Timbuktu preserves historic manuscripts

TIMBUKTU, Mali — In the darkness of his mud-brick house, Abdoul Wahid Abdarahim Tahar opened one of three metal trunks, pulled out a crumbling manuscript and opened it delicately. The Arabic characters — despite the manuscript being centuries old — were clearly legible.

“This one is an old book,” said Tahar. “Every time I touch it, it breaks apart. I am afraid to touch it now.”

Tahar estimates that he has about 2,700 manuscripts, acquired and carefully kept in the family by generations of erudite ancestors. The manuscripts act as a written record of centuries of Arab and North African culture, dealing with every subject from religion to history, science and medicine. The dry climate of Timbuktu, which lies at the door of the Sahara desert, has done its part to preserve the fragile documents, but time, dust and mice have taken a toll.

Now thanks to about $8,000 in donations from a generous Moroccan benefactor, Tahar is in the process of setting up a proper library in the house of his late grandfather. But much work remains to be done. The library door doesn’t lock, and most of the building is still in ruins.

Timbuktu preserves historic manuscripts
One of Timbuktu's historic Arabic manuscripts has been damaged by termites.
(Nicolas Brulliard/GlobalPost)

There are an estimated 108 such private collections of manuscripts in Timbuktu in various states of conservation, and across the city manuscript owners are starting to realize that there is much to gain from bringing the ancient manuscripts to the fore, from conservation jobs to tourist money and donor funds.

One library that understood the opportunity earlier than others is the Mamma Haidara Manuscripts Library. Thanks to donations from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation and Dubai, the library now employs 15 people and includes computers, scanners, digital cameras and expensive equipment to clean and restore damaged manuscripts.

Built in 1999, the library now welcomes an average of 5,000 visitors a year — either researchers or tourists, said Mohammed M. Toure, the library’s assistant director. While Toure acknowledged the economic benefits that the library offers to Timbuktu residents, he said the library’s ultimate goal is to communicate the manuscripts’ vast knowledge to the outside world.

“Our wish is that the manuscripts be preserved and made available on the internet,” Toure said.

Long a trading post between the Middle East and Africa, Timbuktu became a center of Muslim culture in the 14th century, when the Sankore University was established. In its heyday, the university attracted some of the Muslim World’s preeminent scholars and up to 25,000 students. Timbuktu’s population reached 100,000. It has now dwindled to about 30,000.

During the city’s golden age, thousands of original manuscripts were authored in Timbuktu, and thousands more copies were made from manuscripts written elsewhere in the Arab world. Some were so valuable that they were bought for more than their weight in gold.

Timbuktu’s cultural decline began when Moroccans took control of the city in the 16th century and it accelerated after the arrival of the French at the end of the 19th century when many families hid their manuscripts in desert villages to protect them from seizure by colonial authorities.

It was only in 1973 that Timbuktu initiated its cultural revival with the opening of the Ahmed Baba Center named after one of the city’s illustrious scholars. From a few hundred manuscripts when the center opened, it now houses about 30,000 texts and continually seeks to add to its collections.

“We’re always trying to convince families to donate their manuscripts to the center so that we can make them available to researchers,” said Bouya Haidara, the center’s chief librarian. “The most important is to show the world that Black Africans also have a written history.”

That last point is what piqued the interest of former South African President Thabo Mbeki when he visited the center in 2001. A strong advocate of African renaissance, a concept he pushed while in office, Mbeki helped fund the construction of a new center, which has been completed and will likely open next year. The new center, built at a cost of $800,000, will be able to host 100,000 manuscripts.

Part of South Africa’s contribution also included the training of locals in conservation methods. Alexio Motsi, the head of preservation at South Africa’s National Archives, made several trips a year since 2001 to share his expertise with Malians, but he said he learned just as much in the process. He justified his government’s involvement and that of other outsiders with the knowledge that can be gained from the manuscripts.

“At the end of the day, the manuscripts belong not only to Mali but to the world,” Motsi said.