The Literary Refugees of Timbuktu: How a Group of Unlikely Allies Thwarted Al Qaeda and Organized One of the Most Brazen Cultural Heritage Evacuations Ever Attempted

Corrie Commisso
Corrie Commisso
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  • Corrie Commisso is a graduate student in Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, with research interests in special collections and historic/cultural preservation. She currently lives and works in West Africa, where she is the content manager for an international human rights organization headquartered in Dakar, Senegal. When she is not working, studying, writing, or bargaining with local vendors, she is perfecting her French and wondering where in the world she will end up next.
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For centuries, Timbuktu, Mali, has quietly housed some of the greatest treasures of the ancient world: hundreds of thousands of scientific, literary, and religious manuscripts. But when Al Qaeda jihadists seized control of the city in the wake of a coup in 2012, the manuscripts found themselves in dire threat of destruction. To save them, a group of unlikely allies worked together to organize one of the most brazen evacuations of cultural heritage ever attempted . . . and succeeded in rescuing 95 % of Timbuktu’s ancient written heritage. In examining the story of the manuscripts, this article considers three areas—preparation, evacuation, and continued preservation—in which cultural heritage institutions can gain insight into the preservation of historical treasures in the midst of conflict.

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