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New home for ancient texts in Timbuktu

26 January 2009

South African President Kgalema Motlanthe visited Mali on the weekend to witness the official opening of a new state-of-the-art facility built with South African help to house and preserve the Timbuktu Manuscripts - priceless ancient documents which are thought to hold the key to some of the secrets of Africa's history and cultural heritage.

Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure joined Motlanthe at the opening of the new facility, which forms part of the South Africa-Mali project initiated by former president Thabo Mbeki in 2002, following a visit to Timbuktu in 2001.

The project, a flagship cultural initiative of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad), set out to conserve the manuscripts by building a state-of-the-art archive to house them at the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Islamic Studies in Timbuktu.

The largest collection of manuscripts, numbering about 30 000, is housed in the Institute, named after the famous 15th century Timbuktu scholar Ahmed Baba. The rest of the texts are housed in the private libraries of families in and around the city.

South African involvement

The new facility, built at a cost of between R50-million and R60-million, boasts an archive capable of housing all 30 000 manuscripts in the Institute's collection, with temperature and humidity controls necessary to provide the correct conditions for preserving the manuscripts.

The building also comprises a conservative laboratory, an auditorium, an outdoor amphitheatre, a public library and administrative offices.

Between 2003 and 2005, South Africa's Department of Arts and Culture trained five Malians in document restoration and preservation, and sent South African conservators to Timbuktu to work with the group.

South African academics, led by Shamil Jeppie of the University of Cape Town, are also involved in studying and deciphering the documents as they build a digital archive to complement the manuscript collection.

Speaking to journalists in Pretoria earlier this month, the department's SA-Mali project manager, Riasen Naidoo, said it had "not been an easy road" getting the new building completed on schedule.

Timbuktu is remote, to say the least - it is about 1 000 kilometres from the capital, Bamako, the last 200km of which is desert. Conditions are also fearsome: temperatures can reach up to 52 degrees Celsius in summer.

Naidoo told journalists that the non-profit Timbuktu Manuscripts Trust, chaired by former Minister in the Presidency Essop Pahad, had independently raised R45-million to go towards the project.

"Timbuktu: script and scholarship", an exhibition of around 40 of the Timbuktu Manuscripts, also toured South Africa last year, marking the first time these priceless, delicate manuscripts had left the windy sands of Mali.

Dr Eltie Links, chairperson of the board of South Africa's Iziko Museums, which helped to organise the exhibition, said that, thanks to the SA-Mail project, the world's readers and thinkers were now endowed with a largely unexplored intellectual legacy.

Ancient African texts

The Timbuktu Manuscripts - or Mali Manuscripts - some of which date back to the 13th century, are Arabic and African texts that hark back to city's glorious past, when Muslim merchants traded gold from West Africa to Europe and the Middle East in return for salt and other goods.

Written in a variety of styles of Arabic calligraphy by scholars and copyists who were part of an African Islamic intellectual tradition centred in Timbuktu, the manuscripts have shattered the historical view of Africa as a purely "oral continent", pointing to the fact that Africa has a rich legacy of written history.

While most are in Arabic, some are in indigenous languages such as Songhai and Hausa, written using Arabic script.

Their subject matter ranges from philosophy and religion to medicine, astronomy and mathematics, as well as history and literary forms. It also includes manuscripts covering legal judgements and commercial transactions that give a sense of the daily life of the people of Timbuktu.

Some of the manuscripts are beautifully decorated with gold illumination and kept in finely tooled leather covers.

Centre of trade and scholarship

Long-since a symbol in Western popular imagination for remote and exotic destinations, Timbuktu 500 years ago was not only a wealthy trading port, but also a centre for academics and scholars of religion, literature and science.

Timbuktu was founded in around 1100 by ethnic Tuareg nomads near the northern-most bend of the Niger River. Their caravans took salt from Saharan mines to trade for gold and slaves, transported along the river from the south, and by 1330 Timbuktu was part of the Malian empire.

Two centuries later the city was at the height of its grandeur under the Songhai empire. Timbuktu was described by Spanish Moor Leo Africanus as a centre for "doctors, judges, priests and other learned men [who] are bountifully maintained at the king's expense".

It was also a centre of learning, where thousands of students were taught and large private libraries kept.

But Timbuktu's fortunes sank in 1591 when Songhai was defeated by a Moroccan army. When Portuguese explorers discovered new trade routes along the West African coast, Mali was sidelined. Under France's rule the country continued to slide into poverty and isolation.

Shining a light on the future

While Timbuktu remains a poor, dusty city, visitors still flock there today to experience the aura of mystique and legend that surrounds it.

And it is still home to many philosophers and scholars of Islam, with Sankore University catering to some 15 000 students.

Growing involvement from several countries, including South Africa, in helping to preserve the legacy of Timbuktu, have kindled new interest in the city.

According to Timbuktu philosopher and historian Ismael Diadie Haidara, Timbuktu was inhabited for hundreds of years by Muslims, Christians and Jews, who lived together in peace up until the end of the 19th century.

The city may be steeped in history, but Haidara believes it could also shine a light on the future.

SAinfo reporter

Timbuktu Manuscripts: the Tarikh al-Sudan

The Tarikh al-Sudan was written in the 17th century by 'Abd al-Rahman al-Sa'di, a scholar and imam of the Sankore mosque in Timbuktu. The writer narrates the origins, history and social order of Timbuktu. He also gives an account of the Songhay state until it was overthrown by Moroccan invasion in 1591, including commentary on the moral decline of the Songhay rulers (Photo: Alexio Motsi and Mary Minicka for the Timbuktu Manuscripts Preservation Project)

Sankore mosque, Timbuktu

Sankore mosque. Timbuktu 500 years ago was not only a wealthy trading port, but also a centre for academics and scholars of religion, literature and science (Photo: Unesco World Heritage Centre)

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