Even so, when his staff came to tell him about the fire, he felt a constriction in his chest.
The new library is housed inside a modern building, whose sheer walls are made to resemble the mud-walled homes of Timbuktu. Cisse braved his fear to slip through the back gate on the morning of Jan. 24.
The alarm was still screaming. The empty manuscript boxes were strewn on the ground outside in the brick courtyard. All that was left of the books was a soft, feathery ash.
Cisse then entered the library. The glass cases in the exhibit room were empty. So was the manuscript restoration lab, its white tables blanketed in dust. The manuscripts left out were gone.
But the librarian knew the bulk of the books was in a storage room in the basement. With the alarm still screaming, he walked down the flight of pitch-black stairs.
The room had been locked shut. And he was too afraid to open it, because the mayor of Timbuktu had warned residents that the retreating rebels had mined the town and booby-trapped strategic buildings.
So he waited.
On Jan. 28, a column of more than 600 French troops rolled into the city.
The same day, they came to inspect the institute. They spraypainted in pink the word ‘‘OK’’ in front of each room they cleared, working their way to the basement. They pummeled the locked door. When the door slapped open, Cisse felt as if his chest was about to explode.
They beamed a flashlight into the darkness. In the pools of light, he made out the little bundles of parchments sitting on the rafters. They were where they had left them nearly a year ago, in a room the Islamists had never discovered.
The director-general of UNESCO toured the damaged library this weekend, alongside French President Francois Hollande, who made a triumphant visit to Timbuktu. She described the manuscripts as a global treasure. ‘‘They are part of our world heritage,’’ said Irina Bokova. ‘‘They are important for all of Africa, as well as for all of the world.’’
Cisse estimates that what was lost in the end is less than 5 percent of the Ahmed Baba collection. Which texts were burned is not yet known.
He stresses that all the manuscripts, which date back over 700 years, are irreplaceable. They are hand-written in a variety of scripts, and include ornate illustrations embedded within the text.
The collection is itself only a portion of the estimated 101,820 manuscripts stored in private libraries here, the product of the confluence of caravan routes which passed through Timbuktu and fostered an extensive trading network, including in books. Among the most valuable are the Tarikh al-Sudan and the Tarikh al-Fattash, chronicles which describe life in Timbuktu during the Songhai empire in the 16th century.
‘‘We lost a lot of our riches. But we were also able to save a great deal of our riches, and for that I am overcome with joy,’’ Cisse said. ‘‘These manuscripts represent who we are.... I saved these books in the name of Timbuktu first, because I am from Timbuktu. . Then I did it for my country. And also for all of humanity. Because knowledge is for all of humanity.’’
Rukmini Callimachi can be reached at www.twitter.com/rcallimachi.