Man saves ancient Timbuktu treasures from destruction

Abdul Kader Haidara rescued priceless Timbuktu artifacts from Islamist extremists who invaded the city.
CBS News

(CBS News) BAMAKO, Mali - Timbuktu was a center of learning centuries ago. Last week, French forces chased out Islamic militants who'd seized Timbuktu and tried to destroy its relics. But one man outsmarted the marauders.

Fabled Timbuktu these days is a small dusty town, but proud of its noble heritage as a center of Islamic culture, art and medieval scholarship.

One of the manuscripts rescued by Abdul Kader Haidara included this 12th-century astrology chart. CBS News

Last April, it was invaded by Islamic extremists who drove in to town with their heavy weapons and took over.

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Abdul Kader Haidara was there. He's one of the keepers of a trove of priceless Arabic manuscripts. The extremists' arrival, he told us, triggered his emergency plan:

"I bought every tin box I could find," he said, "the kind we store household goods in, and my staff and I filled them with manuscripts until the library was empty."

Abdul Kader Haidara rescued priceless Timbuktu artifacts from Islamist extremists who invaded the city. CBS News

Manuscripts including a 12th-century astrology chart and an ancient Arab genealogy.

Haidara quietly distributed the full boxes to local families to hide inside their humble homes. Then he fled from Timbuktu, where the extremists were imposing strict Islamic law. They staged public floggings and destroyed ancient tombs. So there was every reason to fear for manuscripts painstakingly restored and so precious that since 2004, the Library of Congress had been making digital copies for safety.

Another treasure of Timbuktu rescued by Abdul Kader Haidara is this ancient Arab genealogy. CBS News

When pictures emerged last week of Timbuktu manuscripts burned to ashes probably by retreating extremists, the world was horrified.

But less than one percent of that collection belonging to the government was lost, said Haidara. And as for his 30,000 documents hidden in the boxes, they're all safe.

Does that make Haidara a hero? "I think of myself more as a rescuer," he said.

But first and foremost, he's a guardian and savior of one of the world's great historical legacies.

  • Elizabeth Palmer
    Elizabeth Palmer

    Elizabeth Palmer has been a CBS News correspondent since August 2000. She has been based in London since late 2003, after having been based in Moscow (2000-03). Palmer reports primarily for the "CBS Evening News."