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Not far from the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu, proud cattle herder Kidane lives peacefully in the dunes with his wife Satima, his daughter Toya, and Issan, their twelve-year-old shepherd. In town, the people suffer, powerless, from the regime of terror imposed by the Jihadists determined to control their faith. Music, laughter, cigarettes, even soccer have been banned. The women have become shadows but resist with dignity. Every day, the new improvised courts issue tragic and absurd sentences. Kidane and his family are being spared the chaos that prevails in Timbuktu. But their destiny changes abruptly.
Dr. Mohamed Diagayeté, PhD, is a senior researcher at Ahmad Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research in Timbuktu. He was heavily involved in the secret operation to move thousands of ancient Arabic manuscripts from Timbuktu to Bamako during the Islamist occupation of the Malian town in 2012. Join us to hear Dr. Diagayeté discuss his work as part of the book discussion for The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, a story describing the heroism of historians and archivists who worked to save these historical documents from destruction.
So the lecture from Dr. Diagayeté will start at 7:00 and the book discussion will happen at around 8 (give or take some question answer). Same time, same room, same awesome discussion. I hope to see you there!
In 2012, thousands of Al Qaeda militants from northwest Africa seized control of most of Mali, including Timbuktu, threatening to destroy tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts. In his book, journalist Joshua Hammer tells the incredible story of how librarian Abdel Kader Haidara and his associates rescued some 370,000 historical manuscripts. A book signing follows the program.
When Islamist rebels set fire to two libraries in Timbuktu earlier this year, many feared the city’s treasure trove of ancient manuscripts had been destroyed. But many of the texts had already been removed from the buildings and were at that very moment being smuggled out of the city, under the rebels’ noses.
“These manuscripts are really precious to us. They are family heirlooms. Our history, our heritage,” says Dr Abdel Kader Haidara, owner of one of Timbuktu’s biggest private libraries, containing manuscripts dating back to the 16th Century.
“In our family there have been generations and generations of great scholars, great astronomers, and we have always looked after these documents.”
When Islamist rebels took over Timbuktu last year, looking after the documents began to look like an impossible task.
Under their strict interpretation of Islam, the rebels soon began destroying shrines they considered “idolatrous”. The documents held in Timbuktu since its glory days as a centre of Islamic learning in the 13th to 17th Centuries were equally vulnerable.
As a precaution, Haidara and other big book-owning families, together with officials of the state-run Ahmed Baba Institute, had already removed most documents from major collections, hiding them in private homes.
After the destruction of the shrines, it became clear a more radical approach was necessary.
“We realised we needed to find another solution to take them entirely out of Timbuktu itself,” says Haidara. “It was very difficult. There were loads of manuscripts. We needed thousands of metal boxes and we didn’t have the means to get them out. We needed help from outside.”
Dr Haidara, who masterminded the rescue, with boxes of manuscripts Image copyright Eva Brozowsky
With approval from 35 key families, Haidara went in search of funding, which he secured from the Prince Claus Foundation in the Netherlands and the German Foreign Office, among others.
But there was a major problem – the rebels often searched vehicles leaving Timbuktu, and if they found manuscripts they would certainly confiscate or destroy them.
“It was very risky. We evacuated the manuscripts in cars, carts and canoes,” says Haidara, who launched the operation in October, frequently concealing the metal boxes under crates of vegetables and fruit.
“One car could only take two or three metal boxes at the most. So we did it little by little.”
The cars headed for Bamako, via Mopti, the last government-controlled town in Mali during the Islamist occupation of the North.
The canoes – part of local transport in northern Mali for centuries – travelled to Bamako on the river Niger, via Djenne.
When in January of this year the insurgents torched two libraries belonging to the Ahmed Baba Institute, as they were retreating from Timbuktu, the covert rescue operation was already half-complete – and the libraries themselves had been all but empty for months.
Haidara estimates that only a few hundred manuscripts were destroyed.
Ashes of burned books Image copyright AFP
As the situation in the north remained volatile, however, the rescue operation continued for three months after the rebel withdrawal, until 2,400 metal boxes containing an estimated 285,000 manuscripts had been delivered to private homes in the capital.
In Bamako, however, the papers now face threats of a different kind.
Having been preserved for centuries in a dry desert climate, they now find themselves in the tropics, with the rainy season about to start.
“The houses are not air-conditioned and in comparison humidity in Bamako is much higher than in Timbuktu,” says Dr Michael Hanssler of the Gerda Henkel Foundation, who has just returned from a fact-finding mission to assess the condition of the documents.
It’s impossible for air to circulate around the documents as long they are stored in metal containers. Mould usually develops at humidity levels of 60%, and levels as high as 80% are expected in July and August.
Efforts are now under way to renovate a building in Bamako that will have proper storage facilities. Windows are currently being bricked up in order to protect the manuscripts from daylight, insects and heat.
There will also be a workspace where experts can restore the documents and digitise them for scholars worldwide to study.
“The manuscripts of Timbuktu have always been an aspiration for scholars working on the intellectual history of Africa,” says Eva Brozowsky, a German paper restoration specialist, who examined six of the chests in Bamako in April.
The 2,000 documents she had access to were from Islamic North and West Africa, but also from the Middle East, and covered commerce and diplomatic relations as well as commentaries on the Koran, jurisprudence and Arabic linguistics.
“This is an untapped treasure trove of unthinkable value, nobody quite knows what’s hidden in these chests,” adds Hanssler, whose foundation is supporting the restoration efforts financially and logistically.
The manuscripts have never been kept in optimal conditions, Hanssler says.
“Some of the documents have been damaged in the past by insects or water. Others have suffered from being exposed to dry air in Timbuktu, and the leather covers have become brittle and have cracked.”
