A Quran from the 12th century in Timbuktu

A 12th century Quran: one of the manuscripts that comprise Timbuktu’s heritage

There is the bravery of those who save other humans from certain death (this week, for example, Nicholas Winton, the man who rescued 669 children – mostly Jewish – from almost certain death in the Nazi concentration camps, celebrated his 105th birthday).  And then there is the bravery of those who, at great personal risk to themselves, save irreplaceable books or other cultural treasures from being destroyed by armed forces driven by ideologies which have no interest in freedom of expression.

Such is the story, told in today’s Guardian, of the brave Malians who smuggled hundreds of thousands of ancient books and manuscripts out of Timbuktu after the city had fallen to Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), the jihadist affiliate of al-Qaida in the civil war two years ago.

Guardian international editor Charlie English describes the terror that came to Timbuktu in late 2012:

It was a time of devastation in northern Mali: first the rebels pillaged the town, then the jihadis imposed a brutal form of sharia law on the population. Women were beaten for walking in the company of men. Music, a vibrant part of Malian culture that has been exported all over the world, was banned. Suspected thieves had their hands or feet chopped off after summary trials.

The largely moderate Muslims of Timbuktu were terrified. “When [the rebels] entered the city, people said if you were an artist they would cut out your tongue, because they hate music and want to ban it,” Bintu Dara, a singer, tells me in the Malian capital, Bamako. “One of my cousins was beaten in front of me, given 100 lashes from the jihadis,” she says. “My drum player was caught and put in jail. One of my relatives’ sons was the first guy to have his hand cut off.” Dara fled soon after, along with an estimated two-thirds of Timbuktu’s citizens.

Timbuktu is a Unesco-listed world heritage site, the cultural and spiritual capital of sub-Saharan Africa.  Many cultural artefacts  were destroyed or damaged during the first week of the occupation –  the shrines of Sufi saints were hacked to pieces, priceless medieval manuscripts were burnt.  It was then that Abdel Haïdara and a group of brave and dedicated assistants decided to act.

Haïdara manages the largest private library in the city, a library he can trace back to a 16th-century ancestor.  He also runs an organisation, Savama-DCI, that represents other private manuscript collections. Charlie English recounts the dramatic and inspiring story of how Haïdara and his assistants succeeded in saving almost 400,000 manuscripts, moved in thousands of lockers, each of which was the size of a small trunk.

Abdel Kader Haïdara with ancient manuscripts from Timbuktu packed into metal trunks

Abdel Kader Haïdara with ancient manuscripts from Timbuktu packed into metal trunks

Timbuktu now may be a sleepy place threatened not just by war but also by the encroaching sands of the Sahara – but as Charlie English recounts, from the early 14th to late 16th centuries Timbuktu was famous for its wealth and as a centre for Islamic teaching:

The Encyclopedia Britannica states that by 1450 Timbuktu had a population of 100,000, a quarter of whom were students. Even if these figures are wildly exaggerated, Timbuktu was a thriving centre of learning, and manuscripts were highly prized: the traveller Leo Africanus, who visited in 1510, found books sold for more money than any other merchandise in the city’s market.

Books reached Timbuktu by caravan from Fez and Cairo, Tripoli and Córdoba, and what the scholars couldn’t afford, they would copy. Other documents were written in Timbuktu. The vast libraries that resulted included every subject: astronomy and medicine, law, theology, grammar and proverbs. There were biographical dictionaries, diaries, letters between rulers and subjects; legal opinions on slavery, coinage, marriage and divorce; the lives of Muslims, Jews and Christians; there were histories and poetry.

In his Description of Africa, published in 1550, the traveller Leo Africanus marvelled that in the bustling markets of Timbuktu, under the towers of its majestic mosques, the richest traders were booksellers.

A damaged Timbuktu manuscript saved during the rescue operation

A damaged Timbuktu manuscript saved during the rescue operation

I recall seeing, several years ago, a BBC 4 documentary in which Aminatta Forna told the story of the lost libraries of Timbuktu and their long-hidden legacy of hundreds of thousands of ancient manuscript.  She spoke, too, of Timbuktu’s university, founded around the same time as Oxford, and of the legacy of learning preserved in the manuscripts of Timbuktu – the classical Greek heritage copied and preserved in the middle ages, the history and laws of Mali and Songhai, chronicles of the families of Timbuktu, the poetry and stories of north Africa.  Yet when European empires scrambled for Africa in the 19th century, Africans were regarded as primitive illiterates, with no history or literature.

The whole film can be seen on YouTube:

Reading the Guardian’s account of how the manuscripts of Timbuktu were saved brought to mind a trio of posts in the archive of this blog.  In The Love of Books: A Sarajevo Story, I wrote of another documentary shown on BBC TV in 2012 that told the story of how over 10,000 manuscripts and rare books belonging to the Gazi Husrev Beg library were saved during the siege of Sarajevo. That magnificent film can also be seen on YouTube:

In An Inventory of Al-Mutanabbi Street: a hymn to the book and the word, I wrote of seeing, in Manchester’s John Rylands Library, the project conceived by poet Beau Beausoleil and artist Sarah Bodman to ‘re-assemble’ the ‘inventory’ of reading material that was lost when a car bomb exploded in al-Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad, on 5 March 2007 – an attack in which more than 30 people died and many more wounded.

In the third post I discussed Melvyn Bragg’s week-long In Our Time special, The Written World, broadcast over one week on BBC Radio 4.  Bragg’s thesis was that writing was the greatest human invention, and the focus of the series was the technology for recording words – tablets, manuscripts and books, each of which in some way represented a turning point in the history of ideas.

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!

– Emily Dickinson

See also

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