The Lost Library of Timbuktu

The library on Tuesday opened an exhibit called “Ancient Manuscripts from the Desert Libraries of Timbuktu,” now a small trading town at the edge of the Sahara in Mali. The show is being held in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution, which on Wednesday opened its annual Folklife Festival on the National Mall, featuring Mali and other areas. The manuscripts range from Koranic teachings to mathematics, physics, medicine and astronomy, according to library researchers. Most are privately held, often by descendants of the original owners.

There may be a million such manuscripts in the 22 private libraries of Timbuktu, said Abdelkader Haidara, executive director of the city’s Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library. He added that in the rest of Mali and neighboring countries – Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso – there may be 100 libraries with 5 million manuscripts, from antiquity to the 1800s. Haidara said owners of the libraries are secretive, and some buried their manuscript treasures to protect them from wars in the region before European colonial powers arrived.

Mahmoud Zouber, counselor on Islamic affairs to President Amadou Toure of Mali, told of trying for five years to get one proprietor to open his library to inspection. “One day he finally took me by the hand,” Zouber said, “and led me through two doors to where I could see boxes of manuscripts. `Come back in a week,’ he told me. “When I came back, there was no door. It had been walled up.”