June 6, 2007

The Economist: Libraries in the Desert

There's a nice, short article in The Economist this week about the race in Mali to conserve ancient documents. Timbuktu had become the center of scholarship in western Africa, especially during the Songhai Empire era. However, military forces for Morocco's Saadi Dynasty conquered the Songhai Empire in 1591, and the numerous documents that had been collected in Timbuktu scattered with families fleeing the war. Now, scholars are trying to bring the documents back home.

Ancient and mystical as Timbuktu may be, these days it leaves many a traveler hot and even a bit disappointed. Yet it still houses some amazing treasures. Among them, in old family homes, is a wondrous literary past that was in danger of disappearing but may now, with luck, be preserved.

Scholars are scrambling to preserve thousands of manuscripts that detail daily and academic life hundreds of years ago on the edge of the Sahara desert. Hidden from Moroccan invaders in the 16th century, French colonizers in the 20th and random thieves and tyrants in-between, bundles of old documents are at last being recovered and conserved in new libraries in Timbuktu.

More than 150,000 manuscripts, dating back as far as the 12th century, tell of battles, astronomy, the sciences and the music of the day. “We must preserve them because it is our history,” says Abdulrahman Ben Essayouti, imam of Timbuktu's Great Mosque [see the picture above]. “Writing remains but stories disappear. It's not just for Timbuktu but for all Muslim culture.”

Written mainly in Arabic but also in some African languages, the documents are being collected in public and private libraries. Visitors can inspect a 12th-century copy of the Koran written in gold or a manuscript written on a gazelle's skin when paper was scarce.

Timbuktu was established over 1,000 years ago as a seasonal camp for Tuareg nomads. Before long it became a famously rich town, bustling with gold, ivory and slave traders. It also drew Muslim scholars from across the world; in its prime, the University of Sankore boasted 25,000 students. “It was a melting pot of cultures,” says the imam.

But the sacking of Timbuktu by the Moroccans at the end of the 16th century led to its demise. The manuscripts were scattered across the desert, where fleeing families hid them in chests or elsewhere in their homes — for hundreds of years. As a result, the history they told was increasingly transmitted orally, from generation to generation. Now, as scholars persuade owners to set up the libraries, it may again be read on paper.

Timbuktu is still isolated, and Mali is one of the world's poorest countries. Aside from a handful of tourists, salt caravans from across the desert and, nowadays, American soldiers on anti-terror exercises, it has few visitors. But this may change. “If we conserve these documents, people will come to read and understand more,” says a scholar, Abdul Kader Haidara. “And people will realize that Islam is a tolerant religion.”

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