TIMBUKTU, Mali — Ismaël Diadié Haïdara held a treasure in his slender fingers that has somehow endured through 11 generations — a square of battered leather enclosing a history of the two branches of his family, one side reaching back to the Visigoths in Spain and the other to the ancient origins of the Songhai emperors who ruled this city at its zenith.
The musty collection of fragile, crumbling pages, written in the florid Arabic script of the sixteenth century, is also this once forgotten outpost’s future.
A surge of interest in ancient books, hidden for centuries in houses along Timbuktu’s dusty streets and in leather trunks in nomad camps, is raising hopes that Timbuktu — a city whose name has become a staccato synonym for nowhere — may once again claim a place at the intellectual heart of Africa.
“I am a historian,” Mr. Haïdara said. “I know from my research that great cities seldom get a second chance. Yet here we have a second chance because we held on to our past.”
This ancient city, a prisoner of the relentless sands of the Sahara and a changing world that prized access to the sea over the grooves worn by camel hooves across the dunes, is on the verge of a renaissance.
“We want to build an Alexandria for black Africa,” said Mohamed Dicko, director of the Ahmed Baba Institute, a government-run library in Timbuktu. “This is our chance to regain our place in history.”
The South African government is building a new library for the institute, a state-of-the-art facility that will house, catalog and digitize tens of thousands of books and make their contents
available, many for the first time, to researchers. Charities and governments from Europe, the United States and the Middle East have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the city’s musty family libraries, which are being expanded and transformed into research institutions, drawing scholars from around the world eager to translate and interpret the long forgotten manuscripts.
The Libyan government is planning to transform a dingy 40-room hotel into a luxurious 100-room resort, complete with Timbuktu’s only swimming pool and space to hold academic and religious conferences. Libya is also digging a new canal that will bring the Niger River to the edge of Timbuktu.
Timbuktu’s new seekers have a variety of motives. South Africa and Libya are vying for influence on the African stage, each promoting its vision of a resurgent Africa. Spain has direct
links to some of the history stored here, while American charities began giving money after Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard professor of African studies, featured the manuscripts in a television documentary series in the late 1990s.
This new chapter in the story of Timbuktu, whose fortunes fell in the twilight of the Middle Ages, is almost as extraordinary as those that preceded it.
The geography that has doomed Timbuktu to obscurity in the popular imagination for half a millennium was once the reason for its greatness. It was founded as a trading post by nomads in the 11th century and later became part of the vast Mali Empire, then ultimately came under the control of the Songhai Empire.
For centuries it flourished because it sat between the great superhighways of the era — the
Sahara, with its caravan routes carrying salt, cloth, spices and other riches from the north, and the Niger River, which carried gold and slaves from the rest of West Africa.
Traders brought books and manuscripts from across the Mediterranean and Middle East, and books were bought and sold in Timbuktu — in Arabic and local languages like Songhai and Tamashek, the language of the Tuareg people.
Timbuktu was home to the University of Sankore, which at its height had 25,000 scholars. An army of scribes, gifted in calligraphy, earned their living copying the manuscripts brought by travelers. Prominent families added those copies to their own libraries. As a result, Timbuktu became a repository of an extensive and eclectic collection of manuscripts.
“Astronomy, botany, pharmacology, geometry, geography, chemistry, biology,” said Ali Imam
Ben Essayouti, the descendant of a family of imams that keeps a vast library in one of the city’s mosques. “There is Islamic law, family law, women’s rights, human rights, laws regarding livestock, children’s rights. All subjects under the sun, they are represented here.”
One 19th-century book on Islamic practices gives advice on menstruation. A medical text suggests using toad meat to treat snake bites, and droppings from panthers mixed with butter to soothe boils. There are thousands of Korans and books on Islamic law, as well as decorated biographies of the Prophet Muhammad, some dating back a millennium, complete with diagrams of his shoes.
