Among the muscrupts (image via the Prince Claus Fund)

Manuscript recovered from Bamako, Mali by ‘Timbukto Renaissance’ curator Abdel Kader Haidara (image via the Prince Claus Fund)

Sixteen original 15th- and 16th-century Malian manuscripts will go on display Friday at the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels, The Art Newspaper reported. The exhibition, titled Timbuktu Renaissance, has an exceptional backstory: the precious manuscripts were smuggled out of Timbuktu in the wake of the city’s 2012 takeover at the hands of Islamist rebels.

When the insurgents threatened to destroy libraries and other cultural artifacts they regarded as sacrilegious, Timbuktu Renaissance curator Abdel Kader Haidara organized a clandestine effort to convey Timbuktu’s wealth of historical documents to the Malian capitol of Bamako. Local families helped Haidara export over 350,000 manuscripts, sneaking the contraband out of Timbuktu in vegetable wagons and canoes.

The personal risk to Haidara and his helpers was great. Timbuktu’s extremist regime often favored violent punishment, chopping off the hands of thieves as a warning to other would-be transgressors. Haidara’s nephew, a 25-year-old curator named Touré, narrowly escaped such brutal punishments when the police force caught him with a trunk of manuscripts. Haidara, a refugee in Bamako at the time, orchestrated Touré’s escape from afar. Haidra’s contacts in Timbuktu attested that Touré was a curator with a right to move the manuscripts, and the young man was released. This was not the only such incident — curators and librarians were often stopped and searched by extremist police officers, and once a boat full of books on the Niger River was held hostage by bandits, according to National Geographic.

But Haidara prevailed, and he was rewarded for his efforts with the 2014 Germany Africa Prize. His collection attests to Mali’s rich intellectual history: Timbuktu Renaissance, organized with help from the Ministry of Culture in Mali and the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, highlights the nation’s scientific, political, and legal achievements. Western scholars often ignore sub-Saharan Africa’s intellectual legacy, believing it takes no written form — but the manuscripts to be displayed in the exhibition, and the rest of the collection preserved by Haidara, are a testament to the continent’s written heritage.

Timbuktu Renaissance will be on view at the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels (Rue Ravenstein 23, Brussels, Belgium) December 19–February 22, 2015.

Becca Rothfeld

Becca Rothfeld is assistant literary editor of The New Republic and a contributor to The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Daily News’ literary blog, The Baffler, and...