The manuscript paper itself – thought to have originated from the region around Venice in Italy – has aged substantially. As a result the documents have become fragile and fragmented, and some of the writing has faded.
Haidara himself estimates that about 20% of the manuscripts are severely damaged and extremely fragile, while another 20% are damaged, but less severely.
While the security situation in northern Mali remains uncertain the manuscripts should stay in Bamako, he says, but he won’t hear of them being taken out of the country.
“The day there is a lasting peace in Timbuktu we will return them to Timbuktu. But until that time comes we must preserve them well – put them in boxes, restore them, catalogue them and digitise them.”
When they go back, it won’t be in canoes or under piles of vegetables, and hopefully many will be in better condition than when they left.
Dr Abdel Kader Haidara was interviewed on the BBC World Service programme Newshour.
Timbuktu has often been invoked as a symbol of the most distant place on Earth, as a mysterious and exotic, but unreachable, attraction. Yet, it is a real city with a history.
Indeed, it has a rich and diverse heritage and a fascinating past. The city and its desert environs are an archive of handwritten texts in Arabic and in African languages in the Arabic script, produced between the 13th and the 20th centuries. The manuscript libraries of Timbuktu are significant repositories of scholarly production in West Africa and the Sahara. Given the large number of manuscript collections it is surprising that Timbuktu as an archive remains largely unknown and under-used. Timbuktu’s manuscript collections deserve close study. It is a significant starting-point for reflecting on Africa’s written traditions.
Recognising its significance as a site of African architecture and of its scholarly past, Unesco declared Timbuktu a World Heritage Site in 1990.
A South Africa-Mali Timbuktu Manuscripts Project was officially launched in 2003 and a major achievement of this project was the new library-archive building, which was inaugurated in Timbuktu in January 2009.
The Tombouctou Manuscripts Project at the University of Cape Town (UCT) is dedicated to research various aspects of writing and reading the handwritten works of Timbuktu and beyond. Training young researchers is an integral part of its work.
Imagine a city in 16th century West Africa where thousands of Black African students pondered over the latest ideas in science, mathematics, and medicine. A fabled town in the middle of the scorching desert, overflowing with countless numbers of valuable books, expensive crafts, exquisite fabrics, and unrivalled gold jewellery! Imagine a community of highly cultured, wealthy people whose forbidden streets were the subject of legends and whose ochre walls were sought after by some of the greatest adventurers of the times.
From its grand mud structures which have stood the test of time and still fulfil their role as centres of prayer and learning, to the collections of scrolls and writings hidden in chests buried under the desert sands, Timbuktu is a treasure of African intellectual and spiritual History.
The story begins with a Tuareg woman named Buktu who founded a settlement in the 11th century, some 12 kilometres (eight miles) north of the Niger River flood-plain along the southern edge of the Sahara. It was a perfect resting place for the nomadic Tuareg who roamed the desert in the rainy season and were in need of a malaria-free base for their animals to graze during the scorching heat of the summer.
Buktu’s camp had fresh water wells, and she would protect their heavy goods when they left the camp at the first rains. This small, seemingly insignificant campsite, known as “Tim-Buktu” or the well of Buktu became the cornerstone of a thriving, bustling city.
To an enlightened centre of learning
DSC03284 Timbuktu’s skyline has always been dominated by its houses of worship. It is to the famous mosques that the old city with its triangular layout owes its different quarters. These adobe mosques have become famous throughout the world for their unique shapes and their long histories. In the northern quarter, at the apex of the triangle lies the Sankore Mosque with its pyramid shaped minaret laced with protruding wooden support beams. It was here that the Sankore University housed its thousands of students and produced some of the greatest scholars in Africa.
Timbuktu is a reminder of what we can achieve Tb4 003Today, many of these great works have been unearthed from private collections and stored in documentation centres. The most famous is the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation which began its collection around 1970 through a UNESCO educational grant. Named after one of the greatest scholars in Timbuktu history, this centre has been chosen by President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa as the focus of a major drive to preserve the manuscripts of Timbuktu and train Malians in modern art of archival science.
African History by Africa
Passage way in the mosque in Timbuktu
Timbuktu’s history has come to us from a series of historical works or Tarikhs written from the mid 17th century through the 18th century. These well written Arabic treasures enable us to enter the African world of scholarship and deep intellectual thought.
Some of them were bound with beautiful leather binding and have stood the test of time. The most famous chronicle in this period was the Tarikh-as-Sudan, or the History of the Sudan, written in 1653 by Timbuktu’s most illustrious historian ‘Abd ar-Rahman as-Sa’di.
Timbuktu lives on The first non-Muslim to enter the city was the French explorer Rene Caille on April 20, 1828. He was disappointed at the state of the buildings of Timbuktu but noted that “apparently all of the population could read the Qur’an and even know it by heart.” The golden age of Timbuktu had passed but the spirit of scholarship and piety still remained.
DSC03024Timbuktu with its thousands of manuscripts and its deep legacy destroys racist notions of Black inferiority and educational backwardness. Timbuktu gives solid proof of a powerful African past and an unbroken chain of African scholarship. Timbuktu also brings out Islam’s great legacy of development in Africa and its proper place in the annals of African achievement. It’s well preserved lessons of spirituality and peace making may very well hold some of the answers to today’s complex problems of war and never ending conflict.
Maybe the heat of the desert sands and the emptiness of its expanse can provide direction for the African Renaissance and even the whole human race.
On Wednesday 6th March 2013, Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation organised a public lecture entitled “The Manuscripts of Timbuktu and Islamic Writing in West Africa: from the veneration of objects to the object of their veneration”, delivered by Charles Stewart, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Visiting Scholar at Northwestern University’s Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa.