria had to hide its manuscripts in 2012. The workers in Iraq, who were archiving a Christian monastery, were evacuated from Mosul because of kidnapping threats. They went to Qaraqosh with the equipment and their remaining manuscripts, only to see it taken by Islamic State in August 2014. Today they are refugees in Kurdish Erbil. The fate of many thousands of manuscripts in Christian libraries in that region is unknown.
Guided by a Christian teacher from the sixth century, monks of the 21st century archive texts about an Arabian prophet from the seventh
HMML had been interested in Timbuktu before, but had not pursued that interest because the city was saturated with donors. “They didn’t need us,” says Father Columba (pictured left). That changed in 2012 when al-Qaeda’s affiliates invaded. After the French regained control, HMML was the first group to agree to do the digitisation work, funded by the Prince Claus Foundation, an Amsterdam-based organisation that aims to bridge cultures and which also contributed to the evacuation from Timbuktu. In terms of sheer volume, copying the Islamic manuscripts of Mali has become its largest project. It is a curious novelty: guided by a Christian teacher from the sixth century, monks of the 21st century archive texts about an Arabian prophet from the seventh.
Bamako was safe when Father Columba met Dr Haidara in August 2013. He brought his most trusted information manager with him to build a studio. They mounted lights and cameras over desks, and trained local cameramen to shoot pages quickly and accurately. It was the same protocol that the workers of St John’s have been refining for 50 years. Father Columba checks in once a year. Hard drives with terabytes of high-quality manuscript images are shipped back to Minnesota. He jokes that the whole operation is run by DHL, a delivery service.
An additional digital copy is stored under a granite mountain in Utah, “just a canyon up from where the Mormons have all of their microfilm”, Father Columba says with a wink. After two years of work, two of Timbuktu’s 25 large libraries are backed up. The operation has cost about $285,000 to date. The Arcadia Fund, based in Britain, which protects endangered culture, has made a large grant to support the monastery’s work. Father Columba closes the library and settles down for dinner, sharing an inexpensive bottle of red wine. Outside the bells are ringing, gently calling the monks to evening prayers.
An open book
In Bamako the muezzins’ call to prayer struggles to be heard over the din of animals and scooters in the busy streets. In the photo studio at SAVAMA, one of Dr Haidara’s colleagues sits under the high-watt bulbs with a stack of paper covered in ancient handwritten Arabic text. “OK,” he says to the woman sitting next to him at a computer. She fires the shutter using the space bar and the bulbs flash the room white. The operator turns the page; he can take 600 pictures every day. HMML now has six photo studios, producing 3,600 pages daily. At that rate the project may need 30 years to finish. Dr Haidara hopes it can be done in four. Father Columba says they will work for as long as they are welcome.
“We keep them in homes, Timbuktu-style,” Dr Haidara says, looking at the 200 aluminium boxes in a small windowless room. He lifts a slim book from a small wooden crate and opens it to reveal colourful lines of Arabic in a large sweeping font. In some of the trunks there are tens of manuscripts, he says. In some there are hundreds; a few hold even more. A dehumidifier struggles to dry Bamako’s damp air.
Dr Haidara opens the prayer book and reads: “Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem.” In the name of God, the beneficent, the most merciful: Al-Fatiha, the opening of the Koran. “In this box”, he says, “we have a complete Koran, written in the 16th century and not yet digitised.” A note in the spine says the book is number 4969. “Look at the decoration.” He opens to a page adorned with a blood-red banner criss-crossed with yellow ropes.
The vast majority of the Mali manuscripts are Korans, Hadiths, and studies on grammar and rhetoric. But the scanners capture everything, including those dealing with human rights, health and law. Paper was precious, so rare glimpses of daily life were jotted in the margins, before Europeans ever set eyes on Saharan cities. There they remained for centuries, preserved by the desert’s dryness.
The manuscripts are owned by different families, and they will decide whether or not to share their scanned copy with scholars. “We have our treasure in this place, and we will keep it hidden until the manuscripts go home,” Dr Haidara says. Of the 35 family owners, he says none has asked for them back. Even though the jihadists were pushed out of Timbuktu in 2013, they still lurk. The treasures will be sent home, says Dr Haidara, when Mali is at peace. But there is no date yet for them to return.
When the cameras arrive too late
On the other side of the world, Father Columba heads back to the monastery’s guest house, where the windows are streaked with ice. “Benedictines are fundamentally optimistic about the human project. That’s why we’re not frightened by science or novelty,” he says. “When people look at what we’re doing with Muslim communities, they say, why do you do this? I say, this is the time God has given us. We can’t pretend we live in the sixth century when Benedict wrote his rule, or the 13th, or the 1950s, before the sexual revolution. We live now. And part of the reality is cultures which are threatened trying to figure out how to work together on this fragile planet.”
Booting up his laptop he opens an image of a poem in praise of the Prophet in Arabic, which could be 300 years old. Three years ago, it was at risk of being lost for ever; now backups exist in at least five places around the globe. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he asks.