The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts

by Joshua Hammer


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781476777405
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 04/19/2016
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 759,637
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Joshua Hammer was born in New York and graduated from Princeton University with a cum laude degree in English literature. He joined the staff of Newsweek as a business and media writer in 1988, and between 1992 and 2006 served as a bureau chief and correspondent-at-large on five continents. Hammer is now a contributing editor to Smithsonian and Outside, a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, and has written for publications including the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, the Condé Nast Traveler, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Atavist. He is the author of four nonfiction books, including The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, and has won numerous journalism awards. Since 2007 he has been based in Berlin, Germany, and continues to travel widely around the world.

Read an Excerpt

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu


He shifted nervously in the front passenger seat of the four-wheel-drive vehicle as it approached the southern exit of the city. Down the tarmac road, in the pink light of the desert morning, two gunmen stood beside a checkpoint made from a rope strung across a pair of oil barrels. They were lean men with beards and turbans, Kalashnikov semiautomatic rifles slung over their shoulders. Take a deep breath, he told himself. Smile. Be respectful. He had already been arrested once by the Islamic Police, hauled before a makeshift tribunal, interrogated, and threatened with Shariah punishment. That time he had managed—just barely—to persuade them to set him free. He couldn’t count on being lucky a second time.

He cast a glance at the rear compartment. There, covered with blankets, lay five padlocked steamer trunks, each one filled with treasure: hundreds of illuminated manuscripts, including some from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Golden Age of Timbuktu. Encased in goatskin covers with inlaid semiprecious stones, they were gorgeous works composed by the most skillful scribes of the era, fragile pages covered with dense calligraphy and complex geometrical designs in a multitude of colors. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the terrorist group that had seized the north of the country four months earlier, had several times vowed on television and radio to respect them, but few in the city believed their promises. The extremists had declared jihad against anyone and anything that challenged their vision of a pure Islamic society, and these artifacts—treatises about logic, astrology, and medicine, paeans to music, poems idealizing romantic love—represented five hundred years of human joy. They celebrated the sensual and the secular, and they bore the explicit message that humanity, as well as God, was capable of creating beauty. They were monumentally subversive. And there were thousands of manuscripts just like these hidden in safe houses in Timbuktu. Now he and a small team had set out to save them.

The driver stopped at the roadblock. The two Al Qaeda gunmen peered into the car.

“Salaam Aleikum,” he said, with all the equanimity he could muster. Peace be upon you. They were young men, barely out of their teens, but they had dead eyes and the hard, fanatical look of true believers.

“Where are you going?”

“Bamako,” he said, the capital in the south.

The men circled the car, and peered into the back.

Wordlessly they waved him onward.

He exhaled. But they still had another six hundred miles to go.

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The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
BenT-Gaidin More than 1 year ago
Interesting look at historical scholarship and preservation. The end of the book is more concerned with military anti-terrorist action than the actual manuscripts, though, which is a shame.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Michelle_Palmer More than 1 year ago
Although it reads like a 230 page newspaper or magazine article, this topic was so fascinating that I found myself willing to finish it. It is very densely written. The city of Timbuktu in Mali was a center for scholarly achievement in Africa for centuries. Many of the families in the city have passed manuscripts down through the generations that are up to 1000 years old. The dry desert climate is good for preserving the, from many environmental factors but they were still in danger of being eaten by beetles and various other problems. A library was created using foreign donations to try to preserve as much of Timbuktu's heritage as possible. This is the story of the man that convinced a huge number of families to donate or sell their family manuscripts to the library, Abdel Kader Haidara. It is also the story of saving them, yet again, from a jihadi insurgency. The history contained in this book is very important. If you want to understand what is currently happening with the terrorists in Africa, this book goes a long way toward explaining it. It was absolutely fascinating.