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Ahmed Baba Centre by DHK Architects and Twothink Architecture, Timbuktu, Mali

DHK Architects and Twothink Architecture preserve ancient written treasures with a glorious mud cultural archive for Timbuktu. Photography by Iwan Baan

The Ahmed Baba Centre in Timbuktu has the unique mission of preserving and presenting the ancient written treasures that testify for Africa’s intellectual past, challenging the common notion that the continent had only an oral tradition. The new resource centre, the result of a concerted international effort, was designed by South African DHK Architects (Phase 1) and Twothink Architecture (Phase 2), with the Malian architect Baba Cissé as a cultural consultant.

Timbuktu was founded in 1100 AD at the intersection of the main trade routes where the Niger River reaches the Sahara Desert. Between the 12th and 16th centuries it became a focal point for commerce of gold, salt, ivory and slaves, quickly developing into a multicultural city. This pluralistic society attracted thousands of scholars who studied in over 180 madrasas, turning Timbuktu into the cultural centre of Muslim Africa.

Named after one of the most important intellectual figures of Timbuktu, the Ahmed Baba Centre facilitates the restoration and analysis of the writings inherited from those effervescent times.

Manuscripts date from as early as the 12th century and are mainly written in Arabic, with a few exceptions in the local languages Fulfulde, Tamashek and Songhai (the only examples of this language written in the Arabic script so far preserved).

They cover a broad range of subjects from history, theology and law, to astronomy and medicine. In addition, factual documents such as letters, journals and legal papers give an insight into Timbuktu’s society and its polemics, discussing topics such as slavery, divorce or the peaceful coexistence of Christians, Jews and Muslims.

The delicate books from pre-colonial Muslim Africa are highly endangered by climate, insects and poverty. There are currently around 80 private libraries in Timbuktu, yet often the owners don’t have the means or expertise to ensure their preservation. Families also repudiate deciphering the writings out of fear of compromising their ancestry through unpleasant findings. And then there are those who, unable to read Arabic, place little value on their possessions and will sell a manuscript for a few coins.

The first efforts to save the manuscripts were made in 1970 at a UNESCO initiative. Thirty years later, IHERI-AB (Institute des Hautes Etudes et de Recherche Islamique Ahmed Baba) was established as an independent establishment of higher learning, with the legal and financial frame to assure the ‘restoration and conservation, scientific exploitation and dissemination of the manuscripts in possession while also offering services to private collectors and owners’.

The institute is the one of the largest documentation centres in Africa, holding over 30,000 items, yet there are an estimated 700,000 manuscripts in the region. But Mali is among the poorest countries in the world and any preservation efforts are heavily dependent on foreign aid. Help came in 2002 when, after visiting Timbuktu, former South African president Thabo Mbeki offered assistance by committing to support the construction of the IHERI-AB resource centre.

Today, Timbuktu is a slightly surreal place. To get there, it takes two days by four-wheel drive, three days by boat on the Niger River or a shorter journey on one of the rare flights from Bamako, in the south-west of Mali. The city is dominated by the monochrome, uniform tones of clay houses and tangled dirt roads. The doors are always open, bread is baked in mud ovens on the road, and kids are taught on empty street corners, occasionally disturbed by roaring cars and scooters.

‘The first take was just looking at the urban planning of Timbuktu, which had a sporadic and organic growth,’ explains project architect Andre Spies. ‘The interesting spaces in the city became the backbone of the concept. It’s a straightforward approach: a few buildings grouped around a courtyard and walkways, and that is pretty much the way in which Timbuktu grew as well.’

Four separate blocks defined programmatically as the archives, restoration area, researchers’ spaces and the auditorium are spread along a patio. An open amphitheatre makes the connection with the surrounding urban square, drawing in the public from the street. The architects were inspired by the context and built over half the wall surface in the traditional method with clay, engaging the locals in the construction process. ‘It was a big local trade that we could use,’ says Spies. ‘Just the speed with which they built was impressive, because everyone knows how to do it.’

At the crossroad between the new and the old city, across the square from the new library and next to the 15th-century Sankoré Mosque, tourists mingle along with locals and scholars. Indigenous Tuaregs sell traditional craftsmanship in silver, leather and wood, decorated with imagery of their nomadic life, of caravans and sand dunes. In this informal and challenging context, the new Ahmed Baba Centre assumes the difficult role of a subtle mediator between different spaces, different times and different worlds.

Architect DHK Architects, Cape Town, South Africa (phase 1); Twothink Architecture, Cape Town, South Africa (phase 2)
Project team Andre Spies (phase 1); Andre Spies, Valerie Lambrechts (phase 2)
Structural engineer Kantey and Templer
Services engineer Goesain Johradien and Associates

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