Extremism

The race to save ancient Islamic manuscripts from terrorists who want them destroyed

The race to save ancient Islamic manuscripts from terrorists who want them destroyed

By Sarah Kershaw 

Manuscript pages in Djenne, Mali, a sister city of Timbuktu, from a restoration and digitization project underway, funded by the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme. (Photo by Sophie Sarin)

After Islamic extremists took control in 2012 of several major cities in Mali, a majority-Muslim nation in West Africa, it was soon clear that a millennium’s worth of classic Islamic manuscripts was in grave danger.

As half a million Malians fled the violence, secret plans were put in motion to spirit away the treasure trove of writings to safety. Fearing that the jihadists would destroy the scrolls, because they were bombing and burning other historical artifacts, a librarian organized something of a manuscript underground railroad: Reams of delicate parchment were transported on donkeys and skiffs on the Niger River, across the country to sanctuary.

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