Close

Donate today to keep Global Voices strong!

Our global community of volunteers work hard every day to bring you the world's underreported stories -- but we can't do it without your help. Support our editors, technology, and advocacy campaigns with a donation to Global Voices!

Donate now

See all those languages up there? We translate Global Voices stories to make the world's citizen media available to everyone.

Learn more about Lingua Translation  »

Mali: Timbuktu, a Cultural Treasure in Peril

The name Timbuktu conjures up a majestic, stately image all over the world. However the war in northern Mali and the presence of small extremist groups constitutes a serious threat to the fate of the town.

In a press release [fr], Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, describes her worry about the risk this fighting poses to Timbuktu's global cultural heritage:

D’après des informations récentes publiées par la presse, les rebelles ont pénétré dans le site et des tirs y ont été entendus. Le Mali compte trois autres sites du patrimoine en plus de Tombouctou : les Villes anciennes de Djenné, les Falaises de Bandiagara (pays dogon) et le Tombeau des Askia.

According to recent press information, rebels have penetrated the city and shots have been heard. Mali has three other heritage sites in addition to Timbuktu: the old towns of Djennéthe Cliff of Bandiagara (Dogon region) and the Tomb of Askia.
Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu. Image from Wikipedua, License Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu. Image from Wikipedua, License Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

In the 15th and 16th centuries, the city of Timbuktu was a centre for culture and propagation of the Muslim faith, which reached far beyond Mali's borders. There were universities where scholars would come to teach about the Muslim world.

There are still three Grand Mosques: Sidi Yahia, Djingareyber and Sankoré, which date back to its golden age, but are threatened by the advancing sand. In these buildings especially there is a large number of books.

However, the fear is that, with people fleeing to neighbouring countries or other regions within Mali in a bid to avoid recent fighting, humanity will lose a priceless treasure for ever. Christelle Marot, a Casablanca journalist and blogger on the riches of Timbuktu's written documents, states [fr] on africultures.com:

Ces 25 000 manuscrits ne seraient que le sommet de l'iceberg. On estime à près de 100 000 le nombre d'écrits aux mains des familles de Tombouctou, sans compter les collections privées détenues par les habitants des régions de Kidal, Gao, Ségou ou Kayes, qui pourrait conduire au chiffre édifiant de 700 000, voire un million pour le Mali et la sous-région. Certains ouvrages, soustraits aux regards et aux pillages des étrangers durant la colonisation, seraient encore enfouis sous le sable.

These 25,000 manuscripts are thought to be just the tip of the iceberg. It is estimated that almost 100,000 documents are in the possession of the families of Timbuktu, not counting the private collections owned by residents of the Kidal, Gao, Segou or Kayes regions. There could be 700,000 or even a million documents in Mali and its sub-regions. Some works, protected from view and from looting by strangers during colonisation, are thought to still be buried beneath the sand.

During an exhibition organised by Timbuktu's Fondo Kati library to promote the renaissance of Hispano-Muslim culture and to help raise awareness of the shared heritage and strong links, which previously united Spanish towns and regions such as Andalusia and Toldeo with the Niger Bend, journalist Salimata Diouara wrote [fr]:

Selon M. HAÏDARA, l'explorateur Mahmoud Kati a laissé derrière lui plusieurs milliers de manuscrits, écrits en arabe, en hébreu et en espagnol, actuellement conservés dans la bibliothèque familiale Fondo Kati de Tombouctou. Cette bibliothèque a été créée par Mahmoud Kati, fils d'Ali Ben ZIYAD et de Kadidia SYLLA qui est la grande sœur de l'empereur Askia Mohamed. Elle comprend 14.000 manuscrits dont 7.000 sont déjà répertoriés.

According to M. Haidara, explorer Mahmoud Kati left behind him many thousands of manuscripts written in Arabic, Hebrew and Spanish, which are currently kept in the Fondo Kati in Timbuktu. This library was founded by Mahmoud Kati, son of Ali Ben Ziyad and Kadidia Sylla, the elder sister of the Emperor Askia Mohamed. It contains some 14,000 manuscripts, 7,000 of which are already indexed.

According to the website tombouctoumanuscripts.org, South Africa financed the construction of Nouvel Institut Ahmed Baba [fr] at a cost of 2.5 billion CFA Francs (381,000 euro). The Institute's premises measure 4,800 m2 and include a 500-seat ampitheatre, a 300-seat conference room and a library:

possède actuellement une collection d’environ 30000 manuscrits collectés grâce aux efforts de quelques personnalités exceptionnelles telles que le Dr Mahmoud Zubayr, premier directeur du centre, et Abdul Kader Haidara qui a travaillé pour CEDRAB avant d’établir sa bibliothèque personnelle. Ce chiffre de 30000 manuscrits est encore quelque peu conservateur si l’on considère le nombre estimé de manuscrits existant dans la région.

[This centre] currently houses a collection of around 30,000 manuscripts collected thanks to the efforts of a few exceptional individuals such as Dr Mahmoud Zubayr, the centre's first director, and Abdul Kader Haidara who worked for CEDRAB before founding his personal library. The figure of 30,000 manuscripts is still somewhat conservative considering the number of manuscripts thought to exist in the region.

