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In Timbuktu, Protecting Priceless Manuscripts From Senseless Destruction

In northern Mali, Islamist extremists are on a rampage, destroying Sufi Muslim shrines and historical treasures. In a Timbuktu library, a man has vowed to protect his precious manuscripts from the fundamentalist wrath that has taken over the city.

The Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu (UNESCO/WHC)
The Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu (UNESCO/WHC)
Philipp Hedemann

TIMBUKTU - "If you destroy the library, it's all gone. Everything. Our history, our cultural heritage, our identity. It would mean total loss," says the man who for years has been with the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research library in Timbuktu. He works in the section for medieval manuscripts, archiving and digitizing them.

It's always been a race against the clock, he says, to research and record the precious sheets and scrolls so vulnerable to termites, the ravages of light and more. And it's a race that may now be lost, as the manuscripts he has worked so hard to preserve are threatened with destruction.

For several weeks now, Ansar Dine extremists with links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have been occupying Timbuktu in northern Mali. They have been systematically destroying Sufi Muslim shrines, and the treasures in the library may be the next object of their fundamentalist wrath.

The Ahmed Baba Institute was created in 1973 after UNESCO passed a resolution calling on the government of Mali to establish a center for the preservation of Arab manuscripts -- manuscripts that belie the chauvinistic colonialist assumption that before the advent of the white man there was hardly any culture of writing in Africa.

In the late Middle Ages, Timbuktu's scribes wrote down everything they knew in Arabic, in the Berber language called Tamashek, and in African languages of the Sahel zone. The caravan city at the southern edge of the desert was for centuries not only a center of trans-Saharan trade, but a center for ideas from all over the world. Over time, in a climate of liberal and tolerant Islam, a huge store of knowledge was amassed.

With its many scholars and over 150 Koranic schools, Timbuktu at its peak ranked on a par with Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad as an intellectual hub. According to an old Malian saying "the treasures of wisdom are only to be found in Timbuktu," and researchers believe there are as many as 300,000 manuscripts in northern Mali, dealing with religion, history, philosophy, astronomy, astrology, numerology, biology, geography, grammar, literature, medicine, mathematics, Islamic law and more.

And now, says the library academic: "At least three Ansar Dine men are occupying the new library building. The computers have been stolen. They've spared the manuscripts until now but that can change at any moment."
 In January, as ever more heavily-armed Tuareg rebels who had formerly served fallen Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi returned to northern Mali to fight the Malian Army for the independence of the Tuareg Azawad territory, the library worker fled Timbuktu with his wife and two children to Mali's capital Bamako, which is some 1,000 km (621 mi) to the south.
 Since then the 38-year-old -- who doesn't wish his name published for fear of reprisals by the Ansar Dine "defenders of the faith" -- has been calling friends in Timbuktu almost daily. And what he's hearing scares him. "Ansar Dine has set up a reign of terror in the city. Timbuktu used to be a joyful place, but there's no laughter now," he says.

A frenzied destruction

On April 1, Tuareg tribesmen and Ansar Dine fighters took over control of the desert city. But in a matter of days the Islamists had chased the Tuareg out. They didn't need them anymore, and the Tuareg impeded the imposition of Sharia law.

Now in Timbuktu, women who appear unveiled in public are flogged. If a man and a woman go for a walk together, both are flogged. TV sets and antennas have been destroyed. Only radio is available, and most broadcasts consist of orders issued by the occupiers and religious teachings.

"There's no music, no alcohol, no cigarettes, no jewelry -- no joy. Anybody who can is leaving," says the former library worker. According to the UN, over 120,000 people have already fled to neighboring countries and there are 150,000 displaced Malians within Mali.

The Islamists, many of whom are masked and whose numbers allegedly include Mauritanians, Algerians, Saudis, Afghanis, and Pakistanis, have turned this center of Islamic erudition into a frenzied hell. With fanatical furor, wielding hammers, pickaxes and shovels, screaming "Allahu Akbar" (meaning "God is Great"), they've attacked Timbuktu's centuries-old mausoleums containing the remains of saints (Timbuktu is known as the City of 333 Saints) and announced that they would not rest until all 16 mausoleums, declared World Heritage treasures in 1988 by UNESCO, had been destroyed.

That the helpless UN cultural organization placed Timbuktu on its list of "World Heritage in Danger" last June; that the outraged but powerless head of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, pronounced the Islamist abuse an "attack on humanity;" and that Fatouh Bensouda, the Gambian lawyer who is now Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague called the destruction of the monuments "war crimes' -- all this merely egged the Islamists on to continue their vandalous rampage.

While the graves of saints, for West African Sufis, are sometimes considered even more important than mosques, to Ansar Dine Salafists honoring the saints or the dead constitutes idolatry. They believe that true believers should worship Allah only. Hence all graves higher than 15 cm (6 in) off the ground must be leveled, Ansar Dine spokesman Sanda Ould Bamana told the BBC, claiming that this was in accordance with Sharia law.

Princeton-educated historian Shamil Jeppie also fears that the Timbuktu manuscripts could fall victim to this fanaticism, "particularly Sufi texts and texts containing numbers that the Salafists could take for the blasphemous work of the devil and consequently destroy." 
It can be assumed that many of the fighters have low levels of education -- if indeed any -- and could destroy manuscripts that actually do not conflict with their religious views out of sheer ignorance, adds the researcher from the University of Cape Town who has been studying the manuscripts together with other experts from around the world.

Jeppie has been to Timbuktu several times and says that the precious documents could also suffer damage through neglect and rough handling. But should they be destroyed, "the loss, material and otherwise, would be beyond quantifying. So far we've only been able to research a fraction of the library's holdings," says Jeppie.

30,000 historical documents

What was supposed to protect the manuscripts, which date mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries but with a few thought to date back as far as the 13th century, could now turn out to be their undoing. Over the past few decades, researchers at the Ahmed Baba Institute gathered up to 30,000 documents in northern Mali so that these could be properly stored and researched. The institute, in the words of former president Thabo Mbeki of South Africa (which partially financed the library's building costs), was to become a "center of the African renaissance." 
Before the manuscripts were collected at the institute -- which is named after the scholar Ahmed Baba who died in Timbuktu in 1627 -- families kept their manuscripts at home or in small private libraries, well hidden from invaders that included the Moroccans and the French.

Now that Ansar Dine thugs have forced their way into the Ahmed Baba library, many families regret having turned over the work of their forefathers. Those wishing to reclaim their manuscripts have not been allowed by the extremists to do so.

"The Ansar Dine men are heavily armed. Nobody's going to risk their life to save the manuscripts. Luckily, many families never gave their manuscripts to the library," says the worker who used to proudly guide visitors around the building.

Since tourists -- potential hostages -- no longer come to the oasis city, the manuscripts have become a major tool for the Islamists. They know that by threatening to destroy them they can get international attention and demonstrate their total control over the northern part of Mali. The former library employee hopes they won't play the ultimate card. But it's only a hope.

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