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A Future For Timbuktu's Ancient Books? Conservation And Digitalization

Mali's "mysterious city" welcomes a new class of students trained in looking after ancient books. From conservation to digitization of these works, a colossal task awaits them to preserve this endangered heritage and the secrets they contain.

Abdul Wahid shows a manuscript from the 14th century at his house in Timbuktu, North of Mali.

Abdul Wahid shows a manuscript from the 14th century at his house in Timbuktu, North of Mali.

Manon Laplace

Updated Nov. 13, 2023 at 6:30 p.m.

TIMBUKTU — In the workroom of the Ahmed-Baba Institute of Higher Studies and Islamic Research, time seems to have slowed down. As the dust and the sound of brushes on paper float by, six students hold in their hands one of the most precious heritages of the region.

Ceremoniously, they repeat the same gestures: lifting the pages, one by one, with the tip of a thin wooden spatula, then, with the flat of the brush, ridding the inks and the centuries-old papers of dust.

There are about 30 of them, coming from all over the country to be part of the second class of book and ancient manuscript professionals within this emblematic establishment in Timbuktu.

Mohamed Diagayete, director general of the Ahmed-Baba Institute, says of the unique role of the city in central Mali: "In Timbuktu, we find manuscripts from all over the region, witnesses of the richness of the exchanges that took place here at one time. Beyond saving these manuscripts, it is a question of highlighting the history they tell. They are wells of science and knowledge, dealing with astronomy, medicine, arithmetic, theology or law.”

Past greatness

Since 2019, Diagayete has directed the training of codicologists, curators, librarians and those leading digitization efforts who will be responsible for making this heritage live on in the future.

The thousand-year-old city, which was a crossroads of trade and knowledge in medieval times, has seen an influx of researchers and apprentices from all over the world who have come for training. The manuscripts, whose origins trace from Niger to Mauritania through Algeria, are witnesses of the past greatness of the region.

The manuscripts belong to the whole world

"Timbuktu has shone brightly in history, and the crisis it has been going through for several years has caused it to fall far behind. It is extremely important that these manuscripts, witnesses of this glorious history, be revalued and adapted to the current context," says Boubacar Ould Hamadi, president of the interim authority of the Timbuktu region.

The precious works, which date back to the 9th century, provide a historical correction to the redundant narrative that has always reduced Africa to just oral traditions, denying the continent its rich written history. This ethnocentric version is contradicted by hundreds of thousands of pages of travelogs, poems and scientific treaties.

Long left to the mercy of time and wear, these relics have been the subject of a safeguarding plan since 2015, under the impetus of several international partners such as UNESCO. At the time, the precious codices were piled up between Timbuktu and Bamako. Marked by the passage of dust, insects and bad weather, the manuscripts must again be saved.

Manuscripts of the Ahmed Baba Centre.

Manuscripts of the Ahmed Baba Centre.

UNESCO Bureau of Mali / Wikipedia

Destroyed works

In 2012, many works, still preserved in Timbuktu, left the north of the country in extraordinary conditions under the occupation of jihadist groups.

“Some were hidden in the neighborhoods, others left for Bamako on carts, on donkeys, on dugout canoes, in trucks," says Mr. Alkhamiss, head of the conservation laboratory. The manuscripts don't belong to Timbuktu, they belong to the whole world. That's why there have been so many efforts to save them.

At the time, the threat was an entirely different one: that of heavily-armed fighters aboard pickup trucks flying the Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda in the Maghreb flags. The insolent were punished, and many cultural and heritage assets were lost.

“There have been a few miracles," says Mohamed Diagayete. “Those who saved the manuscripts took all the risks.”

While an estimated 4,203 works were destroyed during the occupation, 300,000 of them are still kept in Bamako, waiting for the security situation to stabilize in the north. The institute in Timbuktu has about 10,000 of them.

"When they are handled, the manuscripts are subject to deterioration. If they degenerate, it is a heritage and a knowledge lost forever," warns Mr. Alkhamiss in front of his apprentices whose gestures he inspects with a vigilant eye. "What we have here is the history of Africa, the history of the world. We can't let this heritage be lost. If it disappears, history no longer exists.”

