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Damage limitation

Islamist rebels destroy precious manuscripts in Timbuktu, Mali

The recent invasion and occupation of the northern part of Mali by groups of Islamist rebels brought havoc to the region. The imposition of a particularly draconian form of Sharia law was accompanied by the wanton ‘purging’ of cultural sites and artefacts deemed at odds with the extreme Islamist views of the occupying Ansar Dine, the so-called ‘Defenders of the Faith’. This began with the razing of ancient shrines of Sufi saints (the Sufi version of Islam being considered especially idolatrous) and culminated in the Ahmed Baba Centre in Timbuktu being deliberately torched as the militants were finally driven out of the city by French troops at the end of January.

Reviewed in the AR in April 2010, the Ahmed Baba Centre was purpose built to house a unique collection of Mali’s historic manuscripts. Covering an array of subjects from poetry to astronomy, these fragile, calligraphic treasures testify to the richness of Africa’s cultural and intellectual past, challenging the commonly held notion that the continent could only sustain an oral tradition. Ironically, in view of recent events, many were polemical tracts on issues such as slavery, divorce and the possibility of peaceful coexistence between Christians, Jews and Muslims. Now part of this priceless heritage is lost forever.

Between the 12th and 16th centuries, Timbuktu became an important centre for commerce through the trading of gold, salt, ivory and slaves, and quickly coalesced into a vibrant, multicultural city. This pluralistic society attracted thousands of scholars, transforming Timbuktu into the pre-eminent cultural locus of Muslim Africa. Today some 700,000 manuscripts are estimated to exist in various libraries and private collections, but as Mali is desperately poor, preservation efforts are largely dependent on foreign aid.


Exterior shot of The Ahmed Baba Centre as dusk falls

The Ahmed Baba Centre was a joint venture between Mali and South Africa, initiated after a visit in 2002 by South Africa’s then president Thabo Mbeki, whose government donated funds to assist in the research and archiving of Mali’s written heritage. Two South African practices, DHK and Twothink Architects, collaborated on the centre’s design with local firms. Project architect Andre Spies of Twothink talked exclusively to the AR from Cape Town. ‘Of the 30,000 manuscripts in the centre’s collection most were evacuated
to Bamako [the Malian capital] as the rebels advanced on Timbuktu’, he said. ‘Some 2,000 were left in the building and of those around 1,400 were burnt and destroyed. But the archive is subdivided into a series of smaller strong rooms and somehow one of these remained undiscovered by the militants, so about 600 of the manuscripts survived.’

‘Fortunately, damage to the building is not as severe as reported by some South African and other international media’, he continued. ‘The fire affected the documents rather than the building. Water damage was worse; taps were opened in the male ablution area and water poured down into the basement archive. My main concern now is that the surviving manuscripts need to be kept in strictly climate-controlled conditions, with a very low level of humidity. Moving them to Bamako will subject them to a potentially harmful hot and humid environment. But at least they are safe for the time being.’

However, as impoverished Mali struggles to recover its equilibrium, the nuances of heritage preservation would seem to be a low national priority. And as the militants, mainly Tuareg tribesmen, have dispersed into the desert rather than being definitively routed, they may attempt to regroup and launch further assaults. Parts of Timbuktu’s old town have UNESCO World Heritage status and could still be at risk if the conflict reignites. During their tyrannical tenure, Ansar Dine radicals threatened to destroy the three great mud mosques of Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia, even though these sacred sites played a pivotal role in the early Islamisation of Africa. Burning books, a dependably despotic act with many resonant historical precedents, clearly proved a much easier option.

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