Timbuktu’s ‘Badass Librarians’: Checking Out Books Under Al-Qaida’s Nose

Apr 25, 2016

By NPR Staff

For hundreds of years, Timbuktu has had a place in the world’s imagination. Located on the southern edge of the Sahara desert, the city flourished as a center of Islamic culture and scholarship in the 13th through 16th centuries. It was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1988, recognized for the University of Sankore, which had as many as 25,000 students who studied the Quran, as well as the historic Djingareyber and Sidi Yahia mosques.

Timbuktu was a center of the manuscript trade, with traders bringing Islamic texts from all over the Muslim world. Despite occupations and invasions of all kinds since then, scholars managed to preserve and even restore hundreds of thousands of manuscripts dating from the 13th century.

But that changed when militant Islamists backed by al-Qaida arrived in 2012. The hardline Islamists didn’t see these texts as part of their Islamic heritage, but as idolatry, contradicting their interpretation of Islam. They set about destroying important cultural icons, including 15th-century mausoleums of Sufi Muslim saints. Librarians feared the city’s prized medieval collections of manuscripts would be next.

Librarian Abdel Kader Haidara organized and oversaw a secret plot to smuggle 350,000 medieval manuscripts out of Timbuktu. Joshua Hammer chronicled Haidara’s story in the book The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu. Hammer spoke with NPR’s Michel Martin about how a librarian became an “operator.”


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13 comments on “Timbuktu’s ‘Badass Librarians’: Checking Out Books Under Al-Qaida’s Nose

  • @OP – But that changed when militant Islamists backed by al-Qaida arrived in 2012. The hardline Islamists didn’t see these texts as part of their Islamic heritage, but as idolatry, contradicting their interpretation of Islam. They set about destroying important cultural icons, including 15th-century mausoleums of Sufi Muslim saints. Librarians feared the city’s prized medieval collections of manuscripts would be next.

    The various sects of religious delusion, have been re-writing history to make it conform with their delusions, since time immemorial.

    No only have they been attacking objective records and the educated, but have of course been attacking and destroying texts recording rival delusionist thinking!

    This Islamic destruction is only a more recent manifestation of the destruction of texts by rival early Xtian sects, and of the religious book-burners of the dark ages!



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  • 2
    Cairsley says:

    To Alan4discussion #1

    This Islamic destruction is only a more recent manifestation of the destruction of texts by rival early Xtian sects, and of the religious book-burners of the dark ages!

    Indeed! And let us not forget the reason why we have lost the greater part of the literature of Graeco-Roman antiquity: the policy of the Christian church, progressively empowered by Constantine I and subsequent emperors, to suppress it. What survives of it today is almost entirely what the imperially approved, orthodox, catholic Christians deemed theologically useful. Where are the works of Epicurus? Where the works of Celsus? Where those of the Pre-Socratics? We rely on quotations in works of other writers, pagan and Christian, in which their ideas were discussed and criticized, for the incomplete knowledge we have of what they wrote. We have the Arabs to thank for rediscovering the philosophical and scientific works of Aristotle (apart from his work on logic). It is only by extraordinary good fortune that we still have the text of Lucretius’s didactic poem De Rerum Natura. Looking back at the ancient world from our vantage-point, blessed with the benefits of centuries of research and scholarship to salvage lost treasures, it is hard to realize what a cultural catastrophe the elevation of Christianity to state religion of the empire actually was.



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  • I commend badass librarians everywhere.

    Also Agora a rather symbolic rather than strictly historical film about Hypatia and the sack of the library of Alexandria. It credibly proposed that for all we know astronomy could have been set back 1000years by that action and by implication what else? WIGIG

    Muslim scholars were custodians of of Greek art, philosophy and science and added not a little themselves. Who knows what gems may lurk in their scrolls, what gems of which the cultural Muslim (and all of us) may be proud.

    I am Ibn Rushd!



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  • 4
    Cairsley says:

    To Phil Rimmer #3

    Regarding Hypatia, you may be interested in the following quotations (if you have not already seen them):

    “… When Cyril became bishop of Alexandria in 412, he asserted himself with some energy. His ‘shock troops’, the parabalani, were viewed with such terror that the emperor himself had to ask that their numbers be limited to five hundred. Virtually every tension in the city was exacerbated by Cyril’s intrusions. The city prefect Orestes, who was attempting to resist the encroachment on his secular powers, was injured by a mob of monks, Jewish synagogues were seized but most shocking of all was the murder by a Christian mob of Hypatia, a philosopher and mathematician (who had written commentaries, now lost, on Diophantus and Apollonius). She was attacked on the streets and her body pulled to pieces. This was more than the death of a respected intellectual; for the historian of mathematics Morris Kline ‘the fate of Hypatia symbolises the end of the era of Greek mathematics’ and Edward Gibbon makes her death a set piece in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” (The Closing of the Western Mind, Charles Freeman, ch. 17, pp. 274-275).

