By Vivienne Walt ~ TIMBUKTU 

Stepping through a low doorway into his small house, Fida Ag Mohammed sits at a table and pats a pile of books in front of him. Even in the dim light it’s clear that these are no ordinary volumes. The books are covered with intricately hand-tooled sheep- or goatskin; inside, hundreds of pages of yellowed paper are filled with Arabic calligraphy — the painstaking penmanship of Mohammed’s forebears centuries ago. “One of my ancestors from the 12th century began our family library,” Mohammed says. “There are hundreds of collections like this.”

Those collections — stashed in libraries, locked away in closets or buried in the desert sands — have been preserved, in large part, by Timbuktu’s isolation from the rest of the world. Landing in this blisteringly hot Malian town in the southwestern corner of the Sahara feels a little like arriving at the end of the earth. Dirt tracks melt into the featureless desert sands. Chickens peck in the shade between mud-walled houses. Little wonder that Timbuktu is a byword for remoteness.

But Timbuktu’s manuscripts might just change that. The books date from between the 14th and 16th centuries, a time when the town was a thriving trading hub and intellectual center for West Africa. Now, scared that Timbuktu’s 50,000 or so surviving books might disintegrate or be sold off to foreign collectors, African and Western organizations are racing to salvage the treasures, preserving them from the ravages of climate, dust and the passage of hundreds of years. Millions of dollars have been spent in laborious conservation and cataloguing of the works. A sleek new museum, completed last April, is scheduled to open to the public in November. The museum will display tens of thousands of Timbuktu’s books to the world, and, its backers hope, shatter any lingering notion that Africa has no historic literary tradition of its own. (Read: “The U.N.’s World Digital Library”.)

There is a catch, though. As Timbuktu opens to outsiders and word of its treasures spreads, so too does the interest in the books from outside collectors. In some ways, saving these old manuscripts could imperil them further. In decades past only the hardy visited Timbuktu; the journey required days of travel up the malaria-infested Niger River. Today, dozens of tourists arrive several times a week on small commercial planes from Bamako, the capital of the former French colony. Timbuktu has become a favorite jumping-off point to explore the world’s biggest desert. As the modern world rushes in, attitudes among Timbuktu’s youth — the generation who will take custody of all those precious manuscripts — is changing fast. Entertainment in Timbuktu these days includes sitting under the stars watching European football matches on satellite television. “This generation has the Internet, they see movies, they go away to study,” says Mohammed, who is astonished at the changes he has seen in his 42 years. To look after the books “we choose a child who can take care of the manuscripts: someone who’s always going to stay here.” But kids keep leaving, the world keeps rushing in. Timbuktu’s books have survived centuries of isolation. Can they survive their modern-day fame?
A Rush to Save the Treasures

Sitting at a junction of the Sahara’s historic commercial routes on a lazy bend of the Niger River, Timbuktu used to be a hectic crossroads where gold traders heading north met herders and salt merchants trekking south across the desert. The city’s lucrative trade fueled Mali’s empires as well as a rich ethnic blend of black Africans and Mediterranean people, and an intellectual ferment with dozens of Koranic schools. Refugees from the Inquisition in Spain brought their libraries with them, and soon began writing and buying more books. Timbuktu’s literary output was enormous, and included works covering the history of Africa and southern Europe, religion, mathematics, medicine and law. There were manuscripts detailing the movement of the stars, possible cures for malaria and remedies for menstrual pain. “I have here my family’s whole history,” says Ismael Diadié Haidara, whose ancestors carried their books to Timbuktu from Toledo, Spain when they fled religious persecution in 1467, and later wrote and purchased thousands more. “Families which were exiled, which had no country, had their libraries. It was people’s security. They could say, ‘This is where we come from.’ ”

About half the surviving works — some illuminated in gold and crimson, others illustrated with maps — are intact. But even the best works are fragile, the pages brittle, the covers damaged. “There are a lot of problems with the manuscripts,” says Timbuktu’s imam Ali Imam Ben Essayouti, 62, who has bought several manuscripts from locals who need the cash and sense they might otherwise lose them altogether. “Houses collapse in the rain. The termites eat them. People borrow them and never bring them back.”

Malian researchers were amazed at what they found when they began riding camels through the Sahara in the 1970s in search of older works. “We were totally astonished by the volume of manuscripts. There were boxes and boxes of them from the 16th and 17th centuries,” says Mahmoud Zouber, who in 1976 became the first director of Timbuktu’s Ahmed Baba Institute, the main government-run research center, and who is now counselor on Islamic affairs to Mali’s President. Zouber says he immediately realized the manuscripts’ primary source importance. “Colonizers had always argued that they were here to civilize Africa,” he says. “But there were many points of light. Clearly Africa was not living in obscurity.”

