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.

John Thorne
Boubacar Sadeck reproduces medieval manuscripts in the Bamako workshop he's borrowing while crisis grips his home in Mali's north.

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.”

“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.”

Demand for books fed an industry of copyists, skilled calligraphers who reproduced texts and, with their notes and marginalia, contributed to the evolution of scholarship.

Timbuktu entered a long decline within a century of Africanus’ visit, when it fell to the armies of the Moroccan sultan in 1591. In later centuries sea trade on the Atlantic eclipsed the trans-Saharan caravans.

'Found only in Timbuktu'

By the time Mr. Sadeck, the copyist, got a taste for calligraphy as a boy, the tradition was all but extinct.

It was his uncle who taught him to make ink from charcoal, powdered stones, and gum Arabic, and to arrange lines of elegant Arabic script in neat blocks on paper and animal hide parchment.

When he grew up he worked for six years in commerce as an assistant to a small-time merchant, whose death in 2000 pitched him into unemployment.

“I was in the street,” Sadeck says. “I didn’t know what to do.”

It was then that his uncle suggested he start work as a copyist. Commissioned by the city’s libraries to reproduce their works, he has also built a business selling copies to mainly Western tourists – gaining a unique erudition in the process.

“If a text is interesting, you try to memorize it,” says Sadeck, who has also memorized the Quran. “And as you read, you learn.”

One popular item is a West Africa proverb: “Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, and silver from the lands of the fair-skinned people, but the word of God and holy things, and beautiful tales are found only in Timbuktu.”

Quranic verses are also in demand. On the wall of his workshop he has taped several hides bearing the Surat Ya-Seen, one of the Quran’s 114 chapters.

In 2004, Sadeck began offering lessons in calligraphy to students in Timbuktu, passing on his knowledge as his uncle had passed it to him. He has no children of his own.

“That’s why I try to teach children,” he says. “So it can continue.”

Transporting and hiding manuscripts

Last April a military coup unseated president Amadou Toumani Touré, prompting Tuareg and Islamist gunmen already ravaging Mali’s desert north to swoop down in concert on northern cities including Timbuktu. Overnight, tourism – and with it Sadeck’s livelihood – were cut off.

“When the coup d'état came, within a week I had packed my bags,” he says. Among his belongings were around 50 manuscripts.

Meanwhile, Haidara, the librarian, rounded up thousands of manuscripts from libraries and arranged for them to be hidden in private homes. He left Timbuktu last summer for Bamako, where he runs Sauvegarde et Valorisation des Manuscrits pour la Défense de la Culture Islamique, or Safekeeping and Promotion of Manuscripts for the Defense of Islamic Culture, an NGO that seeks to care for manuscripts.

Sadeck’s brother has installed him in a workshop above his house on the edge of Bamako. So far there has been little work. For now, there are only stacks of manuscripts on the table, copies displayed on the wall, and outside the window the interminable lines of the power cables.

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