Readers of this blog may remember a post from January about the still-unfolding saga of the manuscripts of Timbuktu, Mali. The city, whose name evokes the romance of the exotic to American ears, is a quiet desert town today, but historically was a center of trade and culture. The legacy of that past is thousands of irreplaceable historical manuscripts. Long-term efforts to preserve and organize these texts were ongoing when Timbuktu was overrun by Ansar Dine, a radical Islamist group with links to Al Qaeda. In keeping with their ideology, the rebels destroyed cultural sites that didn’t fit their narrow interpretation of Islam, including burning texts at the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Studies and Islamic Research. However, unknown to Ansar Dine, the bulk of the valuable manuscripts from that and other libraries and private collections in Timbuktu were already gone. The inspiring story of the fate of Timbuktu’s manuscripts emerged slowly.
Adbel Kader Haidara is a Timbuktu local who has served as protector of his family’s extensive library since he was 17. For decades, he has been involved with efforts to preserve and share the rich manuscript legacy of Mali. In peaceful times, he traveled the country, convincing some holders of family collections to donate or sell them to the Ahmed Baba Institute and encouraging others to implement modern conservation techniques and shared cataloging and scanning projects. His family collection became the Mamma Haidara Memorial Library, opened in 1998. These manuscripts depict a wide variety of topics--both ancient Korans and other religious texts and secular works of history, trade, mathematics and astronomy. Their importance to scholars is hard to overstate.
When the manuscripts were threatened, Haidara, with the help of local librarians and others, packed them tightly into footlockers and stowed them around Timbuktu. When the Ansar Dine occupation threatened to expose the manuscripts, Haidara enlisted the assistance of Stephanie Diakité, a governance specialist and book conservator with whom he has worked for many years. Together, they developed a plan to smuggle the books out of Timbuktu to safe houses in southern Mali. Couriers moved the footlockers by donkey carts, trucks, buses and boats. It is a story of courage and tenacity to inspire us all.
However, the 300,000 manuscripts are now in danger not from political unrest but from the elements. The deterioration that had been taking a slow toll on the materials in hot, dry Timbuktu has been exacerbated by the smuggling process and more humid conditions in the south. Diakité and Haidara are spearheading a new campaign to get the manuscripts into archival, moisture-resistant storage before they are lost. As of June 6th, a crowdsourcing effort has raised $23,062 of a desired $100,000.
What is the best long-term home for these manuscripts? It is important to everyone involved that they stay in Mali. As Diakité stated in a recent Reddit Q&A, “Patrimony that leaves it's home has a very hard time getting back - there are numerous collections of African patrimony in that nebulous state already. This patrimony is Malian, we will do everything possible to keep it in Mali until we can return it to its families in Timbuktu.”