In fabled city at the end of the earth, a treasury of ancient manuscripts
In Timbuktu the race is on to preserve papers that document a west African golden age
A hot wind stirred up the desert sand. Fida ag Muhammad, a wispy man with a blue-grey turban, hurried across the street. Reaching a mud-brick building, he quickly unlocked its corrugated iron door and pushed it open. A beam of soft early-morning light pierced the darkness. On a metal table covered with a red bath towel sat half a dozen leather-bound manuscripts. Carefully untying the string around a small weathered pouch, Mr Muhammad pulled back its flaps to reveal a sheaf of yellowed papers. Their edges had crumbled away, but the neat Arabic calligraphy was still clear.
“A Qur’an,” he said. “From the 1300s.”
For an outsider, such a remarkable find might seem extraordinary. In Timbuktu and its surrounding villages like Ber, where Mr Muhammad lives, it is commonplace. After centuries of storage in wooden trunks, caves or boxes hidden beneath the sand, tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts, covering topics as diverse as astronomy, poetry, music, medicine and women’s rights, are surfacing across the legendary Malian city.
Their emergence has caused a stir among academics and researchers, who say they represent some of the earliest examples of written history in sub-Saharan Africa and are a window into a golden age of scholarship in west Africa. Some even believe that the fragile papers, which are now the focus of an African-led preservation effort, may reshape perceptions of the continent’s past.
“It has long been said that there was only oral history in this part of the world,” said Salem Ould Elhadje, 67, a historian in Timbuktu. “But these manuscripts come from an African city, a city of black people.”
The Timbuktu of myth is a place at the end of the earth. In reality its location was the key to its development nearly a thousand years ago. With the Sahara directly north and the Niger river south, it was established as a rest stop for travellers and a trading post for gold and salt. By the late 1500s, however, when it formed part of the powerful Songhai empire, it had become known as a centre of great learning.
Books became hugely prized. Travellers from as far as the Middle East brought manuscripts to Timbuktu to sell. Using paper manufactured in Europe, scholars in the town produced their own original work, which was then copied by their pupils. Commercial transactions were recorded – slaves and ostrich feathers were among the goods traded – as were the pronouncements of learned men on everything from the environment to polygamy and witchcraft.
“Every manuscript contains surprises,” said Shahid Mathee, part of a University of Cape Town team studying the manuscripts. “We have even found texts where scholars offer advice on overcoming erection problems.”
Timbuktu’s decline began in 1591 with a Moroccan invasion. But the practice of writing, copying and storing manuscripts lived on here and in other west African cities such as Gao and Kano.
It was not until 1964, at a Unesco conference, that Timbuktu’s literary wealth was recognised. Still, it took a further 37 years for the campaign to document and preserve them to gain momentum.
On visiting Timbuktu in 2001, the South African president, Thabo Mbeki, was shown some of the manuscripts held at the Ahmed Baba Institute, named after the city’s most famous scholar, including a copy of Islamic law dating to 1204. Mr Mbeki was so impressed he declared them to be among the continent’s “most important cultural treasures” and pledged to set up a project to help properly conserve the manuscripts.
After centuries of exposure to the harsh desert climate, abrasive sands and hungry termites, many of the manuscripts are badly damaged. Even those intact, such as Mr Muhammad’s Qur’an, are so fragile the pages may disintegrate when handled. “Every minute, every second, part of a manuscript is being lost,” said Mahmud Muhammad Dadab, a scholar who compares their value to the works of Victor Hugo and William Shakespeare.
With South African money, a £3.5m home for the Ahmed Baba Institute, featuring a museum, archive and rooms for scholars, is being built in the heart of the city, and will open next year. Meanwhile workers are trying to safeguard the institute’s growing stock of 30,000 manuscripts.
In a large room with fans whirring overhead, a team is building made-to-measure cardboard boxes for every manuscript that will provide protection from the dust. Fragile pages are being carefully affixed to special Japanese paper to stop them crumbling.
Across the courtyard, researchers sit in front of computers documenting the contents of each manuscript. Then, with the help of computer scanners, ancient knowledge is uploaded into the 21st century. “We are creating a virtual library,” said Muhammad Diagayete, 37, a researcher who was busy documenting a 1670 text on astronomy written in blue, red and black ink. “We want people all over the world to be able to access these manuscripts online.”
Private collections are also being restored. Outside interest, and funding, has helped to create more than 20 libraries in Timbuktu, from tiny collections with a few hundred documents to Ismael Haidara’s Fondo Kati Bibliothèque, which has more than 7,000 leather-bound manuscripts dating back to 1198. Many were brought from Andalucia, Spain, by his ancestors, who came to Timbuktu in the 15th century.
A few doors down is the Mama Haidara library run by Abdel Kader Haidara, no relation to Ismael, the best-known curator in the city. With funding from US foundations, he is also digitizing his 9,000-document collection, and is building extra rooms for scholars and tourists, as well as an internet cafe.
Before opening the family library, he helped to build up the Ahmed Baba Institute’s collection, travelling all over the region by camel, canoe and car to try to persuade families to part with their manuscripts in exchange for livestock or printed books.
It was a difficult task. Though many families cannot read Arabic, the manuscripts are regarded as precious heirlooms that cannot be sold.
In Ber, a two-hour drive from Timbuktu, Fida ag Muhammad spoke of valuable caches of manuscripts buried in the desert by families fearful that outsiders would try to prise them away.
As a result, experts believe that hundreds of thousands of manuscripts remain in private homes across the region, and the quest to find and conserve them will go on for many years.
“We have to persuade people that they need to be protected and documented,” said Abdel Kader Haidara. “If we don’t read what our ancestors said, we cannot know who we really are.”
Vous n’avez jamais vu Tombouctou? Voici une petite vidéo, assez touristique, de la ville dans ses plus simples attraits, ceux de la vie quotidienne de ses habitants. On y voit, bien sûr, l’architecture typique de la ville, en articulier celle de la mosqué Sankoré. (vidéo de Judith Porter)