    The passage in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire referred to in the quotation above reads as follows:

    “Hypatia, the daughter of Theon the mathematician, was initiated in her father’s studies: her learned comments have elucidated the geometry of Apollonius and Diophantus; and she publicly taught, both at Athens and Alexandria, the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. In the bloom of beauty, and in the maturity of wisdom, the modest maid refused her lovers and instructed her disciples; the persons most illustrious for their rank and merit were impatient to visit the female philosopher; and Cyril beheld with a jealous eye the gorgeous train of horses and slaves who crowded the door of her academy. A rumour was spread among the Christians that the daughter of Theon was the only obstacle to the reconciliation of the prefect and the archbishop; and that obstacle was speedily removed. On a fatal day, in the holy season of Lent, Hypatia was torn from her chariot, stripped naked, dragged to the church, and inhumanly butchered by the hands of Peter the reader and a troop of savage and inhuman fanatics: her flesh was scraped from her bones with sharp oyster shells, and her quivering limbs were delivered to the flames. The just progress of inquiry and punishment was stopped by seasonable gifts: but the murder of Hypatia has imprinted an indelible stain on the character and religion of Cyril of Alexandria” (op. cit., ch. 47).

    Oddly enough I attended a Roman Catholic high school, where I studied history, and also studied church history in the course of some nine years of seminary training, during which I did learn of Cyril of Alexandria as one of the great champions of orthodoxy, but never did I learn even of the existence of Hypatia until many years after my time in the seminary (Edward Gibbon’s magnum opus was not held in the seminary library). The Catholic Church has always been good at hiding its faults and forgetting them.



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  • Thank you for those, Cairsley.

    Edward Gibbon was a wise, witty and insightful man, most probably an atheist before his time despite attempts to appear otherwise and no friend of the church. I count him a hero.

    The graphic accounts of Hypatia’s end aren’t rock solid history, but something very nasty certainly happened. But it is true she was translator and expert on the conics of Apollonius and was ideally placed to understand how the planets moved. The film Agora has her give a delightful and elegant account of why this may be so.



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  • 6
    Cairsley says:

    To Phil Rimmer #5

    … and was ideally placed to understand how the planets moved.

    Phil, I am curious and am not sure of the mathematics here. Are you saying that Hypatia was in a position to understand how the planets actually move (around the sun) or how they could be understood to move around the earth (say an improvement on Ptolemy)? If the former, then that would indeed increase the poignancy of her untimely death.



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  • 8
    Cairsley says:

    Thank you, Phil. It is a pity that nothing of Hypatia’s work has survived, but what you say the film Agora reasonably attributes to her (on the known basis that she commented on the work of Apollonius) would seem to be an improvement on Ptolemy’s work, which assumed that the planets traveled in perfect circles around the earth. Those Greeks were very clever, but they lacked the technology needed to obtain facts that would have furthered their understanding of what they saw in the night sky. They would have found a telescope handy.



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  • Cairsley #8
    Apr 26, 2016 at 11:07 am

    Those Greeks were very clever, but they lacked the technology needed to obtain facts that would have furthered their understanding of what they saw in the night sky.

    It seems they had at least some technology which was then lost for a couple of thousand years!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UpLcnAIpVRA

    The Antikythera Mechanism
    More than 21 centuries ago, a mechanism of fabulous ingenuity was created in Greece, a device capable of indicating exactly how the sky would look for decades to come — the position of the moon and sun, lunar phases and even eclipses. But this incredible invention would be drowned in the sea and its secret forgotten



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  • 10
    bonnie2 says:

    This would make a great movie, or documentary. Hopefully they can scan and virtually store the manuscripts (as suggested by a commenter below the NPR article).



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  • 11
    Cairsley says:

    To Alan4discussion #9

    Thanks for the link, Alan. That is a superb discovery of ancient Greek technical ingenuity. Of course, this sort of discovery only makes one regret all the more the later political and religious developments that suppressed that ingenuity for a millennium.



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