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In Salafis wake, charred Malian heritage in Timbuktu

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Yet few, if any, in Timbuktu expected the city’s manuscripts to be targeted. For months, militants – including those who took up residence in the Baba Ahmed Institute – made no move against them.

Timbuktu’s wealth of Islamic manuscripts - estimated in the scores of thousands - date to its role as a trading hub and center of learning in the late Middle Ages. The city reached a zenith in the 16th century, when books were among the most precious commodities and scholars were supported by the state.

The best-known scholar was perhaps Ahmed Baba, who produced dozens of works mainly on theology and Islamic jurisprudence. But meanwhile, up north, trouble was brewing. Invasion by an army of the Moroccan sultan in 1591 saw scholars including Baba Ahmed arrested or deported and Timbuktu slid into decline.

In recent decades, the Malian government and family-owned libraries have worked to restore Timbuktu’s manuscripts and present them to the world. The state-run Baba Ahmed Institute, as well as some private libraries, have facilities to restore, catalog, and scan manuscripts.

“Every manuscript is important, even if it’s just a scrap of paper – even if it’s only two or three words,” says Hamou Mohamed Dédeou, a manuscript specialist in Timbuktu who has worked with the Baba Ahmed Institute and advised foreign scholars.

Rich texts

It was in this spirit that Mr. Dédeou wrote “The Role of Symbols and Tables in Applying the Studies of the Ancients,” an explanatory work aimed at helping students appreciate the richness of some texts.

In one example, a seemingly nonsensical couplet by Ahmed Baba is revealed as a mnemonic device. Letters represent numbers, which in turn count the steps to take along one’s own shadow in various months to calculate certain prayer times.

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