Researcher Puts Timbuktu Manuscripts in Perspective


The following is a statement by researcher Mohammad Mathee regarding the alleged destruction of manuscripts (mss) in Timbuktu, Mali.

“I work as a researcher on the Timbuktu manuscripts once part of the UCT-Tombouctou Manuscripts Project though based at the University of Johannesburg now. I do not think it is as straightforward as BBC and other media are reporting it of Islamic extremists burning the Ahmad Baba Centre. From the news coming in from Mali, the report in the Guardian, BBC etc. is exaggerated. The new building has not been torched (in fact, it seems the Ansar al-Din guys and ilk took care quite nicely of the building).

According to a senior researcher at the Ahmed Baba Centre, 10 000 ms were placed in the vault of the new building (the archival library built by the South African government and civil society). However, according to Dr. Mahmoud Zoubeir, first director of the Ahmed Baba Centre and advisor to former and ousted President Ahmadou Tomane Toure the 10 000 mss were long removed to safety.

It is possible that the empty boxes are of manuscripts destroyed during the process of restoration. Restoration is a continuous process at the Ahmed Baba Centre – and other private libraries such as the SAVAMA consortium – as mss come in from all over the region (Azawad); this I saw when doing research at Ahmed Baba. However, a colleague doing her research in Timbuktu as well told me that these are a few mss.

It is also possible that the empty boxes are of mss stolen; mss are stolen all the time in Timbuktu and sold (usually to some Westerner for a variety of motives).

While it is possible that the Ansar al-Din destroyed things in their hasty retreat, it must not be ruled out that the French created the story to, 1. Give greater legitimacy to their illegal invasion, and 2. That in the case of them destroying mss in Timbuktu (as happened in Iraq), the blame will then fall on the stupid Ansar al-Din. The media (BBC and ilk) as embedded pen mercenaries were all too happy to report on torched buildings and mss.

What is important for academics is not simply to be shocked and flabbergasted, but to pay attention to Timbuktu (now and always). This great African city with its intellectual heritage has a lot to offer. If there are reportedly 100 000 mss of which 31 000 are at the Ahmed Baba Centre then academics must think what a tragedy it is for knowledge that perhaps only 1 000 have been read and worked on (here I exclude those Malians and Timbuktians, not professional academics). Here we too must pay tribute to John Hunwick (who is probably devastated), other academics and especially the UCT-Tombouctou Mss Project that has been working without on the mss for the last 9 years.

Most importantly, we pay tribute to the brave people of Timbuktu.

7 thoughts on “Researcher Puts Timbuktu Manuscripts in Perspective

  1. Reblogged this on Guy Debord's Cat and commented:
    I learned a long time ago not to trust BBC News. Orgreave and 9/11 are just two examples out of a massive list I could reel off, given the time. And so it is with the alleged burning of ancient manuscripts at the library in Timbuktu. This blog from Lissnup questions the BBC’s report but also the assertion that Islamist terrorists are on a mission of wanton destruction. The other day someone on my Twitter timeline – a Tory or some right-winger – linked Timbuktu with the Taliban’s destruction of the massive Buddhist statues carved into a mountain in Afghanistan. The frothing anger was palpable, even through the Internet. The question for me always was, “Why would Muslims, referred to as ‘Islamists’ want to destroy something written by other Muslims”? It just didn’t make sense. The only reason our media would say such a thing is to provoke outrage and therefore convince the public to accept the need for an endless war in the Sahel, the Maghreb and perhaps, the rest of the West African region.

  2. Mohammed has a good fix on the situation. I’ve worked on mss from Bornu (s. of Timbuctu) and also on larger historical issues , as well as more current dynamics, of the Sahel. These documents are protected for generations by the families and I’ve no doubt that many were retrieved and placed in safe havens. This was done when the French colonialists were beginning to establish their rule in the early 19th. century, and also during other times of unrest. As for whether the current French deliberately spread stories of their destruction, let’s wait and see. I have a blog entry on the area – and will soon be adding another on historical backgrounds:

  3. The government of Mali had instituted the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research (CEDRAB-the abbreviated title it is generally referred to in French) in Timbuktu in 1973. The origins of the centre go back to a meeting convened by Unesco, in 1967 in Timbuktu, when planning its multi-volume history of Africa. At the end of the meeting a resolution was passed calling on the government of Mali to establish a centre for the preservation of Arabic manuscripts in Timbuktu. The centre was built primarily with funding received from Kuwait and immediately began its collection of manuscripts.

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