National Geographic : 2011 Jan
• conquerors valued knowledge as much as its own residents did. e city never had much of an army of its own. A er the Tuareg founded it as a seasonal camp about . . 1100, the city passed through the hands of various rulers---the Malians, the Songhai, the Fulani of Masina. Timbuktu's merchants generally bought o their new mas- ters, who were mostly interested in the rich taxes collected from trade. But when the Moroccan army arrived in 1591, its soldiers looted the li- braries and rounded up the most accomplished scholars, sending them back to the Moroccan sultan. is event spurred the great dispersal of the Timbuktu libraries. e remaining col- lections were scattered among the families who owned them. Some were sealed inside the mud- brick walls of homes; some were buried in the desert; many were lost or destroyed in transit. It was Haidara's insatiable love for books that rst led him to follow his ancestors into a career as an Islamic scholar and later propelled him into the vanguard of Timbuktu's e ort to save the city's manuscripts. Thanks to donations from governments and private institutions around the world, three new state-of-the-art li- braries have been constructed to collect, restore, and digitize Timbuktu's manuscripts. Haidara heads one of these new facilities, backed by the Ford Foundation, which houses much of his family's vast collection. News of the man- uscript revival prompted the Aga Khan, an important Shiite Muslim leader, to restore one of the city's historic mosques and Libyan leader Muammar Qadda to begin building an extrav- agant walled resort in anticipation of future academic congresses. I asked Haidara if the problems in the des- ert are impeding Timbuktu's renaissance. "Criminals, or whoever else it may be, are the least of my worries," he said, pointing to pages riddled with tiny oblong holes. "Termites are my biggest enemies." Scholars estimate many thousands of manuscripts lie buried in the des- ert or forgotten in hiding places, slowly suc- cumbing to heat, rot, and bugs. e question of what might be lost haunts Haidara. "In my MERCHANTS BROUGHT CLOTH, SPICES, AND SALT FROM Keeping an eye out for hippos, dockworkers bathe next to a boat in the Niger River, some six miles south of Timbuktu. e Niger once brought slaves and gold to the city; now it brings food, diesel fuel, and tourists.