Destroyed manuscripts in Timbuktu; photograph by Eric Feferberg/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Mali version of Nigeria’s Boko Haram, calling itself Ansar al-Din, not only went after Western knowledge but earlier Muslim sources as well. When the extremists ran amok in northern Mali last year, they destroyed Sufi shrines, beat women whose veils were not long enough, flogged men for daring to smoke or drink and did just about everything they could to drag Islam into the mud. But they did not get to burn the vast number, estimated at some 300,000, of Islamic manuscripts stored in collections across Timbuktu. The story of how donkeys and ingenious local men, with a million dollars in funding from abroad, were able to smuggle the precious written documents to safety is told with flair by Sudarsan Raghavan in yesterday’s Washington Post.

Below is the end of the article, styling the rescue operation as an Indiana Jones Moment…

It was the first stage of that mission that brought Traore and his donkey caravan to the old-city streets of Timbuktu on that August night. His grandfather had helped him load the donkeys, but he stayed behind as Traore and three other men set out with the manuscripts.

The rain, in the end, helped them. The jihadists were not at their checkpoints, preferring to stay indoors.

The caravan arrived at a safe house. Traore gave the cargo to a trader working for Haidara. Over the next two weeks, the donkey caravans would make the trip six more times until all the manuscripts were out of the center, Traore recalled.

The documents were placed in metal trunks hidden under cargo on several trucks. Within days, the manuscripts reached Bamako.

Over the next few months, Haidara’s people took out the rest of the manuscripts from the safe houses. Some were carried on donkey carts. Others were carried out on canoes on the Niger River, before reaching a safe area where they could be placed on trucks.

Most of the trunks were taken out in batches of three to five, until all finally reached Bamako safely. The evacuation was still ongoing in late January as French troops closed in on Timbuktu.

“The operation continues,” wrote Gitari to his colleagues in New York in an e-mail. “An Indiana Jones moment in real life! Touch wood.”

In the end, a total of 2,453 trunks were evacuated — containing about 278,000 pages of manuscripts, Haidara said.

In Bamako, the manuscripts are being kept in a safe place. Neither Maiga nor Haidara would disclose the location.

But Haidara and his allies could do nothing about the 16,000 pages of manuscripts in the new Ahmed Baba center, where the jihadists lived. There, Maiga’s worst fears came true. Days before French forces entered Timbuktu, the fleeing jihadists burned about 4,000 pages of manuscripts that they found in the restoration room.

But the jihadists never headed to the basement, where about 12,000 pages were stacked on metal shelves.

“They didn’t know the documents were down below,” said Abdoulaye Cisse, the institute’s interim director. “How else can you explain why they weren’t burned?”