The Islamists came in, as they did in Afghanistan, with their own, severe interpretation of Islam, intent on rooting out what they saw as the veneration of idols instead of the pure worship of Allah. During their 10-month-rule, they eviscerated much of the identity of this storied city, starting with the mausoleums of their saints, which were reduced to rubble.
The turbaned fighters made women hide their faces and blotted out their images on billboards. They closed hair salons, banned makeup and forbade the music for which Mali is known.
Their final act before leaving was to go through the exhibition room in the institute, as well as the whitewashed laboratory used to restore the age-old parchments. They grabbed the books they found and burned them.
However, they didn't bother searching the old building, where an elderly man named Abba Alhadi has spent 40 of his 72 years on earth taking care of rare manuscripts. The illiterate old man, who walks with a cane and looks like a character from the Bible, was the perfect foil for the Islamists. They wrongly assumed that the city's European-educated elite would be the ones trying to save the manuscripts, he said.
So last August, Alhadi began stuffing the thousands of books into empty rice and millet sacks....
No exact accounting has yet been possible but Abdoulaye Cisse, the acting director of the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research, where the 30,000-odd manuscripts were held, estimates that what was lost in the end is less than 5 percent of the collection.