Christelle Marot also reminds us [fr] in her post on Africultures mentioned above:

l'Arabie Saoudite et le Koweït ont donné près de 45 millions de francs CFA [Euros 68 602]au centre Ahmed Baba, outre les actions déjà menées par l'Unesco, la Norvège et le Luxembourg.  Pour les privés, ce sont des fondations qui interviennent largement….

Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have given almost 45 million CFA Francs [68,602 euro] to the Ahmed Baba centre, in addition to actions already taken by Unesco, Norway and Luxembourg. For those who are deprived, these are the foundations that are deeply involved….
The black flag of Islamist fundamentalists flies over Timbuktu by Boubacar Bah on Twitter

The black flag of Islamist fundamentalists flies over Timbuktu by Boubacar Bah on Twitter

What will become of this treasure? After the city of Timbuktu was dramatically taken by Toureg rebels and then the Islamist groups of Ansar Dine and Al-Qaïda in the Maghreb (Aqmi), many are experiencing anxiety over the answer to this question.

In a post entitled “Après les Bouddhas de Bamyan, les manuscrits de Tombouctou?” (After the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the manuscripts of Timbuktu?) [fr], Hervé Bar quotes Hamady Bocoum, director of the African Institute of Basic Research (Ifan) in Dakar:

Des manuscrits uniques (près de 100.000) sont conservés depuis plusieurs siècles à Tombouctou, ville savante, ville des 333 saints, où pratiquement chaque concession est un patrimoine, une bibliothèque “Possession des grandes lignées de la ville, ces manuscrits, les plus anciens remontant au XIIe siècle, sont conservés comme des trésors de famille dans le secret des maisons, des bibliothèques privées, sous la surveillance des anciens et d'érudits religieux.Ils sont pour la plupart écrits en arabe ou en peul, par des savants originaires de l'ancien empire du Mali. Ces textes parlent d'islam, mais aussi d'histoire, d'astronomie, de musique, de botanique, de généalogie, d'anatomie…Autant de domaines généralement méprisés, voire considérés comme “impies” par Al-Qaïda et ses affidés jihadistes. L'exemple funeste des Bouddhas de Bamyan, dans le centre de l'Afghanistan, vient immédiatement à l'esprit.

Unique manuscripts (numbering almost 100,000) have been conserved for centuries in Timbuktu, a city of scholars, of 333 saints, where practically every concession is a heritage, a library for “Possession of the city's descendants, these manuscripts, the oldest of which date back to the 12th century, are conserved as secret family treasures in houses, private libraries, under the supervision of elders and religious scholars. They are mainly written in Arabic or Fulani, by scholars from the ancient empire of Mali. These texts are about Islam, but also history, astronomy, music, botany, genealogy, anatomy and so on. So many areas that are generally regarded with contempt, or considered “unholy” by Al-Qaida and its jihadist accomplices. The fateful example of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, in central Afghanistan, immediately comes to mind.

Guy Alain Bembelly [fr] reminds us that this city has been listed as a world heritage site since 1988:

Tombouctou est un vrai grenier du savoir didactique dans les domaines de l’astronomie, de la musique, de la botanique, de l’histoire (sur l’histoire du Soudan au xve siècle). Le centre de documentation et de recherches Ahmed-Baba (Cedrab), fondé en 1970 avec l’aide de l’UNESCO, recueille certains de ces manuscrits pour les restaurer et les numériser. Ce trésor culturel est à préserver. Il faut y aller…

Timbuktu is a real treasure trove of didactic knowledge of astronomy, music, botany, history (the history of Sudan in the 15th century). The centre de documentation et de recherches Ahmed-Baba (Cedrab), established in 1970 with the help of UNESCO, has taken some of these manuscripts to restore and digitise them. This cultural treasure must be preserved. We must get to work…

In his post, Bembelly quotes [fr] several phrases attributed to intellectuals who lived in Timbuktu, including Ahmed Baba (1556-1627), whose words are displayed at the centre named after him:

Ô toi qui vas à Gao fais un détour par Tombouctou. Murmure mon nom à mes amis et porte-leur le salut parfumé de l’exilé qui soupire après le sol où résident sa famille, ses amis, ses voisins.

Oh you who travels to Gao, take a detour to Timbuktu. Murmur my name to my friends and give them the perfumed greeting from the exile who sighs after the sun where his family, his friends, his neighbours live.

Unfortunately the turn of events leaves no room for doubt that the worst case scenario from a military standpoint seems to be happening. In fact, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA), which declared its secularity and its desire to find a certain respectability, seems to be giving way to other more extremist movements.

Moussa Haïdara, a cameraman who filmed the arrival of the convoy of Ansar Dine fundamentalists in the city under the supervision of  Tuareg Iyad Ag Ghaly, quoted in a post published on the website slateafrique.com, stated [fr]:

Ils sont venus avec cinquante véhicules. Ils ont pris la ville, chassé les gens du MNLA et brûlé leur drapeau, pour mettre à la place le leur sur le camp militaire de la ville.

They came with 50 vehicles. They captured the city, chased the people of the NMLA out and burned their flag, replacing it with their own at the town's military camp.

Receive great stories from around the world directly in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the best of Global Voices
* = required field
Email Frequency



No thanks, show me the site