Mali's religious scholars cunningly save ancient Islamic manuscripts from Salafist fighters in Timbuktu

 

The home of Dramane Maulvi Haidara is down a dusty alleyway of pot-holes with an open drain alongside. There, behind a heavy wooden door studded with metal in a dark, windowless room, lay a rich treasure trove that has been guarded with utmost care from a determined enemy.

There was widespread shock and international condemnation in the last act of vindictiveness by the Islamists as they retreated from Timbuktu – burning priceless manuscripts taken from the Ahmed Baba library, a renowned repository of Mali’s historic literature, as they left.

But other such losses have been avoided by hiding heritage in private homes such as that of the Haidaras. Around 30 families in the city, most of them of religious scholars known as marabous, hold archives of immense value handed down through generations. As the danger of cultural vandalism from the Salafist fighters grew, a network of volunteers was set up to surreptitiously remove artefacts from public institutions for safekeeping. Some were smuggled out to the capital, Bamako, some were put in with the private collections and stayed behind closed doors in Timbuktu.

Despite the Islamists offering money to get information about  the private collections, the manuscripts remained largely undetected.  Mohammed Sekou, a neighbour of Mr Haidara, said: “One of them told me that I would get a reward if I told them of places the books were hidden. He then warned that I would be whipped if I knew the locations and did not tell them. The man wasn’t even from Timbuktu, he was from the mountains in the north. Did he think I’d betray what our community has guarded for hundreds of years so cheaply?”

“Can you imagine how terrible it would have been if they burnt this?” asked Mr Haidara, holding up a book of Hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Mohamed) – pages of exquisite calligraphy between fraying covers of Moroccan leather produced in the 14th century. Also of immense historical value was a Koran from a mosque in the city from the 1600s, when Timbuktu was at the height of its literary and theocratic renaissance. The city became especially known for its book trade, with scribes turning out works on a wide array of subjects while the Sankore Madrasah, an Islamic college, became a centre for religious discourse, its fame spreading throughout the Arab world.

“This is a book of Islam, but that wouldn’t have stopped them – as you know they burned holy books, they considered everything that did not meet their view of our religion as things to be destroyed,” Mr Haidara, a teacher of Islam and Arabic, said. Some of the collection had been taken to Bamako by one of Mr Haidara’s brothers. But it was deemed too risky to move the other documents, because they may have been caught doing so and they risked damaging fragile books during the journey over rough terrain.

Other manuscripts emerged from two green trunks in which they had been hidden away – on astronomy and algebra, poetry and horticulture. “The salafists do not like these subjects because they say they are not in the Koran,” Mr Haidara, 48, said. “But this is our history. Some of the books here are from the public library, the rest are from our family. My grandfather was Sidi Zaian, a well-known marabou. He was also a collector; he handed it all over to my father and now this is my responsibility as a marabou.”

During his visit to Mali at the weekend, which included a tumultuous welcome in Timbuktu, the French President François Hollande was shown the charred remains of the manuscripts at the library. Irina Bokova, the director general of Unesco, who was on the same trip, said that reinforced Mr Hollande’s view that he had done the right thing in sending in troops. “The Islamists were trying to destroy the heritage and identity of Mali,” Ms Bokova said. “The damage that has been done to this needs urgent attention just as much as the reconstruction of infrastructure.”

The guardians of the heritage say they know the collections should be kept under better conditions. “This is not the way to keep these beautiful books,” Ali Hussein Cisse, 37, said, pointing to the manuscripts at his home. “My son Abdulhai Ali is 10-years old, he too is going to be a marabou; I sent him away to Niono when the salafists were here because they were trying to get children to inform on their parents. The salafists  have no respect for age, they have no respect for tradition, no respect for learning. They are a curse on our world.”

French to pull out next month

President François Hollande has told a cabinet meeting that France would begin to pull its 3,600 troops out of Mali next month.

Earlier, the defence ministry in Paris said  “several hundred” Islamist fighters had been killed since France intervened a month ago. The Defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, admitted there had been French casualties, other than a helicopter pilot killed on the first day. He said that “two or three” French soldiers had been wounded but none seriously. 

He also confirmed reports of skirmishes between French troops and Islamist guerrillas.

Sport
Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez celebrate during Liverpool's game with Norwich
football Another hurdle is out of the way for Brendan Rodgers' side
Life & Style
The writer, Gerda Saunders, with her mother, who also suffered with dementia before her death
healthGerda Saunders on the most formidable effect of her dementia
Sport
Manchester United manager David Moyes looks on during his side's defeat to Everton
footballBaines and Mirallas score against United as Everton keep alive hopes of a top-four finish
Arts & Entertainment
The original design with Charles' face clearly visible, which is on display around the capital
arts + ents The ad shows Prince Charles attired for his coronation in a crown and fur mantle with his mouth covered by a criss-cross of white duct tape
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
‘Self-Portrait Worshipping Christ’ (c943-57) by St Dunstan
books How British artists perfected the art of the self-portrait
Sport
Luis Suarez celebrates after scoring in Liverpool's 3-2 win over Norwich
Football Vine shows Suarez writhing in pain before launching counter attack
News
People White House officials refuse to make comment on 275,000 signatures that want Justin Bieber's US visa revoked
News
Sir Cliff Richard is to release his hundredth album at age 72
PEOPLE
Sport
Lukas Podolski celebrates one of his two goals in Arsenal's win over Hull
football
Arts & Entertainment
Quentin Tarantino, director
film
News
The speeding train nearly hit this US politican during a lecture on rail safety
news As the saying goes, you have to practice what you preach
Sport
Mercedes Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain (front) drives ahead of Red Bull Formula One driver Daniel Ricciardo of Australia during the Chinese F1 Grand Prix at the Shanghai International circuit
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Billie Jean King, who won the women’s Wimbledon title in 1967, when the first colour pictures were broadcast
tv
News
Snow has no plans to step back or reduce his workload
mediaIt's 25 years since Jon Snow first presented Channel 4 News, and his drive shows no sign of diminishing
Life & Style
food + drinkWhat’s not to like?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit