Timbuktu: A Great African History in Danger of Being Destroyed by Arabs

The ancient city of Timbuktu

AFRICANGLOBE – Timbuktu’s thousands of manuscripts are caught in the crossfire as an international intervention force prepares to retake northern Mali from the hands of Algerian and other Arab terrorists. For the archivists faced with the dilemma of a risky evacuation or sitting tight, time is running out.

After the destruction of ancient tombs in Mali’s northern city of Timbuktu early this year and more recently this week, the future of the city’s ancient manuscripts is uncertain. As international organisations discuss an intervention force, the custodians of the manuscripts – the heritage of Mali’s golden age – fear for the preservation of these fragile treasures.

The takeover of Timbuktu by Arab terrorists and the destruction of holy tombs have reminded the world of what wonders reside in the fabled desert city. Not least among them are about 165,000 ancient manuscripts from across the African Islamic world.

Some are in private libraries, some are in state libraries and others are simply kept in people’s homes. All of them are fragile, many of them beautiful and the oldest among them date back to the 10th century.

The manuscripts provide a powerful evocation of Timbuktu’s history. They are links to the 12th and 13th centuries, when African scholars, traders and travellers crisscrossed the Sahara to reach the city that housed one of the world’s greatest universities.

They came on the TV and the radio and said the books were safe … why would they promise if they don’t mean it?

According to tradition, the university was set up by Kankan Musa, the most famous of the Malian kings. He astounded the crowds at Mecca when he arrived with a caravan of camels laden with gold. That inspired many to set off in search of the mysterious Malian empire.

The foreign visitors brought with them thousands of texts containing beautiful illustrations and calligraphy that were exchanged, hidden away or incorporated into the university library. Almost every subject of academic interest is covered, from geography to astronomy and mathematics to jurisprudence. Some are illustrated copies of the Qur’an, others are anatomical drawings. Many of the books still have their original bindings, and some are edged with gold leaf.

Since the Algerian and other Arab terrorists groups Ansar Dine and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) took Timbuktu in April, concerns have been growing for the safety of the manuscripts. There are fears that the Islamists – who were responsible for the destruction of the Al Farouk statue and tombs at the Djinguereber Mosque – may find something objectionable in the texts. There are also many questions about the protection of the delicate parchments on which they are written. When Timbuktu fell, all the libraries closed and many staff members fled to Bamako. Texts kept in homes are simply sitting on shelves or in trunks and cupboards.

The state-run Ahmed Baba Centre, home to some 40,000 texts, is now operating from a sparsely furnished office in the Kalaban Coura neighbourhood of the capital. “I’m concerned that they’re not being kept in the right conditions. The paper is old and delicate, and they need to be in special air-conditioned units,” says Abdulkader Maiga, who stares sadly at pictures of the centre on his laptop. He took over as director just a few months before Timbuktu fell.

Digital Archiving in Timbuktu

Timbuktu manuscript
Malian manuscript on mathematics and astronomy

Moreover, the achingly slow process of trawling through every text, repairing it, translating it and then digitising its contents has ground to a halt. The city is off limits for researchers and academics. “We’d only digitised about 4,000 of an estimated 40,000 texts,” says Maiga. “This job was already going to take years, but who knows when we will be able to start again. This is history for the whole African world that we’re missing, not just for Mali.”

The leaders of Ansar Dine and AQIM in Timbuktu have so far given guarantees that they understand the value of the texts and will not destroy them. “They came on the TV and the radio and said the books were safe. They’ve had the opportunity to do something before now and nothing has happened,” says Abdel Kader Haidara, owner the largest private library in Timbuktu.

“That gives us hope because why would they promise if they don’t mean it?” The fact that many of the texts are about Islamic law and are copies of the Qur’an could count in their favour. It appears that the reason the rebels targeted the tombs was be- cause the Islamists – who are mostly Algerian Salafists – saw them as idolatrous Sufi sites, something that does not apply to the books.

Even if the terrorists keep their promises, there is no guarantee that some of the manuscripts will not be stolen or damaged. Maiga says that there are only a few security guards left at the Ahmed Baba Centre.