Timbuktu's Ancient Manuscripts under Threat

Article excerpt

In June, Ansar al Dine rebels, who took control of Timbuktu following a military coup in Mali in March, started destroying ancient tombs and libraries in the city, some of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Before the destruction, a preservation and study project started by the South African and Malian governments to save Timbuktu's ancient manuscripts for posterity was making progress. Curtis Abraham reports on what is being done to save the manuscripts from further rebel destruction.

IN THE FABLED MALI AN CITY OF Timbuktu, West Africa tradition dies hard. Africans here still use the Niger River for their ancient fishing excursions in locally-made canoes. The past is very prominent in the present. The three great mosques or madrasas (schools) of Djingareyber, Sankore, and Sidi Yahya are a testament in mud architecture to the city's golden age.

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During the 15th and 16th centuries, Timbuktu was a fabulously wealthy African city. It was the city's key role in trans-Saharan trade in gold, ivory, slaves, salt, and other goods--a trade conducted by Tuareg, Mande, and Fulani merchants--which led to its prosperity.

With wealth came learning, libraries, and universities. The city was perhaps the most important centre of learning in sub-Saharan Africa during the 15th and 16th centuries, where scholars of religion, arts, and sciences flourished. During this time, tens of thousands of manuscripts were commissioned and meticulously executed by African academics.

However, when the Moroccans invaded the city in the 1590s, academics and most of their writings were banished by the Moroccans. Miraculously, a treasure trove of thousands of manuscripts survived persecution--and is presently lying untouched in trunks or has been buried in the thick mud walls of mosques for generations.

But now all this is in danger of being destroyed and lost forever. A military coup in March this year has opened a Pandora's Box in the northern part of the country. In late June, Ansar al Dine Tuareg militants, who took control of Timbuktu from their former MNLA Tuareg allies, and whose aim is to create an Islamic state across the whole of Mali, attacked tombs of revered saints and scholars in Timbuktu. These are places of pilgrimage.

Ansar al Dine's strict interpretation of Islam is akin to the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Wahabi of Saudi Arabia where the worshipping of shines (or the wearing of amulets to ward off malevolent spirits) is haram or forbidden.

Destroying the past and future

The rebels used pick-axes and other instruments to knock down the tombs of Sidi Alpha Moya and Sidi Mukhtar. They also destroyed the tomb of Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Timbuktu has 16 such sites

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The rebels broke off doors, windows, and wooded gates from Ben Amar's grave and burned them. They later set fire to the tomb itself, and went on to attack and deface a 15th century red wooden door in the Sidi Yahya Mosque, one of the most famous mosques in Timbuktu, as onlookers sobbed.

But the destruction did not stop there. The Islamist fighters then destroyed two tombs at Timbuktu's famous Djingareyber mosque.

"The rebels are oblivious to the heritage of Timbuktu, as we have just witnessed with the destruction of a number of tombs by the Ansar al-Din," says Shamil Jeppie, director of the Tombouctou [Timbuktu] Manuscripts Project of the University of Cape Town, South Africa. "These are the graves of people highly regarded in Timbuktu and the region. Among them are men who were both saintly and scholars.

"The rebels may next focus on the manuscripts with Sufi content--with which the libraries are filled. It is strange to hope for any person or group to be illiterate but in this case one hopes that they cannot decipher the materials because of their inadequate literacy in the language or script of the materials. …