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 The Timbuktu manuscripts - a premature lament?

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nordmann
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PostSubject: The Timbuktu manuscripts - a premature lament?   Sun 03 Feb 2013, 10:31

Reprinted from The Guardian 28th January (I had written a lengthy post on the same topic and lost it in transmission. This article however covers all the same points - and tragic news)


Islamist insurgents retreating from Timbuktu set fire to a library containing thousands of priceless historic manuscripts, according to the Saharan town's mayor, in an incident he described as a "devastating blow" to world heritage.

Hallé Ousmani Cissé told the Guardian that al-Qaida-allied fighters on Saturday torched two buildings that held the manuscripts, some of which dated back to the 13th century. They also burned down the town hall, the governor's office and an MP's residence, and shot dead a man who was celebrating the arrival of the French military.

French troops and the Malian army reached the gates of Timbuktu on Saturday and secured the town's airport. But they appear to have got there too late to rescue the leather-bound manuscripts that were a unique record of sub-Saharan Africa's rich medieval history. The rebels attacked the airport on Sunday, the mayor said.

"It's true. They have burned the manuscripts," Cissé said in a phone interview from Mali's capital, Bamako. "They also burned down several buildings. There was one guy who was celebrating in the street and they killed him."

He added: "This is terrible news. The manuscripts were a part not only of Mali's heritage but the world's heritage. By destroying them they threaten the world. We have to kill all of the rebels in the north."

On Monday French army officers said French-led forces had entered Timbuktu and secured the town without a shot being fired. A team of French paratroopers crept into the town by moonlight, advancing from the airport, they said. Residents took to the streets to celebrate.



The manuscripts were held in two separate locations: an ageing library and a new South African-funded research centre, the Ahmad Babu Institute, less than a mile away. Completed in 2009 and named after a 17th-century Timbuktu scholar, the centre used state-of-the-art techniques to study and conserve the crumbling scrolls.

Both buildings were burned down, according to the mayor, who said the information came from an informer who had just left the town. Asked whether any of the manuscripts might have survived, Cissé replied: "I don't know."

The manuscripts had survived for centuries in Timbuktu, on the remote south-west fringe of the Sahara desert. They were hidden in wooden trunks, buried in boxes under the sand and in caves. When French colonial rule ended in 1960, Timbuktu residents held preserved manuscripts in 60-80 private libraries.

The vast majority of the texts were written in Arabic. A few were in African languages, such as Songhai, Tamashek and Bambara. There was even one in Hebrew. They covered a diverse range of topics including astronomy, poetry, music, medicine and women's rights. The oldest dated from 1204.

Seydou Traoré, who has worked at the Ahmed Baba Institute since 2003, and fled shortly before the rebels arrived, said only a fraction of the manuscripts had been digitised. "They cover geography, history and religion. We had one in Turkish. We don't know what it said."

He said the manuscripts were important because they exploded the myth that "black Africa" had only an oral history. "You just need to look at the manuscripts to realise how wrong this is."

Some of the most fascinating scrolls included an ancient history of west Africa, the Tarikh al-Soudan, letters of recommendation for the intrepid 19th-century German explorer Heinrich Barth, and a text dealing with erectile dysfunction.

A large number dated from Timbuktu's intellectual heyday in the 14th and 15th centuries, Traoré said. By the late 1500s the town, north of the Niger river, was a wealthy and successful trading centre, attracting scholars and curious travellers from across the Middle East. Some brought books to sell.

Typically, manuscripts were not numbered, Traoré said, but repeated the last word of a previous page on each new one. Scholars had painstakingly numbered several of the manuscripts, but not all, under the direction of an international team of experts.

Mali government forces that had been guarding Timbuktu left the town in late March, as Islamist fighters advanced rapidly across the north. Fighters from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – the group responsible for the attack on the Algerian gas facility – then swept in and seized the town, pushing out rival militia groups including secular Tuareg nationalists.

Traoré told the Guardian that he decided to leave Timbuktu in January 2012 amid ominous reports of shootings in the area, and after the kidnapping of three European tourists from a Timbuktu hotel. A fourth tourist, a German, resisted and was shot dead. Months later AQIM arrived, he said.

Four or five rebels had been sleeping in the institute, which had comparatively luxurious facilities for staff, he said. As well as the manuscripts, the fighters destroyed almost all of the 333 Sufi shrines dotted around Timbuktu, believing them to be idolatrous. They smashed a civic statue of a man sitting on a winged horse. "They were the masters of the place," Traoré said.

