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The men who would save Mali's manuscripts

Islamist militants in Timbuktu destroyed graves and shrines associated with Sufism this year. Ancient manuscripts are not directly threatened, but some fear they are next.

By Correspondent / December 25, 2012



Bamako, Mali

In a small workshop at the edge of town, where the towers of high-voltage power lines march toward the horizon, Boubacar Sadeck sits surrounded by papers, parchments, and hides. On his business card is written in French, “Artisanal copyist of XVI century manuscripts.”

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“In Timbuktu, I’m the only copyist of my generation still working,” he says.

But he is no longer in TImbuktu. He fled for the capital Bamako last April as violence engulfed Mali's north. Islamist militants now control Timbuktu with a rule by gun that threatens both the country's future and the artifacts from its rich past. 

Last summer Islamist militants in Timbuktu destroyed graves and shrines that were associated with Islam’s mystical Sufi tradition. The militants called them blasphemous. While no threat – Islamist or otherwise – has emerged specifically against manuscripts, the sense of lawlessness has some in Timbuktu worried.

“The Islamists have said they don’t want to harm the manuscripts,” says Abdel Kader Haidara, a specialist in manuscript cataloging and director of one of Timbuktu’s largest family libraries. “But other people could take advantage of the situation to attack our heritage.”

'Greatly honors lettered men'

There are around 180,000 medieval manuscripts in Timbuktu, Mr. Haidara says, covering topics from Quranic exegesis to philosophy, mathematics, and law. So far some 23,000 have been cataloged – a scavenger hunt through archives that often lays bare Timbuktu’s past as a crossroads of trade and scholarship.

Haidara descends from a line of bookish types, he says – among them scribes, writers, and judges. In 2000 he renovated his family’s library, home to some 45,000 manuscripts, which includes rooms for manuscript restoration, digital scanning, cataloging, reading, and conferences.

“Timbuktu was among the earliest Islamized African cities,” says Haidara. “Islam came from Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and even Spain – thus the relations via families that re-settled here, as well as the commercial links.”

Timbuktu grew from a caravan way-station near the Niger River to its zenith around the turn of the 16th century as a key commercial hub of the Songhai empire, then at the height of its power.

“In the city are many judges, doctors, and clerics, all well-financed by the king, who greatly honors lettered men,” wrote the Arab traveler Hassan ibn Muhammed al Wazzan al Fasi, known as Leo Africanus, who visited Timbuktu in the early 16th century. “Many hand-written books are sold there that come from Barbary, and from these more is earned than from any other merchandise.”

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