In 2012, Islamist extremists linked to al Qaeda managed to take control of a large swath of northern Mali, on the lower edges of the Sahara Desert, before the French military eventually dislodged them, with U.S. support. Hammer tells the dramatic story of how, during the period of Islamist rule, a group of Timbuktu residents saved some 350,000 ancient manuscripts that had resided in the city since its medieval heyday as a great center of learning and scholarship. Hammer’s hero is a scholar and book collector, Abdel Kader Haidara, who has devoted his life to preserving these texts with the help of a network of prominent families in Timbuktu and, increasingly, international financial support. Rightly worried that the Islamists would consider this remarkable collection of works to be heretical and would therefore destroy it, Haidara and his colleagues organized a remarkably courageous and ingenious effort to smuggle them out of the city and on to safety in Bamako. In addition to weaving a great yarn, Hammer also provides a fascinating history of Timbuktu and its books and a well-informed account of the struggle against Islamist extremism in the Sahel.
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