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Timbuktu Manuscripts

The fight to save the ancient texts of Timbuktu


Located at the gateway to the Sahara desert in what is now Mali, within the confines of the fertile zone of the Sudan, Timbuktu is one of the cities of Africa whose name is the most heavily charged with history.  Founded in the 5th century, it became an intellectual and spiritual capital, reaching its golden age in the 15th and 16th centuries.  

Around seven hundred years ago, it was a bustling hub where travellers from Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, Egypt, and Morocco met to trade in salt, gold, ivory and unfortunately, slaves.  But it wasn’t only ‘goods’ that were exchanged. Timbuktu was a place where ideas, philosophies, intellectual thought, and religious beliefs came together in a dynamic mix, and one of the primary ways in which such ideas were exchanged was through the sale of books.  According to a description of Timbuktu in 1526 by the diplomat Leo Africanus, “more profit is to be made there from the sale of books than from any other branch of trade.”

The ancient texts of Timbuktu are an impressive sight – bundled in camel skin, goat skin, or calf leather and inscribed in gold, red, and jet-black ink, their pages are filled with words in striking calligraphy from Arabic and African languages, and contain an intriguing array of geometric designs.  

Timbuktu ManuscriptsToday, there are literally hundreds of thousands of such ancient manuscripts in private households, and while in most cases archaeologists condemn private ownership of ancient relics, in this case, it was what enabled the texts to survive.  Over the years, many such manuscripts were ruined or stolen by the parade of powers who ruled over Timbuktu, including the French, who colonised Mali between 1892 and 1960, and terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda who last year invaded Timbuktu, destroying tombs and burning any ancient manuscripts they found. 

But many manuscripts survived because their owners smuggled them out of Timbuktu to safety, coordinated by Abdel Kader Haidara, who orchestrated the rescue by donkey and boat. And the manuscripts are indeed worth saving – subjects in the collections, spanning the 13th through 17th century, include the Koran, Sufism, philosophy, law, maths, medicine, astronomy, science, poetry and much more.  “Every book has answers, and if you analyse them you can learn solutions,” said Haidara. “Everything that exists now, existed before now.”

The manuscripts provide a window into the minds of the times' leading thinkers as they pondered the meanings of their circumstances.  Passed down through generations of Timbuktu’s ancient families, they offer a tantalizing history of a moderate Islam, in which scholars argued for women’s rights and welcomed Christians and Jews.

What Haidara accomplished is no less than a miracle. In total, he is responsible for smuggling more than 300,000 manuscripts to the safe-haven of Bamako. They endured bribes, violence, conflict and danger to get them there, concealing the precious texts in cars, carts and canoes and in boxes under piles of vegetables and fruit.

However, in a cruel twist of fate, the manuscripts now face a new danger – rot.  Moving from a hot, dry climate to a cooler location introduced new weather conditions that could ruin the manuscripts.  If physical harm from the current packing situation continues and if mould and mildew spread in the corpus due to increased humidity, the damage will be devastating.

But all is not lost; an initiative called the Timbuktu Libraries in Exile Project has launched efforts to save the manuscripts and to ensure they are preserved for the future.  The purpose of this project is to store the manuscripts in an archival, moisture-resistant manner during their exile from Timbuktu.  

An international fundraising effort has been started to raise the necessary funds for the preservation effort, and they are very close to their goal of $100,000.  To contribute to the Libraries in Exile Project, click here.

Whatever your politics, whatever your religion, whatever your past, we can all agree that learning from our collective history is something worth fighting for.

By April Holloway

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April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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