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 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 repositories of scholarship in West Africa and the Sahara. Given the large number of manuscript collections it is surprising that Timbuktu as an archive remains largely unknown. Timbuktu’s manuscript collection deserves 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.
In 2003, the South Africa-Mali Timbuktu Manuscripts Project was officially launched and a major achievement of this project was the new library-archive building, which was inaugurated in Timbuktu in January 2009.
When the rebels occupied Timbuktu months ago researchers, librarians and archivists had to flee and to leave the city. The library with all the manuscripts was in danger to be burnt down. Until today nobody can definitely say what really happened, how many manuscripts were saved and how many were destroyed. The following report by the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project from the end of January 2013 describes the difficult and unsecure situation at that time.
Tombouctou Manuscripts Project, Huma (Institute for Humanities in Africa) University of Cape Town
Since the start of this week (end of January) there are reports about the destruction of library buildings and book collections in Timbuktu. It sounds as if the written heritage of the town went up in flames. According to our information this is not the case at all. The custodians of the libraries worked quietly throughout the rebel occupation of Timbuktu to ensure the safety of their materials. A limited number of items have been damaged or stolen, the infrastructure neglected and furnishings in the Ahmad Baba Institute library looted but from all our local sources – all intimately connected with the public and private collections in the town - there was no malicious destruction of any library or collection.
By Sunday January 27 the Ansar Dine rebels had fled Timbuktu. The French army and its Malian partners entered the town on that day.
One of the first reports on Monday morning out of the town was that a library and books had been set alight. A Sky News journalist, Alex Crawford, embedded with the French forces, reported in the evening from inside the new Ahmad Baba building, which is opposite the Sankore mosque. This building was officially opened in 2009 and is the product of a partnership between South Africa and Mali. It is meant to be a state-of-the-art archival, conservation, and research facility. Images showed empty manuscript enclosures strewn on the floor, some burnt leather pouches, and a small pile of ashes. She reported that over 25,000 mss had been burned or disappeared. Additional images showed her going down to the vault of the archives and looking at empty display cabinets. No signs of fire could be seen.
The mayor of Timbuktu, Hallè Ousmane, based around 800 km away, in Bamako, was quoted in various media reports that a library building and manuscripts were torched by fleeing rebels. There is no other evidence but the word of the mayor. News spread to international media and the mayor’s words were reported as hard fact.
We tried all of Monday, since these reports appeared, to contact colleagues in Timbuktu but without success. The town was in a communications and electricity blackout since around January 20, we were told by Malian colleagues; no eyewitness reports had been coming out of the town for more than a week at this point.
Sources from Bamako in the evening reported that Mohamed Ibrahim Cissé, President of the Chairman of the Board of the Cercle of Timbuktu still confirmed, on France 24, that the new Ahmed Baba Institute building had been burned by the Ansar Dine before fleeing.
By Monday night we finally managed to contact our colleague, Dr Mohamed Diagayeté, senior researcher at the Ahmad Baba Institue, now based in Bamako. He heard much the same reports that we heard. However, he added that the majority of the mss. of the Institute was still stored in the old building – opened in 1974 and on the other side of the town, from the new building. He told us that the latest news about the new building, as of eight days before the flight of the Ansar Dine, was that the building had not been destroyed. He said that around 10,000 mss had been stored in the new building since there was no more space for the mss in the old building. They were placed in trunks in the vaults of the new building. Upstairs, where the restoration was taking place and boxes were made there were only a few mss. After seeing Sky News footage, he says that the images were of the few mss upstairs waiting to be worked on by the conservators.
However, by Tuesday morning, Dr. Mahmoud Zouber, Mali’s presidential aide on Islamic affairs and founding director of the Ahmad Baba Institute, told Time, that before the rebel take-over the manuscripts: “They were put in a very safe place. I can guarantee you. The manuscripts are in total security.”
Finally, the journalist Markus M. Haeflinger, writing in Neue Zuercher Zeitung this morning, reports on his interview with the previous and present directors of the Ahmad Baba Institute in Bamako, on how the larger part of the Ahmad Baba collection was hidden and even transported out of Timbuktu during the crisis.
The protection of the cultural and intellectual heritage of this region needs to be enhanced and promoted. The abandonment of the security of Timbuktu nine months ago, the flight of archivists and researchers, and the closure of libraries should not be repeated. We remain in contact with our colleagues in Mali and are keen to establish precisely which manuscripts were damaged, destroyed, or stolen.
(Posted on www.tombouctoumanuscripts.org, presented here by permission of Susana Molins Lliteras, Tombouctou Mss Project. Thank you very much).
Learn more about Timbuktu and its cultural heritage
>>> "Timbuktu librarians protect manuscripts from rebels" (Reuters)
>>> "Timbuktu mayor: Mali rebels torched library of historic manuscripts" (The Guardian)
>>> "Timbuktu ist das Gedächtnis Afrikas" (Die ZEIT)
>>> "Malische Bibliotheksschätze in Geheimaktion gerettet" (Die ZEIT)
>>> "Has the great library of Timbuktu been lost?" (The New Yorker)