The growing sense that the manuscripts are tangible proof of Africa’s sophisticated history has inspired a series of projects to restore, conserve and keep them in Mali. A few of the 32 family libraries in Timbuktu have received foreign funding from institutions such as the Ford Foundation or governments such as those of Spain, Norway and Dubai. Six years ago, South Africa’s government began the museum project to house the Ahmed Baba Institute’s huge collection. Until now there has been no building in Timbuktu with the space or sophisticated temperature control in which to keep old documents. Curators hope the new building will persuade locals to entrust their collections to Mali’s government, by loaning or selling them to the museum. “It inspires confidence in people,” says Riason Naidoo, who led the Timbuktu project for South Africa.
The End of Isolation

The flurry of projects and interest has boosted Timbuktu’s tourism trade. The driver who meets me at the tiny airport introduces himself (in perfect English) as “Jack — like Jack Bauer [from television’s 24].” Crowds of Europeans converge every January to attend the musical Festival of the Desert in nearby Essakane. And young locals — armed with French and English — ply their trade as guides for adventure tour groups. (See pictures of the Festival au Desert in Mali.)

As news of the manuscripts has filtered out over the past few years, another group of visitors has begun arriving: antiques collectors and dealers looking to snap up rare and valuable treasures at bargain prices. Locals say the number of collectors has increased markedly over the past year. The village of Ber, an hour’s drive from Timbuktu across the blazing sand and past boys leading donkeys that haul spindly thorn branches home for firewood, might seem remote and protected. But when I arrived there in May, collectors had recently visited in search of manuscripts, according to locals. “Since April, people have descended on the village from Libya, Burkina Faso, Morocco,” says Mohammed Ag Mahmoud, 83, the imam of the tiny community of mostly Tuareg tribesman.

Preserving the documents in normal times is not easy: a flood flattened one house in Ber last October, obliterating more than 700 manuscripts. Mahmoud says his family’s collection of thousands of manuscripts include many with termite damage. One of his sons, Omar Ag Mohammed, shows me about 30 of the books, which are kept stashed in a rickety wooden closet in his small house. The most cherished volumes are not here, but buried in the desert. “We use ashes to protect them from the termites,” he tells me. “Then we build a dome on top of them, so we know where to find them.”

But the real threat comes from people — both outsiders and insiders. Ber might at first seem unchanged by modern life. Tuareg traders still arrive on camel, bearing giant bricks of salt which they transport across the Sahara for weeks — just as traders did centuries ago when the area’s manuscripts were originally written. In Mahmoud’s mind, too, local attitudes remain unchanged. Locals remain fiercely distrustful of outsiders, he says, including Mali’s government in Bamako, with which locals have been at odds for years. Many people still jealously guard family heirlooms as a tangible form of security. “We won’t sell our manuscripts, even if you offer us billions. They will be left to the children who will look after them. We know which those are.”

And yet younger Malians, even in Ber, deep in Mali’s remote north, are very different from their parents’ generation. Few can read the manuscripts’ old Arabic script, and some are beginning to ignore long-held taboos against selling them. When I visit Essayouti, Timbuktu’s imam, at home, he shows me four  15th century leather-bound manuscripts that locals had sold him the day before for about $200. Many locals, he says, simply need the money, or don’t know who will next look after the books. “We are trying to explain to each new generation why these are important,” he says, peeling back the pages of one of the tomes. “We tell them to pass them along through the generations. But many young people have no use for them. There are some who will see them as an easy way to make money.”

If Timbuktu’s children decide to sell the manuscripts, there will be nothing to stop them. Unlike antiquities laws which protect old carvings, for example, Mali has no law barring people from taking manuscripts out of the country. As international interest in the works grows, so too could their value on the world market, according to some experts. In 1979, Zouber, the President’s counselor, bought 25 Timbuktu manuscripts from the daughter of a former French diplomat who had been stationed in Mali and had taken them with him when he left; Zouber tracked her down in Cannes and paid about $25,000 for the lot. “Now they’re worth perhaps 10 times that amount,” he says.

Such sums might be a great temptation to a generation that has so far seen little material benefit from its heritage. Fida Ag Mohammed says many elders still favor passing manuscripts down from father to son. “Each generation must appoint one youth to take care of them,” he explains. “It has to be someone who will never leave.” But as young Malians grow more modern and more mobile, getting them to stay may prove difficult.

Read this story on TIME Magazine.