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Preserving the treasures of Timbuktu | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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In this Aug. 31, 2012 file photo, fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Islamist group Ansar Dine stand guard in Timbuktu, Mali. (AP Photo, File)

In this Aug. 31, 2012 file photo, fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Islamist group Ansar Dine stand guard in Timbuktu, Mali. (AP Photo, File)

In this August 31, 2012 file photo, fighters from the Al-Qaida-linked Islamist group Ansar Dine stand guard in Timbuktu, Mali. (AP Photo, File)

Paris, Asharq Al-Awsat—Following the recent French military intervention in northern Mali, the discussion of the political and security situation in this corner of Africa gained a greater prominence in the world’s media.‬ It is only recently, however, that the world began to pay attention to the looming danger to the region’s ancient cultural and intellectual heritage.‬ The French press wrote at length about the manuscripts of Timbuktu, which would have been lost forever during the recent battles had it not been for the actions of a number of people who hid them in secure locations far from the eyes of extremists groups.‬

It also discussed the ruins and the ancient mausoleums that these groups had destroyed and noted that during the last 70 years this region has been a growing area of interest for UNESCO, which has added a number of the region’s landmarks to its special program for protecting ‪‬World cultural heritage.‪‬ The director‪-‬general of UNESCO‪, Irina Bokova, accompanied France’s president François Hollande to Mali to reaffirm her organization’s support for plans to preserve these cultural treasures and the legacy of African Islamic civilization as long as there are threats to its existence. ‬
In contrast to Nicholis Sarkozy‪’‬s speech at Dakar University in 2007 that promoted the idea that the African man had neither gone down in history nor contributed to international civilization, conclusive evidence exists that proves the exact opposite is true.

Among this evidence are a remarkable collection of manuscripts in the city of Timbuktu, which is located in northern Mali and has been called ‪”‬the city of 333 saints‪,”‬ ‪”‬the jewel of the desert‪,” and “Timbuktu the mysterious.”

Although its existences goes back to the 12th century, it did not gain widespread fame as a center for intellectual and scientific thought until the time of the Songhai Empire at the beginning of the 15th century, during which it experienced a boom of intellectual activity and a widespread trade in the copy and sale of books—specifically during the rule of Mohamed Askia (1493–1528), who was a great patron of scholars.

A manuscript from Mali with liquid damage and age-related discoloration. (Asharq Al-Awsat photo)

A manuscript from Mali with weather damage and age-related discoloration. (Asharq Al-Awsat photo)

Leo Africanus (Hassan bin Mohamed El-Wazzan El-Zayati) visited Timbuktu in 1526 and described the caravans of scholars, judges and merchants who came to Timbuktu to exchange gold, salt and books. He expressed his admiration of the city’s scholars of algebra and geometry, and style of Qu’ranic recitation in his famed work Cosomographia Del’ Africa (Description of Africa) that can be found in the Library of Rome.

Few Westerners, however, were able to enter the city. The first was the French explorer René Caillié, who visited the city in 1828 and spent thirteen days there without managing to read or even view the manuscripts. Historians themselves did not begin to investigate these manuscripts until a German named Heinrich Barth visited the city and studied the Tarikh Al-Sudan and the Tarikh Al-Fattash—two manuscripts that, after being translated, disclosed valuable scientific and political theories and priceless information about the organization of daily life in Timbuktu. ‬

The content of these manuscripts varies‪ and includes disciplines like medicine, ophthalmology, mathematics, astrology, linguistics, and Qu’ranic interpretation on topics that range from rulings on marriage, divorce and inheritance issues to business etiquette. ‬

‬Mohamd Zabir‪, a well‪-‬known Malian historian and researcher‪, estimated that there are roughly 950‪,‬000 of these manuscripts today‪.‬ A hundred thousand of them are in Timbuktu itself in the hands of ancient families and have been passed down from father to son‪.‬ The rest are located in other regions of Mali like Gao‪,‬ Kayes‪,‬ Ségou‪ and Kidal, as well as the countries of Mauritania‪,‬ Niger‪,‬ France‪,‬ Morocco‪ and Spain, according to the different periods of colonial rule that the area has experienced.‬

