I was saddened to read about the destruction of manuscript libraries in Timbuktu by fundamentalist Islamist members of Ansar Dine as they fled before the joint Malian army and French forces. I had read about the occupation of Timbuktu last July, and how these fundamentalist Islamists were systematically destroying tombs of Sufi saints, mosques and statues, in the name of a puritanical version of their shared faith.
Some years ago, I had read a fascinating story about Timbuktu itself and how it had come to house a remarkable collection of what must be the oldest manuscripts in Africa. Timbuktu was once a major crossroads, and a wealthy city. Gold, ivory, slaves and salt all passed through its marketplaces. And scholars gathered in this wealthy place, founding the University of Sankoré in the early 16th century. They studied and wrote texts covering science, mathematics, history and poetry. Timbuktu's place as a center of scholarship and inquiry ended in 1581 when a Moroccan sultan invaded. His army killed the scholars who resisted, and carried off the rest to the sultan's court in Marrakesh, along with most of the library. However, there were books left in the bazaars, copies of those in the library, which were a major part of the economy.
The descendants kept these often crumbling manuscripts secret. Some were hidden in their homes and desert caves; some were buried in the sands to protect them. European explorers certainly never mentioned the manuscript libraries among the wonders of Timbuktu. Apparently most Malians did not know about the texts. But word slowly trickled out, and in the 1960's UNESCO declared Timbuktu a Cultural Heritage site, not least because of the manuscript collections. The link above is to a wonderful article from 2006 in the Smithsonian Magazine, where the author reports:
The campaign to rescue Mali's manuscripts began in 1964, four years after Mali won its independence. That year, UNESCO representatives met in Timbuktu and resolved to create a handful of centers to collect and preserve the region's lost writings. It took another nine years before the government opened the Centre Ahmed Baba, named after a famed Islamic teacher who was carried to exile in Marrakesh in 1591. With funding from the United Nations and several Islamic countries, including Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the center dispatched staff members into the countryside to forage for lost manuscripts. One collector was Mohammed Haidara, an Islamic scholar and manuscript maker from Bamba, a village midway between Timbuktu and the village of Gao. Haidara helped build a collection of 2,500 volumes. Soon after his death in 1981, the center's director turned to Haidara's son, Abdel Kader, then in his 20s, and asked him to take over his father's job.
Haidara spent 10 years traveling all around to gather manuscripts from wherever they may have been stored and preserved for centuries. He had to convince people of his good intentions and had to drive careful and hard bargains. He gathered thousands of manuscripts for the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research for the Malian government. At one point, however, Haidara split from the Institute and began to gather manuscripts for a separate library, La Bibliothèque Mamma Haidara. As of the 2006 article, the Mamma Haidara had preserved 6,538 manuscripts and still had 19,000 to conserve. The article also mentioned a Spanish-funded third collection, Bibliothèque Fondo Kati, which had nearly been destroyed by sudden flooding of the Niger River. The staff worked very hard to protect the materials, which included an illuminated Koran created in Anadalusia in 1198. It is not clear from the articles I have found which of the manuscript collections were destroyed.
Ironically, the Smithsonian article tells about Haidara teaching nearby villages of Tuareg to preserve their own manuscript collections. The Tuareg make up the Islamist fanatics who took over Timbuktu and have been destroying the manuscript collections in retaliation for being driven away from the city. Some of the Tuareg manuscripts over the years have been lost when they have rebelled against the Malian authorities, and have been violently quelled. Many of their manuscripts have been hidden in the desert for safe-keeping because of the risks of keeping them in the villages, according to the article.
The Ahmed Baba Institute, a South African - Malian joint project was one of the libraries burned, and the second was simply identified as an older building in this report, which is the only one I have found that specifies which manuscript collections were destroyed. The Guardian published some photos from the Ahmed Baba Institute showing some of the collections. It shows that some of the materials were being digitized.
The illustration at the beginning of this post is from the website of the Ahmed Baba Institute, and is labeled "Manuscripts stored for future archiving in New Jenne Library." http://www.tombouctoumanuscripts.org/projects/