Timbuktu's thousands of manuscripts are caught in the crossfire as an international intervention force prepares to retake northern Mali from the hands of Islamist rebels. For the archivists faced with the dilemma of a risky evacuation or sitting tight, time is running out.
After the destruction of Sufi shrines in Mali's northern city of Timbuktu early this year, the future of the city's ancient manuscripts is uncertain. As international organisations discuss an intervention force, the custodians of the manuscripts – the heritage of Mali's golden age – fear for the preservation of these fragile treasures.
The takeover of Timbuktu by Islamist rebels and the destruction of holy tombs have reminded the world of what wonders reside in the fabled desert city. Not least among them are about 165,000 ancient manuscripts from across the Muslim and Arab world.
Some are in private libraries, some are in state libraries and others are simply kept in people's homes. All of them are fragile, many of them beautiful and the oldest among them date back to the 10th century.
The manuscripts provide a powerful evocation of Timbuktu's history. They are links to the 12th and 13th centuries, when Islamic scholars, traders and travellers crisscrossed the Sahara to reach the city that housed one of the Muslim world's greatest universities.
They came on the TV and the radio and said the books were safe ... why would they promise if they don't mean it?
According to tradition, the university was set up by Kankan Musa, the most famous of the Malian kings. He astounded the crowds at Mecca when he arrived with a caravan of camels laden with gold. That inspired many to set off in search of the mysterious Malian empire.
The foreign visitors brought with them thousands of texts containing beautiful illustrations and calligraphy that were exchanged, hidden away or incorporated into the university library. Almost every subject of academic interest is covered, from geography to astronomy and mathematics to jurisprudence. Some are illustrated copies of the Qur'an, others are anatomical drawings. Many of the books still have their original bindings, and some are edged with gold leaf.
Since the Islamist groups Ansar Dine and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) took Timbuktu in April, concerns have been growing for the safety of the manuscripts. There are fears that the Islamists – who were responsible for the destruction of the Al Farouk statue and tombs at the Djinguereber Mosque – may find something objectionable in the texts. There are also many questions about the protection of the delicate parchments on which they are written. When Timbuktu fell, all the libraries closed and many staff members fled to Bamako. Texts kept in homes are simply sitting on shelves or in trunks and cupboards.
The state-run Ahmed Baba Centre, home to some 40,000 texts, is now operating from a sparsely furnished office in the Kalaban Coura neighbourhood of the capital. "I'm concerned that they're not being kept in the right conditions. The paper is old and delicate, and they need to be in special air-conditioned units," says Abdulkader Maiga, who stares sadly at pictures of the centre on his laptop. He took over as director just a few months before Timbuktu fell.
Moreover, the achingly slow process of trawling through every text, repairing it, translating it and then digitising its contents has ground to a halt. The city is off limits for researchers and academics. "We'd only digitised about 4,000 of an estimated 40,000 texts," says Maiga. "This job was already going to take years, but who knows when we will be able to start again. This is history for the whole world that we're missing, not just for Mali."
The leaders of Ansar Dine and AQIM in Timbuktu have so far given guarantees that they understand the value of the texts and will not destroy them. "They came on the TV and the radio and said the books were safe. They've had the opportunity to do something before now and nothing has happened," says Abdel Kader Haidara, owner the largest private library in Timbuktu.
"That gives us hope because why would they promise if they don't mean it?" The fact that many of the texts are about Islamic law and are copies of the Qur'an could count in their favour. It appears that the reason the rebels targeted the tombs was be- cause the Islamists – who are mostly Salafists – saw them as idolatrous Sufi sites, something that does not apply to the books.
Even if the Islamists keep their promises, there is no guarantee that some of the manuscripts will not be stolen or damaged. Maiga says that there are only a few security guards left at the Ahmed BabaCentre.
Timbuktu is now isolated, and economic activity has slowed. The danger of theft or accidental damage is even greater with the prospect of a UN-supported Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) force trying to reclaim the north. Both Timbuktu and Gao are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The international organisation is factoring the possibility of further damage to the two towns' monuments and artefacts into its Security Council resolutions on the deployment of the ECOWAS force. UNESCO has also set up three funds to protect Mali's heritage and it is carrying out education campaigns to make sure people know what is there.
There is debate about whether the manuscripts should be transported to safety. "I came up with a plan to wrap some of the most valuable ones and get individuals to take them out," says Samuel Sidibé, the head of Mali's national museum. "But we were worried that the 1,000km journey to Bamako itself could cause significant damage. Also, we cannot get them out without the consent of Ansar Dine."
The decision is complicated because the manuscripts are spread across hundreds of homes and several libraries. Maiga estimated that it could cost some 8m CFA francs ($15,000) to buy the cases, lorries and equipment to get just the Ahmed Baba manuscripts out.
"We would need to do an inventory of what's there, which is difficult when we cannot get there," says Karalyn Monteil from UNESCO's Africa unit. "We're worried about the prospect of the texts being split up because there are so many of them in different places."
In such a complex and delicately balanced situation where no one really knows who is calling the shots, any decision to move the manuscripts must be consensual. UNESCO says it is in daily contact with the Malian culture ministry and the directors of some of the private libraries.
For many years in times long gone, Timbuktu was a mystery: very few foreigners knew its precise location and several expeditions in the early 19th century ended in disaster when local people attacked to prevent foreigners from reaching the city.
Today, once again, the city is effectively closed to outsiders, although this time there has been a tantalising glimpse of the remark- able history that exists there.
In the meantime, there is no end in sight for those whose lives have been turned upside down or any assurances that Timbuktu's valuable manuscripts might find a safe haven. "I feel like a foreigner in my own country now. I don't know how to operate in Timbuktu any more. Who is in control?" asks library owner Abdel Kader Haidara. "Everything is blocked, all our work, all my family's work for two generations"●
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