The Brave Librarians of Timbuktu
Faces - The Magazine of People, Places and Cultures for Kids|March 2020
Ever hear the expression “from here to Timbuktu”? People use the word “Timbuktu” to mean a faraway, remote, and possibly mythical place. But not only is it a real city in the north of Mali, it was once the crossroads of the world. Hundreds of years ago, caravans passed through Timbuktu, trading gold, salt, and other goods between the Middle East and Morocco. Timbuktu became a city of wealth, not just in material riches, but also in learning and ideas.

Until recently, many people, even some scholars, believed that Africa had no written language until the arrival of the European colonizers. But Timbuktu proves that to be false. While Europe was still in the Middle Ages, the scholars of Timbuktu created hundreds of thousands of manuscripts in beautiful calligraphy (decorative handwriting) that discuss every possible subject: astronomy, poetry, mathematics, medicine, botany, religion, law, politics, and history. These manuscripts, which date back to the 1100s, are fragile and written on dried animal skins. The residents of Timbuktu guarded them in their homes for centuries.

In 2012, their existence was threatened by an invading group of jihadis (jee-hah-dees), warriors from a branch of Al Qaeda, the group responsible for the 9/11 attacks on New York City’s World Trade Center in 2001. They set fire to 4,200 manuscripts they found. But thanks to a brave group of librarians and their helpers, all the other manuscripts, 377,000 in total, were evacuated to safety.

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