Other residents who fled Timbuktu said the fighters adorned the town with their black flag. Written on it in Arabic were the words "God is great". The rebels enforced their own brutal and arbitrary version of Islam, residents said, with offenders flogged for talking to women and other supposed crimes. The floggings took place in the square outside the 15th-century Sankoré mosque, a Unesco world heritage site.

"They weren't religious men. They were criminals," said Maha Madu, a Timbuktu boatman, now in the Niger river town of Mopti. Madu said the fighters grew enraged if residents wore trousers down to their ankles, which they believed to be western and decadent. He alleged that some fighters kidnapped and raped local women, keeping them as virtual sex slaves. "They were hypocrites. They told us they couldn't smoke. But they smoked themselves," he said.

The rebels took several other towns south of Timbuktu, he said, including nearby Diré. If the rebels spotted a boat flying the Malian national flag, they ripped the flag off and replaced it with their own black one, he said.

The precise fate of the manuscripts was difficult to verify. All phone communication with Timbuktu was cut off. The town was said to be without electricity, water or fuel. According to Traoré, who was in contact with friends there until two weeks ago, many of the rebels left town following France's military intervention.

He added: "My friend [in Timbuktu] told me they were diminishing in number. He doesn't know where they went. But he said they were trying to hide their cars by painting and disguising them with mud."

The recapture of Timbuktu is another success for the French military, which has now secured two out of three of Mali's key rebel-held sites, including the city of Gao on Saturday. The French have yet to reach the third, Kidal. Local Tuareg militia leaders said on Monday they had taken control of Kidal after the abrupt departure of the Islamist fighters who ran the town.

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'It's an absolute tragedy'
Essop Pahad, who was chairman of the Timbuktu manuscripts projectfor the South African government, said: "I'm absolutely devastated, as everybody else should be. I can't imagine how anybody, whatever their political or ideological leanings, could destroy some of the most precious heritage of our continent. They could not be in their right minds.


"The manuscripts gave you such a fantastic feeling of the history of this continent. They made you proud to be African. Especially in a context where you're told that Africa has no history because of colonialism and all that. Some are in private hands but the fact is these have been destroyed and it's an absolute tragedy."


He added: "It's one of our greatest cultural treasure houses. It's also one of the great treasure houses of Islamic history. The writings are so forward-looking on marriage, on trade, on all sorts of things. If the libraries are destroyed then a very important part of African and world history are gone. I'm so terribly upset at hearing what's happened. I can't think of anything more terrible."


Riason Naidoo, who directed the Timbuktu manuscripts project, said he is still awaiting confirmation of the extent of the damage. "It would be a catastrophe if the reports are true," he said. "I just hope certain parts of the building are unharmed and the manuscripts are safe."


The then South African president, Thabo Mbeki, was inspired by the "intellectual treasure" while visiting Timbuktu in 2001, and initiated a joint project between the two countries. He attended the opening of the Ahmad Babu Institute in 2009. A spokeswoman for the Thabo Mbeki Foundation said on Monday: "We haven't yet heard anything concrete as to what the real story is, so at the moment we can't really comment. We're getting mixed stories."





Last edited by nordmann on Sun 03 Feb 2013, 23:10; edited 1 time in total
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PostSubject: Re: The Timbuktu manuscripts - a premature lament?   Sun 03 Feb 2013, 11:05

There are reports that some of the manuscripts were hidden by locals before the capture of Timbuktu, hopefully the reports are correct.

http://world.time.com/2013/01/28/mali-timbuktu-locals-saved-some-of-their-citys-ancient-manuscripts-from-islamists/
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PostSubject: Re: The Timbuktu manuscripts - a premature lament?   Sun 03 Feb 2013, 22:08

I hope that's right, ID. I always feel a little guilty when I hear of these desecrations and feel so sad about them, sadder than I feel about the deaths of people in these conflicts. I suppose it is because of their scarcity. Not that I even knew they existed before this was reported. But I did feel very depressed about it.

I was reading about the Mali conflict yesterday - the writer saying the two prevailing ideas about it were both either wrong or simplistic. People giving neocolonist reasons behind it, or seeing it as an Islamic takeover were both wrong, and it is the result of 50 years of internal conflicts and flare-ups.

