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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