Why is Timbuktu called the mysterious city?

Timbuktu is often called the "mysterious city" due to its historical role as a remote and vital center of trade, culture, and scholarship in the Sahara Desert during the medieval Mali Empire. Renowned for its wealth from trans-Saharan trade, scholarly heritage, and architectural significance, Timbuktu became a symbol of an exotic and inaccessible place. Its reputation was fueled by its difficult-to-reach location, contributing to the city's enigmatic aura. Today, Timbuktu's blend of historical importance, cultural richness, and its role as a UNESCO World Heritage site keeps its mystique thriving.

What are the Timbuktu manuscripts?

The “Timbuktu manuscripts” is a blanket term for the substantial collection of historical documents and writings preserved in Timbuktu, Mali, reflecting the intellectual and scholarly achievements of West Africa during the Mali Empire's zenith in the 13th to 16th centuries. They cover subjects such as astronomy, mathematics, medicine, law, and literature, often in Arabic and local languages.

What was the jihadist occupation of Timbuktu?

The jihadist occupation of Timbuktu took place in 2012 when Islamist extremist groups took control of the historic city in northern Mali. This period followed a coup in the country and the initial takeover of northern regions by Tuareg rebels seeking independence for northern Mali.

However, the Tuareg rebels were soon overshadowed by the Islamist groups, leading to the imposition of a strict form of Sharia law in the areas they controlled. This occupation resulted in the damage of cultural heritage sites, displacement of the local population, and raised international concerns about the preservation of Timbuktu's historical and cultural significance.

In response to the jihadist occupation, French and Malian forces launched Operation Serval in January 2013, aiming to reclaim control of northern Mali. The intervention successfully drove the extremist groups out of major cities, including Timbuktu, but the region continues to face complex security challenges.

Brush strokes and patience 

To train the future guardians of the manuscripts, the institution is receiving about 357,000 euros in funding from the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (Minusma) and support from the University of Hamburg.

"We start by dusting and storing the manuscripts. Once this heritage is safe, we will have to open the contents to the public, particularly by digitizing them and doing important inventory work," explains Maria Luisa Russo, an Italian expert on ancient books and coordinator in Mali for the University of Hamburg project, which has been piloting the program since 2015.

Many have been trafficked and have left the country or the continent

Sheltered from light and weather behind the high earthen walls of the Ahmed-Baba Institute, the books are now in the hands of students. Once the potential pests have been removed, with the help of brushes and patience, the bulk of the work remains. Their writings, mostly in Arabic, must be digitized in order to open the immemorial secrets of "the city of 333 saints" to the world.

Deputy Director Abdoulaye Cisse explains how over 10000 manuscripts were hidden and saved at the Institut des Hautes Etudes et de Recherche Islamiques Ahmed Baba in Timbuktu, North of Mali.

Deputy Director Abdoulaye Cisse explains how over 10000 manuscripts were hidden and saved at Ahmed Baba Centre in Timbuktu, North of Mali.

UN Mission in Mali

Access to researchers 

"The manuscripts are an integral part of Timbuktu's culture. They tell the story of the city, the story of the scholars who came here, the story of its saints. Timbuktu is called 'the mysterious city,' and the manuscripts contain part of these mysteries," says Professor Maïga, who is in charge of the computer modules at the institute.

The next step will be to catalog them by subject in order to provide access to national and international researchers.

"They represent a considerable contribution to the historical study of the many disciplines they address," says Russo.

But "there is a long way ahead," warns Russo. To date, it is impossible to quantify the number of manuscripts that Mali possesses: "In Timbuktu, Bamako, Djenné and Gao, many of them still are in private family collections. Many have been trafficked and have left the country or the continent.”

Private collections may be preserved in inadequate conditions and a great deal of work remains to be done to raise awareness. Still threatened, the centuries-old manuscripts, once opened to the public, will contribute to the influence of the "Pearl of the Desert," eternal city of knowledge and traditions.

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