Appeal launched to save Timbuktu manuscripts

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Timbuktu’s treasured collection of ancient manuscripts is under threat again, but this time from a more insidious source – moisture damage

Manuscript from Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library, Timbuktu (Picture: Library of Congress)

Earlier in 2013, it was thought that most of the 300,000 precious documents had been destroyed in a fire by Islamic fundamentalists when the northern Mali conflict entered the historic city. However, it appears that only 4,000 documents were burned by the rebels, the rest being evacuated by librarians and archivists.

Dating back over 700 years, the fragile manuscripts range from poetry to commerce records, and are from Andalusia and Southern Europe, Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, and Arab trading ports on the Indian Ocean as well as the region of Timbuktu itself. Local families have long safeguarded their city’s famous library, often in their own homes.

The texts are now being stored in metal boxes used for their evacuation, but are showing signs of damage and exposure to moisture. A public appeal has been launched to save them. The IndieGoGo campaign from Libraries in Exile is seeking to raise $100,000 to buy moisture traps, archival boxes and additional storage, as well as to cover the labour required for the project: $30 would preserve a single manuscript, while $9,000 would protect an entire footlocker. The appeal has already raised over $40,000.

The Libraries in Exile campaign page states that: “The purpose of this campaign is to fund the preservation effort required to store the manuscripts in an archival, moisture-resistant manner during their exile from Timbuktu. If physical harm from the current packing situation continues and if mould and mildew spread in the corpus due to increased humidity, the damage will be devastating”.

The statement adds that the librarians have turned to crowdfunding because “the need to preserve the manuscripts is urgent” and “we can’t wait for governments and organizations with deep pockets to respond to this need.

“It is through the efforts of ordinary people that the manuscripts have been preserved this long, and that they have survived the violence affecting Mali today. Crowdfunding is enabling of participation and we believe this is a key to the sustainable safeguarding of the manuscripts.”

It goes on: “A cultural heritage of this magnitude has incredible power to bring people together. We saw this power when people from all walks of life, whole villages, and speakers of every language in the region gave their time and effort, even under considerable risk, to help us evacuate them to the south. We believe that securing these manuscripts is a positive step towards a process of enduring peace and a reduced toll of human misery for this entire region.”

Dr Abdel Kader Haidara is owner of one of Timbuktu’s biggest private libraries, containing manuscripts dating back to the 16th Century. When the rebels arrived in Timbuktu, under their strict interpretation of Islam, they soon began destroying shrines they considered “idolatrous”. The documents held in Timbuktu were obviously very vulnerable too.

As a precaution, Haidara and other big book-owning families, together with officials of the state-run Ahmed Baba Institute, had already removed most documents from major collections, hiding them in private homes. Haidara estimates that only a few hundred manuscripts were destroyed. However, after the destruction of the shrines, it was obvious a more radical approach was necessary to get the manuscripts to safety. Haidara secured funding from the Prince Claus Foundation in the Netherlands and the German Foreign Office; funding also came from the DOEN Foundation, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Juma Al Majid Centre, Dubai, and the Ford Foundation in the US.

“It was very risky. We evacuated the manuscripts in cars, carts and canoes,” says Haidara. The metal boxes were often concealed under crates of vegetables and fruit, and ferried away gradually. The cars headed for the capital, Bamako, while the canoes travelled to Bamako on the river Niger, via Djenne. The rescue operation continued for three months after the rebel withdrawal, until 2,400 metal boxes containing an estimated 285,000 manuscripts had been delivered to private homes in the capital. The manuscripts have never been kept in optimal conditions, but they been preserved for centuries in a dry desert climate. Now, however, they are in the tropics, with the rainy season imminent. It is also impossible for air to circulate around the documents as long they are stored in metal containers.

“The houses are not air-conditioned and in comparison humidity in Bamako is much higher than in Timbuktu,” says Dr Michael Hanssler of the Gerda Henkel Foundation, which is supporting the restoration efforts financially and logistically. Dr Hanssler has recently returned from a fact-finding mission to assess the condition of the documents.

“This is an untapped treasure trove of unthinkable value, nobody quite knows what’s hidden in these chests,” he told the BBC.

There are plans to renovate a building in Bamako that will have proper storage facilities and a workspace where experts can restore and digitise the documents which, according to Eva Brozowsky, a German paper restoration specialist, have always been an aspiration for scholars working on the intellectual history of Africa.

Dr Haidara estimates that about 20% of the manuscripts are severely damaged and extremely fragile, while another 20% are damaged, but less severely.

Meanwhile Al Jazeera reported on its News Hour programme on June 16th that more than a thousand books and manuscripts looted from the Ahmed Baba Centre had been intercepted by Tuareg rebels near the Algerian border. In Kidal Tuareg fighters say they were ready to hand over the books to UNESCO, but not to the Malian authorities. They expressed fears that the government could be planning to relocate some of Timbuktu’s libraries to Bamako.

In 1988 UNESCO named Timbuktu a world heritage site, and two years later it was added to the list of world heritage sites in danger.

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