(As an aside, every ten years or so I re-remember that Timbuktu is in Mali - it always seems an unsuitable place for Timbuktu somehow, presumably because I think of Mali as a very poor place indeed, and Timbuktu as exotic. I remember years ago at our National Council of Women someone had been to Mali and she asked us to donate pencils to Mali because the schools didn't have pencils or anything really. It makes complaints of poverty in NZ seem a bit trivial - though that's easy to say when I don't live in poverty.)
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PostSubject: Re: The Timbuktu manuscripts - a premature lament?   Sun 03 Feb 2013, 23:08

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PostSubject: Re: The Timbuktu manuscripts - a premature lament?   Sun 03 Feb 2013, 23:18

I've changed the thread title appropriately, but I'll be more reassured when I see confirmation from a source other than anonymous experts reporting through belligerents. While I can see a requirement for these experts' anonymity we are still talking about 700,000 artefacts. If even a tenth of that number were to be proven to have been destroyed it may represent a stunning victory for those organising their preservation in the direst of circumstances but still amounts to an incalculable loss to our heritage.

Much like I'm still waiting for independent affirmation of the fate of thousands of artefacts from the Iraqi National Museum, another salvage operation that was deemed a "success" over three years ago but the evidence of which success is still awaiting credible verification.
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PostSubject: Re: The Timbuktu manuscripts - a premature lament?   Sun 03 Feb 2013, 23:41

Indeed.
Some years ago I was taken to a small 'museum' in southern Morocco holding a collection of ancient manuscripts. It was in what seemed like the library of a private house with some old fashioned shop display cabinets with open volumes and massed shelves of others with neither security, climate control nor much at all in the way of professional preservation. The owner/curator was an elderly gentleman who showed us round. The whole visit was conducted in Arabic translated into French, as was that entire trip, and my French is, at best, of the rusty school girl variety so I didn't get much beyond the gist of the conversations. My recollection is mainly of exquisite old qur'ans but also volumes that were clearly scientific and mathematical.
Why is it always afterwards you think of all the questions that you didn't ask?
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PostSubject: Re: The Timbuktu manuscripts - a premature lament?   Mon 04 Feb 2013, 05:58

@nordmann wrote:
I've changed the thread title appropriately, but I'll be more reassured when I see confirmation from a source other than anonymous experts reporting through belligerents

Like the Iraqi artifacts, it will be a while before the full story comes out of Timbuktu, if it ever does. Unfortunately a media with little understanding of the locale, it's politics and mainly intent on sensationalism doesn't give a clear picture of events either.
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PostSubject: Re: The Timbuktu manuscripts - a premature lament?   Mon 04 Feb 2013, 10:35

What nordmann calls the destruction of our heritage leads to much thought about who and why it is done. In Iraq, greed was probably the motivation, in Mali, bigotted ignorance and then, in small daily acts there is independent decision. Even in our own lives we make choices about what is to kept, for what reason - and for whom.

Family passions can run high. All trace of a grandparent in my family were removed by his daughters because of his desertion. I own things that through a zig zag path of inheritance must have once had a fascinating origin and about which my hazy knowledge will end with me and doubtless to be flogged on in time - or perhaps destroyed in ignorance. Historians, the guardians of heritage, shudder when such acts as the desecrations in Mali unveil. It is not only what fundamentalists want to impose that brings fear but also what they chose to obliterate to enforce it.
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PostSubject: Re: The Timbuktu manuscripts - a premature lament?   Mon 04 Feb 2013, 22:52

Wasn't there a curator of manuscripts or similar who concealed loads of them from the Taliban when (or should I say "last time") they were the Top Bananas in Kabul?
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PostSubject: Re: The Timbuktu manuscripts - a premature lament?   Mon 04 Feb 2013, 23:06

Gil, you're back! Good to see you.

I recall that too, in their homes and basements wasn't it?
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PostSubject: Re: The Timbuktu manuscripts - a premature lament?   Tue 05 Feb 2013, 14:39

Further update on the manuscripts, it appears that the greatest risk to the documents could be the lack of laws protecting the collection. Combined with the very real threat from foreign 'collectors' who are known to take advantage of the government's inaction.

http://world.time.com/2013/02/04/timbuktus-ancient-libraries-saved-by-locals-endangered-by-a-government/
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