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← The hidden treasures of Timbuktu - Elizabeth Cox

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Showing Revision 3 created 10/21/2020 by lauren mcalpine .

  1. On the edge of the vast Sahara desert,
  2. citizens snuck out of the city of Timbuktu
  3. and took to the wilderness.
  4. They buried chests in the desert sand,
    hid them in caves,
  5. and sealed them in secret rooms.
  6. Inside these chests was a treasure
    more valuable than gold:
  7. the city’s ancient books.
  8. Founded around 1100 CE
    in what is now Mali,

  9. the city of Timbuktu started
    out as an unremarkable trading post.
  10. But its unique location
    soon changed that.
  11. Timbuktu marked the intersection
    of two essential trade routes,
  12. where caravans bringing
    salt across the Sahara
  13. met with traders bringing gold
    from the African interior.
  14. By the late 1300s, these trade routes
    made Timbuktu rich,
  15. and the city’s rulers,
    the kings of the Mali Empire,
  16. built monuments and academies
    that drew scholars
  17. from Egypt, Spain, and Morocco.
  18. The city’s prime location also made
    it a target for warlords and conquerors.

  19. As the Mali Empire declined,
    one of its domains, Songhai,
  20. began to gain power.
  21. In 1468, the Songhai king
    conquered Timbuktu,
  22. burning buildings and murdering scholars.
  23. But in time, intellectual life
    in the city flourished again.

  24. The reign of the second king
    of the Songhai Empire,
  25. Askia Mohammed Toure,
  26. marked the beginning of a golden age
    in Timbuktu.
  27. He reversed his predecessor’s
    regressive policies
  28. and encouraged learning.
  29. The Songhai rulers and most of Timbuktu’s
    population were Muslim,

  30. and the scholars of Timbuktu
    studied Islam
  31. alongside secular topics
    like mathematics and philosophy.
  32. In the libraries of Timbuktu,
  33. tracts of Greek philosophy stood
    alongside the writings
  34. of local historians, scientists,
    and poets.
  35. The city’s most prominent scholar,
    Ahmed Baba,
  36. challenged prevailing opinions
    on subjects
  37. ranging from smoking to slavery.
  38. Gold and salt trade had funded
    the city’s transformation

  39. into a center of learning.
  40. Now, the products
    of that intellectual culture
  41. became the most sought-after
    commodity.
  42. With paper from faraway Venice
  43. and vibrant ink from local plants
    and minerals,
  44. the scribes of Timbuktu produced
    texts in both Arabic
  45. and local languages.
  46. Written in calligraphy and decorated
    with intricate geometric designs,
  47. the books of Timbuktu were in demand
    among the wealthiest members of society.
  48. In 1591, the golden age
    came to an abrupt end

  49. when the Moroccan king
    captured Timbuktu.
  50. Moroccan forces imprisoned
    Ahmed Baba and other prominent scholars
  51. and confiscated their libraries.
  52. In the centuries that followed, the city
    weathered a succession of conquests.
  53. In the mid-1800s,
    Sufi Jihadists occupied Timbuktu
  54. and destroyed many non-religious
    manuscripts.
  55. 1894, French colonial forces seized
    control of the city,
  56. stealing even more manuscripts
    and sending them to Europe.
  57. French became the official language
    taught in schools,
  58. and new generations in Timbuktu
  59. couldn’t read the Arabic manuscripts
    that remained.
  60. Through it all, the literary tradition
    of Timbuktu didn’t die—

  61. it went underground.
  62. Some families built secret libraries
    in their homes,
  63. or buried the books in their gardens.
  64. Others stashed them in abandoned caves
    or holes in the desert.
  65. The priceless manuscripts of Timbuktu
  66. dispersed to villages
    throughout the surrounding area,
  67. where regular citizens guarded
    them for hundreds of years.
  68. As desertification and war
    impoverished the region,
  69. families held on to the ancient books
  70. even as they faced desperate poverty
    and near-starvation.
  71. Even today, the struggle to protect
    the books continues.

  72. From the 1980s to the early 2000s,
  73. Timbuktu scholar Abdel Kader Haidara
    painstakingly retrieved hidden manuscripts
  74. from all over northern Mali
    and brought them back to Timbuktu.
  75. But in 2012, civil war in Mali
    once again threatened the manuscripts,
  76. most of which were evacuated
    to nearby Bamako.
  77. Their future remains uncertain,
  78. as they face both human
    and environmental threats.
  79. These books represent our best—
    and often only—
  80. sources on the pre-colonial history
    of the region.
  81. Many of them have never been
    read by modern scholars,
  82. and still more remain lost
    or hidden in the desert.
  83. At stake in the efforts to protect
    them is the history they contain—
  84. and the efforts of countless generations
    to protect that history from being lost.