Mali: What Happened to the Timbuktu Manuscripts?

Photo: Robert Goldwater Library

As the rebel occupation of the historic city of Mali, Timbuktu, came to an end last week, reports began circulating that the city’s prized manuscripts, which provide insights into 15th and 16th century life in Mali, were destroyed by the rebels.

In a phone interview, Timbuktu’s mayor, Hallé Ousmani Cissé told the French press: “It’s true. They have burned the manuscripts…The manuscripts were a part not only of Mali’s heritage but the world’s heritage. By destroying them they threaten the world. We have to kill all of the rebels in the north.” Cissé added that he received the news from an informer who had recently left the city of Timbuktu.

Rebel occupation

In April 2012, Timbuktu became the battleground for two rebel groups: the rebels seeking secession of Northern Mali and the Ansar al Dine rebels, who sought to implement Sharia law. In June, Ansar al Dine took control of the city: during its occupation, the rebel group destroyed tombs of saints and libraries, some of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Ansar Dine rebels believe that the worship of Sufi saints count as idolatry, a practice that cannot be tolerated. Last week, French troops drove the rebels out of the city.


Conflicting reports: did the manuscripts survive the rebel occupation?

As the week progressed, conflicting reports emerged regarding the status of the manuscripts. A Sky News journalist, Alex Crawford, who was travelling with the French troops, reported from inside of Ahmad Baba Institute building on the day the French troops reached Timbuktu. Crawford reported that approximately 25,000 manuscripts had been burned or smuggled. A Sky News video shows burnt leather pouches and a small pile of ashes.

However, the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project, established in 2002 to research and document the manuscript tradition, confirmed on its website that the manuscripts are safe: a limited number were damaged or stolen. The curators of the libraries in Timbuktu ensured the safety of the manuscripts throughout the rebel occupation of the city. Dr. Mohammed Diagayeté, a senior researcher at the Ahmad Baba Institute told the Tombouctou Manuscript Project that the majority of the manuscripts stored at the Institute were kept at an old building on the other side of the town. He also said that 10,000 manuscripts were stored in the Ahmad Baba Institute: they were placed in trunks in the underground vaults of the building. Upstairs, where the restoration was taking place, only a few manuscripts were stored in boxes. After viewing the Sky News footage, Diagayeté told the Tombouctou Manuscript Project that the video showed images of the few manuscripts stored in the restoration area.

Jean-Michel Djian, a French writer who specializes in West African culture also confirmed that the manuscripts are safe. In a phone interview, he told the New Yorker that “the great majority of the manuscripts, about fifty thousand, are actually housed in the thirty-two family libraries…those are to this day protected.” Djian also noted that two months ago, Abdel Kader Haidara, the owner of his family’s Mamma Haidara Memorial Library, had transported more than fifteen thousand of its manuscripts to the capital city, Bamako, in order to protect them. Djian said that this was also the case for the manuscripts of the Kati Foundation in Timbuktu.


According to the New York Times, when the rebels arrived, the library’s officials explained that the library was an Islamic institution, which gave the officials time to move the manuscripts to a secure location. Despite the removal of the rebels from the city, libraries will keep the manuscripts hidden as they are uncertain that the city will remain secure.

An estimated 30,000 manuscripts resided in the public and private libraries of Timbuktu.

Manuscripts protected through time

A report by the National Geographic quotes Sidi Ahmed, a reporter based in Timbuktu: “the people here have long memories…they are used to hiding their manuscripts. They go into the desert and bury them until it is safe.” When Morocco invaded Mali in 1591, texts were hidden for generations under mud homes and in desert caves by families who feared that they would be confiscated by Moroccan invaders, who banished scholars and their writings. During this period, the intellectual and commercial importance of Timbuktu began to decline. Ahmad Baba, after whom the Ahmad Baba Institute is named, was exiled along with his family. His extensive library was also destroyed. During the French colonial rule, the manuscripts remained hidden, only to resurface in private libraries after 1960, at the end of French colonial rule.

UNESCO Responds

On February 2, 2013, the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Culture Organization’s [UNESCO] Director-General, Irina Bokova, announced that UNESCO will take measures to safeguard the rebuild Mali’s cultural heritage. Bokova appealed to all of UNESCO’s partners to work with the organisation to restore the manuscripts. UNESCO will send a mission to undertake an evaluation of the damage in order to determine the urgency of the needs.

Fear of smuggled manuscripts

Bokova also expressed fears that some texts have been smuggled out of the country or have fallen into the hands of the rebels: “in times of turmoil, the risks of illicit trafficking of cultural objects are at the highest, with Mali’s renowned ancient manuscripts being the most vulnerable.” Citing the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, Bokova urged Mali’s neighbours, Interpol, and the World Customs Organisation to be vigilant to the illicit export of cultural artifacts. “These treasures are extremely valuable and vulnerable. We must act quickly,” she said.

What are the Timbuktu manuscripts?

Timbuktu was the center of the spread of Islam throughout Africa in 15th and 16th centuries, with 180 Quranic schools and 25,000 students. The city was also a crossroads where the trading of manuscripts were negotiated and salt from the north and gold, cattle, and grain from the south were sold. This led to the city’s prosperity and rise in literacy, libraries, and universities, which in return led to the development of tens of thousands of manuscripts by renowned African scholars. The manuscripts provide insights into centuries of civilization, exploring a wide range of subjects such as religion, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, music, literature, poetry, and architecture. At times, the texts were recopied on camel shoulder blades, sheepskins, tree bark, and papers from Italy. The surviving manuscripts include one in Turkish and one in Hebrew.

Further, many of these texts contain family secrets, correspondences, accounts, and diaries, demonstrating that many of Timbuktu’s inhabitants were literate since the 15th century. Families are reluctant to bring these manuscripts to public light as they contain family secrets. Many have been preserved in mud homes and private libraries as they are prized family heritage.

The Timbuktu manuscripts debunk the view that Africa is only characterized by oral cultures and lacks written heritage. The manuscripts demonstrate a link between written and oral heritage. In an article for the Telegraph, Shahid Mathee, a professor at the University of Johannesburg writes: “What Timbuktu’s manuscripts disprove is the old European idea that Africans are incapable of intellectual work – of reading, writing and scholarly endeavour.”

While it is still unclear whether the manuscripts survived the rebel occupation of Timbuktu, the fears raised last week regarding the fate of the Timbuktu manuscripts have brought to the forefront the importance of preserving these texts as they provide an understanding of Africa’s history dating back to the 15th century.

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