Just a few miles from the Niger River Delta in Mali, Timbuktu appears as a labyrinth of single-story mud buildings. A city of near-mythic status, it is the last outpost before the great Sahara Desert, a place synonymous with being almost impossible to reach. Despite its remote location, the city boasts a heritage of scholarship that has produced an astounding number of manuscripts. The new Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Islamic Studies and Research, completed in 2009, introduces state-of-the-art techniques for conserving, exhibiting, and studying these famous Timbuktu manuscripts. The new institute is part of a 10-year initiative to replace its aging predecessor, founded in 1970 and located less than a mile away.
After French colonial rule ended in 1960, Timbuktu slid into decline and scholars went to great lengths to protect the city’s legacy, even burying manuscripts in the sand. An estimated 60 to 80 private libraries formed a grassroots conservation effort in Africa. According to UNESCO, a staggering 300,000 manuscripts exist in the Timbuktu region alone.