Successful rescue of some 300 000 precious manuscripts dating from the 12th to 15th centuries in Timbuktu, Mali.
Photo: © A.Wilcke

Rescuing valuable Arabic manuscripts from Timbuktu

An international operation has succeeded in rescuing some 300 000 precious manuscripts dating from the 12th to 15th centuries from imminent destruction by African Al-Qaida rebels. Experts hope that they will provide valuable information pertaining to African agriculture.

Thanks to a secret rescue operation it has been possible to save some 300 000 valuable manuscripts from imminent destruction by African Al Qaida rebels during their occupation of Timbuktu (Mali) in February 2013. According to reports by Time Magazine and by the Gerda-Henkel-Foundation seated in Germany, in an operation lasting several months, headed by the director of one of Timbuktu’s largest libraries, Dr. Abdel Kader Haïdara, together with the Cape Town University (South Africa) it was possible to rescue the manuscripts, which are part of UNESCO’s World Heritage, and initially bring them to Mali’s capital city Bamako.  Since then, renowned manuscript experts from Mali, Germany and South Africa have been taking immediate joint action to conserve and restore the manuscripts and make them permanently accessible to research. 

The West-African desert town of Timbuktu was the seat of famous university life as far back as the 12th century with up to 25 000 students. Along with religious lectures, studies also covered mathematics, geography and medicine. The valuable manuscripts partly date from this era and are unique and precious sources of the knowledge of learned persons from the 12th to 15th centuries. The documents rescued from the Ahmed-Baba Institute are treaties on mathematics, music, Islamic law, poetry and also agriculture. The Ahmed Baba Institute is only one of some 80 private libraries in Timbuktu that has watched over these manuscripts right through to modern days. During the insurrection of the radical Islamic Al Qaida who occupied large areas of Northern Mail in winter 2013, Timbuktu also fell under its control. The rebels set fire to the Ahmad-Baba library building there in February 2013. But the manuscripts had already been taken out of town.

The Gerda Henkel Foundation reported in July 2014 that over the last 25 years a host of international and Malian institutes have alluded to the Timbuktu manuscripts but only now has their enormous value for the whole of the region become apparent. The cooperation project with Cape Town University is part of the Foundation’s increased commitment in Africa. In the scope of the project, the Institute for the Humanities in Africa is researching into the correlation of manuscript culture and civil society in the Muslim Sahel zone and the Sahara, based on the example of the Timbuktu collections.

Precious information on the use of local plants


According to Dmitry Bondarev of the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures at the University of Hamburg, Germany, proper conservation is now the most important step to conducting further study of the manuscripts, which could open up fields of scientific inquiry based on the documented medicinal uses of local plants and traditional prophylaxis for malaria. The Hamburg Institute is also involved in the conservation activities and chiefly assessing the manuscripts in relation to the fields of medicine and agriculture. The Hamburg researcher explicitly points out the very valuable knowledge of Timbuktu’s ancient scholars focusing on agricultural productivity, e.g. traditional methods of increasing yields of local crops such as rice. “These works on agriculture could be used as a counterpoint to the modern exploitation of African soil with imported farming techniques,” says Bondarev.


The manuscripts in Bamako are first to be catalogued and digitalised so that they can be studied further by scientists from all over the world.