At the centre of a vast net of merchants’ routes, Timbuktu was a fabulously wealthy city especially in the 15th and 16th centuries. Gold, ivory, slaves, salt, and other goods transited here before being shipped to northern Africa. Merchants were Tuareg, Mande, and Fulani, but also Europeans adventurers and Berbers. They all led Timbuktu to prosperity; and with wealth came learning. The city became the most important centre of learning in sub-Saharan Africa. Here, scholars of religion, arts, and sciences found a place where to work and share their knowledge. Tens of thousands of manuscripts were meticulously compiled.
When the Moroccans invaded the city in the 1590s, they banned academics and most of their writings were seized and burnt. Yet, a trove of thousands of manuscripts survived persecution and found safety in hidden trunks or buried in the mud walls of mosques, sometimes undetected for generations.
This treasure is in danger of being destroyed and lost forever once again. Since Tuareg rebels took over northern Mali after a coup earlier this year, Ansar al Dine – the guards of religion, one of the movements involved – took control of Timbuktu. Their aim is to create an Islamic state across the whole of Mali, in the mean time they focused on attacking tombs of revered saints and scholars in Timbuktu. Ansar al Dine’s interpretation of Islam has no place for culture and research. Like the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Wahabi of Saudi Arabia, they seem to believe that revering the great scholars of the past is haram or forbidden. The knowledge contained in the manuscripts is seen as dangerous, since what one really needs in life is already contained in the Koran: a line of thought that led to the burning of Alexandria’s library, a gloomy precedent to think of.
The rebels used pick-axes to knock down the tombs of Sidi Alpha Moya and Sidi Mukhtar. They also destroyed the tomb of Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The rebels broke off doors, windows, and wooded gates from Ben Amar’s grave and burned them. They later set fire to the tomb itself, and went on to attack and deface a 15th century red wooden door in the Sidi Yahya Mosque, one of the most famous mosques in Timbuktu, as onlookers sobbed. But the destruction did not stop there.
The Islamist fighters then destroyed two tombs at Timbuktu’s famous Djingareyber mosque. The rebels may next focus on the manuscripts with Sufi content – with which the libraries are filled. So far, the Ansar al Dine rebels have not yet harmed any of them but they are worryingly close
The armed occupation and apparent cultural destruction of Timbuktu come as a major setback for experts attempting to translate, digitalise and preserve these ancient texts. Their goal is to research various aspects of the literature of the handwritten works of Timbuktu and to train young African researchers in the preservation, translation, and digitalisation of the ancient texts for future generations.
The bulk of the Timbuktu manuscripts are currently housed in the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research. While most are in Arabic, some are in indigenous languages such as Songhai and Hausa, written using Arabic script. There are also 25 private libraries in and around the city of Timbuktu. However, only eight of these are open to scholars.
The Timbuktu manuscripts are part of a much larger collection of Islamic writings found in much of West Africa, but also as far afield as Sudan, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Mauritania. These text are important witnesses of the learning achieved by local scholars under the influence of Islam, but are also important for the impact they had on the life and culture of the indigenous African communities.
The Timbuktu manuscripts were already in peril prior to the arrival of Ansar al Dine. Climatic and environmental conditions in Timbuktu (and the wider region) are quite extreme, which combined, pose a considerable threat.
Insects and other vermin that eat paper and other materials, as well as poor quality paper also contribute to the deterioration of the manuscripts. Ironically, one of the rather unexpected elements that the conservation team has found is widespread water damage. Now there is even a more menacing threat – the Ansar al Dine rebels. As they continue their occupation of Timbuktu, many of Mali’s foremost researchers, conservationists, and library owners have fled for Bamako, the capital. This has left behind a void of skilled and knowledgeable experts who know how to handle the fragile manuscripts.
Several private libraries have also been locked while portions of the manuscripts (as well as other precious artefacts) have been removed from the libraries and museums and hidden away in private homes. The question is for how much longer?