The Telltale Scribes of Timbuktu

A diagram of the Prophet's Mosque in Medina is one of the treasures found among thousands of ancient manuscripts. Photo by Brent Stirton/National Geopgrahic, Timbuktu, 2010.

The Salt Merchant

In the ancient caravan city of Timbuktu, many nights before I encountered the bibliophile or the marabout, or comforted the Green Beret's girlfriend, I was summoned to a rooftop to meet the salt merchant.

I had heard that he had information about a Frenchman who was being held by terrorists somewhere deep in the folds of Mali's northern desert. The merchant's trucks regularly crossed this desolate landscape, bringing supplies to the mines near the Algerian border and hauling the heavy slabs of salt back to Timbuktu. So it seemed possible that he knew something about the kidnappings that had all but dried up the tourist business in the legendary city.

I arrived at a house in an Arab neighborhood after the final call to prayer. A barefoot boy led the way through the dark courtyard and up a stone staircase to the roof terrace, where the salt merchant was seated on a cushion. He was a rotund figure but was dwarfed by a giant of a man sitting next to him who, when he unfolded his massive frame to greet me, stood nearly seven feet tall. His head was wrapped in a linen turban that covered all but his eyes, and his enormous warm hand enveloped mine.

We patiently exchanged pleasantries that for centuries have preceded conversations in Timbuktu. Peace be upon you. And also upon you. Your family is well? Your animals are fat? Your body is strong? Praise be to Allah. But after this prelude, the salt merchant remained silent. The giant produced a sheaf of parchment, and in a rich baritone slightly muffled by the turban over his mouth, he explained that it was a fragment of a Koran, which centuries ago arrived in the city via caravan from Medina. "Books," he said raising a massive index finger for emphasis, "were once more desired than gold or slaves in Timbuktu." He clicked a flashlight on and balanced a mangled pair of glasses on his nose. Gingerly turning the pages with his colossal fingers, he began to read in Arabic with the salt merchant translating: "Do men think they will be left alone on saying, 'We believe,' and that they will not be tested? We did test those before them, and Allah will certainly know those who are true from those who are false."

I wondered what this had to do with the Frenchman. "Notice how fine the script is," the giant said, indicating the delicate swirls of faded red and black ink on the yellowing page. He paused, "I will give it to you for a good price." At this point I fell into the excuses that I regularly used with the men and boys hawking silver jewelry near the mosque. I thanked him for showing me the book and told him that it was far too beautiful to leave Timbuktu. The giant nodded politely, gathered the parchment, and found his way down the stone stairs.

The salt merchant lit a cigarette. He had a habit of holding the smoke in his mouth until he spoke so that little puffs would tumble out along with his words. He explained that the giant did not really want to sell the manuscript, which had been passed down through his mother's ancestors, but that his family needed the money. "He works for the guides, but there are no tourists," he said. "The problems in the desert are making all of us suffer." Finally, he mentioned the plight of the Frenchman. "I have heard the One-Eye has set a deadline."

During my time in Timbuktu, several locals denied that the city was unsafe and beseeched me to "tell the Europeans and Americans to come." But for much of the past decade the U.S. State Department and the foreign services of other Western governments have advised their citizens to avoid Timbuktu as well as the rest of northern Mali. The threats originate from a disparate collection of terrorist cells, rebel groups, and smuggling gangs that have exploited Mali's vast northern desert, a lawless wilderness three times the size of France and dominated by endless sand and rock, merciless heat and wind.

Most infamous among the groups is the one led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian leader of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Reputed to have lost an eye fighting the Russians in Afghanistan, he is known throughout the desert by his nom de guerre, Belaouer, Algerian-​French slang for the One-Eye. Since 2003, his men have kidnapped 47 Westerners. Until 2009, AQIM had reached deals to release all of its hostages, but when the United Kingdom refused to meet the group's demands for Edwin Dyer, a British tourist, he was executed—locals say beheaded. His body was never found. In the weeks before my arrival, Belaouer and his cohorts had acquired a new inventory of hostages: three Spanish aid workers, an Italian couple, and the Frenchman.

"Belaouer is very clever," the salt merchant empha­sized. He described how AQIM gained protection from the desert's Arab-speaking clans through Belaouer's marriage to the daughter of a powerful chief. One popular rumor describes him giving fuel and spare tires to a hapless Mali army patrol stranded in the desert. Such accounts have won him sympathizers among Timbuktu's minority Arab community, which in turn has angered the city's dominant ethnic groups, the Tuareg and Songhai.

Up on the roof the temperature had dropped. The salt merchant pulled a blanket around his shoulders and drew deeply on his cigarette. To the north, the city's lights gave way to the utter blackness of the open desert. He told me that the price AQIM had set for the Frenchman's life was freedom for four of its comrades arrested by Malian authorities last year. The deadline to meet these demands was four weeks away.

I asked him why the Mali army did not mount an offensive against the terrorists. He pointed the red ember of his cigarette toward a cluster of houses a few streets over and described how Belaouer's men had assassinated an army colonel in front of his young family in that neighborhood a few months earlier. "Everyone in Timbuktu heard the shots," he said quietly. He mimicked the sound, bang, bang, bang. Then he waved the cigarette over the constellation of electric lights that revealed the shape of the city. "The One-Eye has eyes everywhere." And then, almost as an afterthought, he added, "I'm sure he knows you are here."

The Bibliophile

Sand blown in from the desert has nearly swallowed the paved road that runs through the heart of Timbuktu to Abdel Kader Haidara's home, reducing the asphalt to a wavy black serpent. Goats browse among trash strewn along the roadside in front of ramshackle mud-brick buildings. It isn't the prettiest city, an opinion that has been repeated by foreigners who have arrived with grand visions ever since 1828, when R n Cailli became the first European to visit Timbuktu and return alive. Yet it is a watchful city: With every passing vehicle, children halt soccer games, women pause from stoking adobe ovens, and men in the market interrupt their conversations to note who is riding by. "It is important to know who is in the city," my driver said. Tourists and salt traders mean business opportunities; strangers could mean trouble.

I found Haidara, one of Timbuktu's preeminent historians, in the blinding mid-morning glare of his family's stone courtyard, not far from the Sankore Mosque. He wanted to show me what he said was the first documentary evidence of democracy being practiced in Africa, a letter from an emissary to the sheikh of Masina. The temperature was quickly approaching 100 degrees, and he sweated through his loose cotton robe as he moved dozens of dusty leather trunks, each containing a trove of manuscripts. He unbuckled the strap of a trunk, pried it open, and began carefully sorting the cracked leather volumes. I caught a pungent whiff of tanned skins and mildew. "Not in here," he muttered.

Haidara is a man obsessed with the written word. Books, he said, are ingrained in his soul, and books, he is convinced, will save Timbuktu. Words form the sinew and muscle that hold societies upright, he argued. Consider the Koran, the Bible, the American Constitution, but also letters from fathers to sons, last wills, blessings, curses. Thousands upon thousands of words infused with the full spectrum of emotions fill in the nooks and corners of human life. "Some of those words," he said triumphantly, "can only be found here in Timbuktu."

It is a practiced soliloquy but a logical point of view for a man whose family controls Timbuktu's largest private library, with some 22,000 manuscripts dating back to the 11th century and volumes of every description, some lavishly illuminated in gold and decorated with colorful marginalia. There are diaries filled with subterfuges and plots, as well as correspondence between sovereigns and their satraps, and myriad pages filled with Islamic theology, legal treatises, scientific notations, astrological readings, medicinal cures, Arabic grammar, poetry, proverbs, and magic spells. Among them are also the little scraps of paper that track the mundanities of commerce: receipts for goods, a trader's census of his camel herd, inventories of caravans. Most are written in Arabic, but some are in Haidara's native Son­ghai. Others are written in Tamashek, the Tuareg language. He can spend hours sitting among the piles, dipping into one tome after another, each a miniature telescope allowing him to peer backward in time.

The mosaic of Timbuktu that emerges from his and the city's other manuscripts depicts an entrepôt made immensely wealthy by its posi­tion at the intersection of two critical trade arteries—the Saharan caravan routes and the Niger River. Merchants brought cloth, spices, and salt from places as far afield as Granada, Cairo, and Mecca to trade for gold, ivory, and slaves from the African interior. As its wealth grew, the city erected grand mosques, attracting scholars who, in turn, formed academies and imported books from throughout the Islamic world. As a result, fragments of the Arabian Nights, Moorish love poetry, and Koranic commentaries from Mecca mingled with narratives of court intrigues and military adventures of mighty African kingdoms.

As new books arrived, armies of scribes copied elaborate facsimiles for the private libraries of local teachers and their wealthy patrons. "You see?" said Haidara, twirling his hand with a flourish. "Books gave birth to new books."

Timbuktu's downfall came when one of its conquerors valued knowledge as much as its own residents did. The city never had much of an army of its own. After the Tuareg founded it as a seasonal camp about A.D. 1100, the city passed through the hands of various rulers—the Malians, the Songhai, the Fulani of Masina. Timbuktu's merchants generally bought off their new masters, who were mostly interested in the rich taxes collected from trade. But when the Moroccan army arrived in 1591, its soldiers looted the libraries and rounded up the most accom­plished scholars, sending them back to the Moroccan sultan. This event spurred the great dispersal of the Timbuktu libraries. The re­maining collections were scattered among the families who owned them. Some were sealed inside the mud-brick walls of homes; some were buried in the desert; many were lost or destroyed in transit.

It was Haidara's insatiable love for books that first led him to follow his ancestors into a career as an Islamic scholar and later propelled him into the vanguard of Timbuktu's effort to save the city's manuscripts. Thanks to donations from governments and private institutions around the world, three new state-of-the-art libraries have been constructed to collect, restore, and digitize Timbuktu's manuscripts. Haidara heads one of these new facilities, backed by the Ford Foundation, which houses much of his family's vast collection. News of the manuscript revival prompted the Aga Khan, an important Shiite Muslim leader, to restore one of the city's historic mosques and Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to begin building an extravagant walled resort in anticipation of future academic congresses.

I asked Haidara if the problems in the desert are impeding Timbuktu's renaissance. "Criminals, or whoever else it may be, are the least of my worries," he said, pointing to pages riddled with tiny oblong holes. "Termites are my biggest enemies." Scholars estimate many thousands of manuscripts lie buried in the desert or forgotten in hiding places, slowly succumbing to heat, rot, and bugs. The question of what might be lost haunts Haidara. "In my worst dreams," he said, "I see a rare text that I haven't read being slowly eaten."

Continue reading the full story at National Geographic Magazine.