Of the family libraries that hold many of the manuscripts, there are several that are especially prominent. These include the Mama Haidara Memorial Library, which contains nearly 9500 manuscripts and‬ is still owned by the Haidara family, well‪ ‬known for its scholars and judges‪,‬ ‪which‬ has received financial assistance from American and British organizations to gather and preserve manuscripts.‬ The Timbuktu Andalusian Library, the Fondo Ka‪’‬ti‪,‬ is owned by the family of Ismael Diadié Haidara, and contains nearly 7000 manuscripts that have now been indexed‪.‬ The Al‪-‬Wangari Manuscript Library is owned by the family of Mukhtar Al‪-‬Wangari and contains texts on Islamic jurisprudence‪,‬ Qu’ranic interpretation‪, and linguistics‪.‬ The most important library, however, is the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research with its collection of nearly 30‪,‬000 manuscripts, most of which are owned by Timbuktu families including that of noted scholar Ahmed Baba.‬ This institute was founded in 1973 and has received funding from many countries, including South Africa‪,‬ Saudi Arabia‪‬ and Kuwait‪.‬

One of Timbuktu's many manuscripts, showing signs of insect damage. (Asharq Al-Awsat photo)

One of Timbuktu’s many manuscripts, showing signs of insect damage. (Asharq Al-Awsat photo)

Georges Bohas, a professor of Arabic at Lyon University who has written extensively on Islamic literature and manuscripts, says that “if 90% of these manuscripts were preserved, then to date only 1% of been translated and 10% of them have been indexed.” However, today the shortage of students devoting themselves to the study of Arabic in Mali has become a real problem, as Arabic translators are now few and far between. The majority of these manuscripts were written in the Arabic alphabet called Ajami that mixes local coastal dialects and Classical Arabic.

Mohamed Zabir, a historian and director of the Ahmed Baba Institute, admits that there is also another problem: the hesitancy of families to surrender their books and manuscripts to the institutes that preserve and index them.

“Many of these families’ libraries were exposed to fire and pillage during Moroccan and French colonialism, and so the Malian families that inherited these treasures do not easily grant their trust,” he says. Many of them continue to preserve these manuscripts in the basements of their homes, in iron boxes, and even under the sands of the country during emergencies.

Jean Michel Djian, the author of The Manuscripts of Timbuktu, attributes the hesitancy of families to present their great written cultural treasures to what he calls “the preference for oral knowledge in Africa and its supremacy over written knowledge.”

He adds, “This has made many of us ignorant of the fact that Africans have left detailed written records since the 13th century … Studying these manuscripts shakes our perception of ‪’the other‪’ and invites us to seriously question‪:‬ Do we Westerners have the right to ignore this great cultural treasure‪, which‬ establishes with written proof that the African man reached knowledge and understanding several centuries before we did, during a time in which we had nothing?”

Djian justifies his words by citing the manuscript Mandi Charter that was written at the end of the 13th century during the reign of Emperor Sundiata Keita‪.‬ This document was long thought to be an African legend until written evidence for its existence was discovered.‬ This evidence has been translated thanks to the cooperation of the French National Library and researchers from France and Mali.‬

More importantly,‬ the study of this ancient evidence has shed light on the existence of an older document that clearly and indisputably discusses the concept of human rights, including concepts like gender equality‪ and political freedoms.‬

A 15th-century manuscript in the Ahmed Baba Institute, translated by a Malian researcher called Saadou Traoré‪, is equally fascinating for historians and political theorists. It contains long chapters on the proper principles of government that indicates that the political institutions of the era in which it was written were mature and sophisticated. The first chapter,‬ for example,‬ discusses which attributes are desirable in a ruler, stressing integrity, temperance and the avoidance of crises.‬ Another chapter discusses the structure of and role of a ruler’s councils of advisers, and argues that they should represent both the rich and poor.‬ The same chapter also discusses how to rule during a crisis or when the ruler is traveling,‬ how to chose judges,‬ as well as other rules and theories—and all a whole century before Machiavelli put pen to paper.‬