A Race Against Time for Timbuktu’s Famed Collections

With Salafist mobs succeeding in toppling and defacing Sufi shrines in Libya last year, it should have come as no surprise Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), imitated these acts while spreading guns and anarchy south. Having failed to hold Timbuktu, AQIM set out to destroy centuries-old manuscripts stored in (mostly) private libraries. While the corpus contains extensive local commentary on Islamic jurisprudence (fikh), it includes other material retrograde elements deem “un-Islamic”.

Through a set of extraordinary events, local custodians of more than 300,000 rare manuscripts (foremost among them Abdelkader Haidara,  who spent decades acquiring and caring for what is perhaps the most significant of the local collections, previously housed in the Mamma-Haidara library),  managed to secret most of the volumes to  Bamako, 700 kilometers away. About half of the manuscripts went by road, and the other half by water, down the Niger River from Timbuktu and across the inland sea to Djenne, where 300 taxis took them the rest of the distance.

Now, the West African intellectual trove faces another threat: the elements. If they are not protected, the manuscripts, many of which are friable, will not withstand the rainy season, which begins in a few weeks. Each volume must be isolated, and individually boxed – at a cost about 30 dollars per book. To cover this, supporting organizations have started a fundraising campaign, seeking relatively modest amounts to stave off the most immediate threat, through boxing/ isolation, application of desiccants, etc.

The Timbuktu trove contains histories and travelers accounts, commentaries on Islamic jurisprudence (fikh), as well as commercial transactions and treatises on medicine, slavery and astrology. The chronicles constitute the main primary sources on the history of Islamic West Africa from the 12th to the 18th century, and debunk the widespread notion that pre-Colonial Africa produced no written sources worthy of mention. The Timbuktu collections yielded significant works by black-African intellectuals– like “Tarikh es-Soudan” (a history of the Songhai empire, written by Abdel Rahman Ibn Abdallah al Saadi in the late 1500s), and Tarikh al-Fattash (“A Seeker’s History”), believed to have been written by Al Hajj Mahmoud Kati in the 1600s, and the Tadhkirat al Nisyan (“Notes to the Obivious”), by an anonymous author. These three works provide a rare and unique perspective on the social and political history of West Africa during this time, including commentary on not only the local pre-colonial dynasties, but also Arab, Tuareg, Jewish and other peoples prior to the Moroccan invasion of the 16th century (backed by the British, who sought to eliminate any potential threat to its interests in the Transatlantic slave trade).

This situation is one among many within the context of the “Arab Spring”, or “Arab Revolutions” that collectively underscore the need for new multilateral/ binational mechanisms to safeguard cultural and human heritage in times of immediate crisis, working with local authorities where possible (before, during and after a crisis) to draw up contingency plans, deploy expert conservationists, and lobby for defensive action; to fill the gaps as the international organizations ramp up to provide longer term solutions. Of course, the direct human cost of hot conflict must be of paramount concern, but addressing these two issues is not mutually exclusive:  collateral cultural losses are often the result of basic neglect, not mis-prioritization of resources. Are we about to lose another major piece of human history, for lack of a few million dollars?