Timbuktu is an ancient crossroads town in northern Mali, in the dusty Sahel between the Sahara and the green lands farther south. Its scholarly institutes make great adventurers guilds. Seriously – the libraries of Timbuktu have everything a good adventurer’s guild needs: an interesting ideological reason for existing, tension, high stakes, plot hooks, and quests for loot.
First, some context. Timbuktu has been a trading town and center of scholarship in North Africa for most of a millennium. Its universities function on a model somewhere between tutoring and apprenticeship. Families sent (and continue to send) boys to Timbuktu to live with one of the learned men of the city. The families send the instructor money, and he instructs his pupils/boarders in Arabic, Koranic recitation, religious law, and often in secular scholarship: poetry, science, history, philosophy. These tutors are often scholars in their own right, penning complex manuscripts that both collate old thinking and propose new ideas. Historically, many of these manuscripts were richly decorated, and the most widely-read were also widely-copied for distribution throughout Timbuktu and the Sahel. These manuscripts are prized possessions. Trunks full of them are passed from generation to generation as family heirlooms, sometimes to study, sometimes to simply admire.
Timbuktu also has an off-again, on-again problem with anti-intellectual rulers. Usually, rulers support Timbuktu’s scholasticism. But every so often, you get a ruler like Songhai emperor Sunni Ali who destroyed manuscripts and executed scholars, driven by the urges best summarized by the (likely apocryphal) quote of Caliph Umar: “If it contradicts the Koran, it’s heresy. If it agrees with the Koran, it’s superfluous.” The most recent such incident occurred in 2012 when a branch of Al Qaeda temporarily took over the town and burned thousands of manuscripts. The people of Timbuktu have learned to keep their treasured tomes out of sight in times of trouble.
Timbuktu today is served by scholarly institutes dedicated to preserving and cataloging these precious manuscripts. They also make great inspiration for adventurers’ guilds. Organizations like Golarion’s Pathfinder Society (namesake of the eponymous RPG association) are super cool and make great quest givers, but they often don’t make much sense. Timbuktu’s scholarly institutes can provide inspiration to help you bring your campaign’s adventurers’ guild to life.
These scholarly institutes have a clear ideological purpose: to save the manuscripts moldering in trunks across northern Mali, and make them accessible to scholars. They have a source of funding: taxpayer money from the Malian government, foreign aid from Gulf State and Western governments, and grants from well-funded cultural institutions worldwide. And they have sources of tension and plot hooks! In 2012, these organizations helped smuggle 300,000 manuscripts out of Timbuktu, right under the noses of Al Qaeda. Their agents have to scour the Sahel, braving sandstorms and bandits, and convince strangers to part with their family heirlooms. Whether treating with wealthy merchants, blue-eyed Tuaregs in their desert camps, or village headmen along the Niger River, it takes a special kind of adventurer to convince a man that his ancestors’ treasures are safer in someone else’s care.
Adventurers in the employ of Timbuktu’s libraries are tasked with finding priceless treasure. The histories are the most self-evidently valuable. Manuscripts about regional history that are destroyed or decay into illegibility are historical knowledge that is lost forever – unrecoverable and irreplaceable. Such historical information may be mentioned offhandedly or recorded in the margins of in other texts as well, even scientific texts whose knowledge has been superseded by the world of peer-reviewed journals. Even those offer priceless insights into how the people of the past thought and what they believed. These aren’t just Malian texts, either. Copies of Classical Greek texts once thought lost have been found as Malian manuscripts. Many of the books are thoroughly illustrated, and are valuable for the visual artistry. And some of the books are just plain worth a lot of money: bedecked with jewels and gold leaf.
Let’s look at three quick examples of these institutes.
The Ahmad Baba Institute is a Kuwaiti-funded library with tens of thousands of manuscripts. It has an ongoing program to digitize them. The manuscripts’ illustrations, gold leaf, and gemstones are surely less beautiful in digital form, but in this way, they can be much more broadly disseminated and – theoretically – preserved even after the last of their pages crumble.
The Mamma Haidara Memorial Library is run by Abdel Kader Haidara, the man who gets most the credit in the international press for spearheading the 2012 effort to smuggle manuscripts out of Al Qaeda-occupied Timbuktu. The library is named for Abdel Kader’s father, who bequeathed to his youngest son a rich trove of manuscripts. These were start of his library.
The Timbuktu Andalusian Library was founded by Ismael Diadié Haidara, who claims descent from a noted 16th-century Songhay historian and from Roderic, the Last King of the Goths, a Spanish king from around the time of the Moorish conquest of Iberia. The Timbuktu Andalusian Library is funded partially by Spain, and partially by a clever system where foreign donors can adopt an individual manuscript in the collection.
First image: credit to Emilio Labrador, released under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.
Second image: credit to the Library of Congress