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The men who would save Mali's manuscripts

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“Timbuktu was among the earliest Islamized African cities,” says Haidara. “Islam came from Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and even Spain – thus the relations via families that re-settled here, as well as the commercial links.”

Timbuktu grew from a caravan way-station near the Niger River to its zenith around the turn of the 16th century as a key commercial hub of the Songhai empire, then at the height of its power.

“In the city are many judges, doctors, and clerics, all well-financed by the king, who greatly honors lettered men,” wrote the Arab traveler Hassan ibn Muhammed al Wazzan al Fasi, known as Leo Africanus, who visited Timbuktu in the early 16th century. “Many hand-written books are sold there that come from Barbary, and from these more is earned than from any other merchandise.”

Demand for books fed an industry of copyists, skilled calligraphers who reproduced texts and, with their notes and marginalia, contributed to the evolution of scholarship.

Timbuktu entered a long decline within a century of Africanus’ visit, when it fell to the armies of the Moroccan sultan in 1591. In later centuries sea trade on the Atlantic eclipsed the trans-Saharan caravans.

'Found only in Timbuktu'

By the time Mr. Sadeck, the copyist, got a taste for calligraphy as a boy, the tradition was all but extinct.

It was his uncle who taught him to make ink from charcoal, powdered stones, and gum Arabic, and to arrange lines of elegant Arabic script in neat blocks on paper and animal hide parchment.

When he grew up he worked for six years in commerce as an assistant to a small-time merchant, whose death in 2000 pitched him into unemployment.

“I was in the street,” Sadeck says. “I didn’t know what to do.”

It was then that his uncle suggested he start work as a copyist. Commissioned by the city’s libraries to reproduce their works, he has also built a business selling copies to mainly Western tourists – gaining a unique erudition in the process.

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