January 30, 2015

The fate of Timbuktu’s literary and scientific heritage


Burned manuscript page rescued from Timbuktu (photograph courtesy of Fondo Kati/t160k)

Burned manuscript page rescued from Timbuktu (photograph courtesy of Fondo Kati/t160k)

On January 20, 2013, the Islamist militant group Ansar Dine set fire to the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research in Timbutku. The library and research center there housed 30,000 ancient manuscripts—roughly 10 percent of Timbuktu’s historic literary treasures—collected from all over Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Algeria, the Ivory Coast, Guinea, and Niger, and which cover a range of topics from Sufism and science to art and medicine, include early copies of the Qu’ran, and date as far back as the 13th century and as late as the 20th. The Ansar Dine’s aim was to destroy Timbuktu’s heritage. The reports following the burning of the library were grim, and Malians, academics, and basically anybody who loves books and the history of books deeply mourned the loss and destruction of this heritage.

Then came news that brought a sigh of relief, as we reported in February 2013: more than 27,000 manuscripts had been saved. In the wake of the uprisings in 2012, Timbuktu would spend a year under the militants’ reign of censorship and heavy restrictions. Freedoms and pleasures would be checked, including the famous Festival in the Desert, to which music lovers gathered annually for such vibrant voices and sounds by Toumani Diabaté, Ballaké Sissoko, Oumou Sangare, Salif Keita, and Ali Farka Touré. (The festival continues to be banned today.) But librarians, archivists, and civilians, anticipating the danger their treasures were in, began moving the manuscripts from the Ahmed Baba Institute to various hiding places—to the desert, into their own homes. The work was started in the spring of 2012, and by January the next year, the 27,000 manuscripts were safely moved. What was left behind—“perhaps out of haste,” writes Time correspondent Vivienne Walt, “but also to conceal the fact that the center had been deliberately emptied”—was what the militants found and torched.

In a way it was the manuscripts’ physicality that saved them, having been owned by various families and passed down through generations that constantly faced such threats. But now the manuscripts face a new threat: climactic conditions in Bamako, where they are being preserved and digitized, are eroding the pages. There is “dust that is not the same kind of dust we know in Timbuktu,” according to Dr. Abdoul Kadri Idrissa Maiga, the director of the Ahmed Baba Center for Documentation and Research in Timbuktu. So UNESCO has put together a three-day conference in Bamako titled “Ancient Manuscripts Facing Modern Day Challenges” to plan for long-term conservation. The conference (whose program is in French) started two days ago on January 28.

So Timbuktu’s manuscripts have been saved; so its manuscripts continue to be saved. Meanwhile, the city itself is further scrutinized: the film Timbuktu has hit theaters. The New York Times closed its starred review with the following: “Timbuktu is a political film in the way that The Bicycle Thief or Modern Times is a political film: It feels at once timely and permanent, immediate and essential.” Directed by the Mauritanian Abderrahmane Sissako and nominated this year for an Oscar for best foreign film, Timbuktu is set in 2012, when the militants entered and began bullying the city into submission. The mayor of Villiers-sur-Marne, a Paris suburb, briefly banned the film, while Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita showed solidarity with France following the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

With any luck, more stories as similarly nuanced as Timbuktu will be shaped. For now, the focus must be on the preservation of history.


Wah-Ming Chang is the managing editor of Melville House.