Centuries old manuscripts in peril

BENOIT TESSIER / REUTERs A museum guard picks up boxes holding ancient manuscripts, which were partially damaged by Islamist rebels, at the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu on Jan. 31, 2013

Timbuktu’s Ancient Libraries: Saved by Locals,  Endangered by a Government

By Vivienne  Walt

One week after Islamic militants fled Timbuktu under French bombing strikes, preservationists are deeply uncertain about how to  continue protecting the city’s priceless ancient documents — a conundrum that  cuts to the heart of how treasures are safeguarded through political upheaval in  places where locals have little trust in government.

When French and African forces rumbled into northern Mali’s  ancient capital 10 days ago, Timbuktu’s mayor, who had little direct  information, told journalists erroneously that the jihadists had destroyed “all  the important documents” and that Malians needed to “kill all the rebels.”

In fact, Timbuktu’s residents and preservationists had told TIME early last  year that they had rescued tens of thousands of manuscripts before the militants  seized northern Mali. They agreed to talk on the condition that TIME kept their  secret until the jihadists had been defeated. The operation was conducted by  Timbuktu’s old families, which have looked after the city’s 300,000 or so  ancient documents for centuries. The residents left behind just a few hundred  manuscripts in Timbuktu’s only publicly run collection, the Ahmed Baba  Institute, in order to conceal the fact that they’d hidden the bulk of them  elsewhere; it was those that were destroyed last month. “The vast majority of  belligerents are illiterate, and we don’t want them to know how valuable these  are,” Stephanie Diakité, an American in Bamako who runs workshops on the  manuscripts, told me before the French and African forces freed Timbuktu. “We  want them to think that they are just silly books.”

Now that impression is gone forever. Even those jihadists who are illiterate  are likely aware of the manuscripts’ high value, given the headline news  generated by their potential destruction. Timbuktu’s libraries comprise one the  most detailed written accounts of Africa, from when the city was a gold- and salt-trading hub in the 15th and 16th centuries with a thriving  community of scholars and several universities. When TIME visited Timbuktu in  2009 to describe the manuscripts, residents explained that each family appointed  one of their children to look after the documents for the next generation — a  system that has lasted through countless migrations, invasions and skirmishes  over the years.

But with the manuscript pages brittle — they can crumble at the lightest  touch — preserving them has become urgent. Not only are they fragile, but they  might be especially vulnerable during Mali’s unsettled conflict, since such  periods of upheaval often lead to the looting and trafficking of historical  treasures. Preservationists also fear that as young Malians become more mobile  they might sell them, especially as foreign collectors have begun scouting for  treasures in Timbuktu during the past decade. Until very recently, Mali had no  law forbidding the manuscripts from leaving the country, and in any case, the  government had little means to stop them.

Changing this will not be easy. To the frustration of preservationists, only  about 10% of Timbuktu’s documents are housed in the government-run Ahmed Baba  Institute, a modern adobe-style building sponsored by the South African  government in 2009, which has the city’s only state-of-the-art digitizing  equipment. The families have had no confidence in anyone but themselves looking  after their collections. International organizations have found locals extremely  reluctant to give their manuscripts over for safekeeping or even to loan them  for brief periods to be digitized.

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