Scholars used donkey carts, boats, and teenage couriers to smuggle a priceless collection out of Timbuktu.

In 2012, jihadists—armed to the teeth with weapons seized in Libya after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi—overran northern Mali and established a brutal, sharia regime in Timbuktu. Once a center of learning and culture, the city housed a priceless collection of manuscripts: volumes of poetry, encyclopedias, and even sexual manuals that invoked the name of Allah. Threatened with destruction, the manuscripts were spirited out of the city to safety in a thrilling, cloak-and-dagger operation.

Speaking from his home in Berlin, Joshua Hammer, a former Newsweek bureau chief in Africa, recounts the tale of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts—and explains how the Timbuktu manuscripts disprove the myth that Africa had no literary or historical culture, why Henry Louis Gates had an epiphany when he saw them, and why the jihadists found them so threatening.

Timbuktu has become a byword for the farthest corner of the earth. But it was once an important cultural and artistic center. Put us on the ground during its golden age.