Mr. Haïdara is a descendant of the Kati family, a prominent Muslim family in Toledo, Spain. One of his ancestors fled religious persecution in the 15th century and settled in what is now Mali, bringing his formidable library with him. The Kati family intermarried into the Songhai imperial
family, and the habit Mr. Haïdara’s ancestors had of doodling notes in the margins of their manuscripts has left an abundance of historical information: births and deaths in the imperial family, the weather, drafts of imperial letters, herbal cures, records of slaves, and salt and gold traded.
Moroccan invaders deposed the Songhai empire in 1591, and the new rulers were hostile to the community of scholars, who were seen as malcontents. Facing persecution, many fled, taking many books with them.
West African sea routes overtook the importance of the old inland desert and river trade, and the city began its long decline. When the first European explorers stumbled across the once fabled city, they were stunned at its decrepitude. René Caillié, a French explorer who arrived
here in 1828, said it was “a mass of ill-looking houses built of earth.”
Mr. Caillié’s description remains accurate today. For all its vaunted legend, Timbuktu remains a collection of low mud houses along narrow, trash-choked streets backed by sand dunes, difficult to reach and unimpressive on first sight. In 1990, Unesco designated it an endangered site because sand dunes threatened to swallow it.
Many tourists who come here stay for just a day, long enough to buy a T-shirt and get their passports stamped at the local tourism office as proof they have been to the end of the earth. In a recent Internet campaign to choose the new seven wonders of the world, Timbuktu failed to make the cut, much to the chagrin of the city’s tour guides and boosters.
Yet the city has been making a slow comeback for years. Its manuscripts, long hidden, began to emerge in the mid-20th century, as Mali won its independence from France and the city was declared a Unesco world heritage site.
The government created an institute named after Ahmed Baba, Timbuktu’s greatest scholar, to collect, preserve and interpret the manuscripts. Abdel Kader Haïdara, no relation of Ismaël Diadié Haïdara, an Islamic scholar whose family owned an extensive collection of manuscripts, started an organization called Savama-DCI dedicated to preserving the manuscripts. After a visit from Mr. Gates in 1997, he was able to get help from American charities to support private family libraries. With the support of the Ford and Mellon foundations, families began to catalog and preserve their collections.
But time, scorching desert heat, termites and sandstorms have taken a toll on the manuscripts. Most were locked in trunks or kept on dusty shelves for centuries, and their pages are brittle and crumbling, waterlogged and termite-eaten. In the village of Ber, two hours of dusty track east of Timbuktu, Fida Ag Mohammed tends to several trunks of manuscripts that have been in his family, a line of Tuareg imams, for centuries.
“This is a biography of the Prophet Muhammad,” he said, gingerly lifting one manuscript bound in crumbling leather. “It is from the 13th century.”
The neat lines of Arabic script were clearly legible, but the edges of many pages had crumbled away, the words trailing off into nothingness.
Savama is in the process of building a new mud-brick library for Mr. Mohammed’s books, but until it is ready he has no means to preserve his manuscripts. To rescue their contents, if not their physical substance, he was copying the most fragile texts by hand, using an ink he makes himself out of gum.
Now, when the scorching heat of the day eases, a favored sunset activity in Timbuktu is watching the Libyan earthmovers dig the new canal. Like tiny toy trucks in a giant sandbox, they push mountains of sand to coax the Niger to flow here, bringing more water and new life to the dune-surrounded city.
“To see this machine makes me more happy because it means things are changing in Timbuktu,” said Sidi Muhammad, a 40-year-old Koranic scholar, splayed on a dune with a group of friends, gossiping and fingering their prayer beads.
The Malian government has encouraged Islamic learning to flourish here once again, and there are dozens of Koranic schools where children and adults learn to read and recite the Koran. Training programs are teaching men and women how to classify, interpret and translate the documents, as well as preserve them for future study.
Abdel Kader Haïdara, who in many ways started the renaissance by wandering the desert in search of manuscripts, persuading families to allow their treasures to see the light of day, said Timbuktu’s best days lie ahead of it.
“Timbuktu is coming back,” he said. “It will rise again.”