Timbuktu’s Ancient Libraries: Saved by Locals, Endangered by a 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.
Read more here