Saturday, November 11, 2006

Timbuktu Ancient Islamic Manuscripts Are The Subject of Intensive Study and Interpretation

Libraries in the Sand Reveal Africa's Academic Past

By Nick Tattersall, Reuters

TIMBUKTU, Mali (Nov. 10) - Researchers in Timbuktu are fighting to preserve tens of thousands of ancient texts which they say prove Africa had a written history at least as old as the European Renaissance.

Private and public libraries in the fabled Saharan town in Mali have already collected 150,000 brittle manuscripts, some of them from the 13th century, and local historians believe many more lie buried under the sand.

The texts were stashed under mud homes and in desert caves by proud Malian families whose successive generations feared they would be stolen by Moroccan invaders, European explorers and then French colonialists.

Written in ornate calligraphy, some were used to teach astrology or mathematics, while others tell tales of social and business life in Timbuktu during its "Golden Age," when it was a seat of learning in the 16th century.

"These manuscripts are about all the fields of human knowledge: law, the sciences, medicine," said Galla Dicko, director of the Ahmed Baba Institute, a library housing 25,000 of the texts.

"Here is a political tract," he said, pointing to a script in a glass
cabinet, somewhat dog-eared and chewed by termites. "A letter on good governance, a warning to intellectuals not to be corrupted by the power of politicians."

Bookshelves on the wall behind him contain a volume on maths and a guide to Andalusian music as well as love stories and correspondence between traders plying the trans-Saharan caravan routes.

Timbuktu's leading families have only recently started to give up what they see as ancestral heirlooms. They are being persuaded by local officials that the manuscripts should be part of the community's shared culture.

"It is through these writings that we can really know our place in history," said Abdramane Ben Essayouti, Imam of Timbuktu's oldest mosque, Djingareiber, built from mud bricks and wood in 1325.

Experts believe the 150,000 texts collected so far are just a fraction of what lies hidden under centuries of dust behind the ornate wooden doors of Timbuktu's mud-brick homes.

"This is just 10 percent of what we have. We think we have more than a million buried here," said Ali Ould Sidi, a government official responsible for managing the town's World Heritage Sites.

Some academics say the texts will force the West to accept Africa has an intellectual history as old as its own. Others draw comparisons with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

But as the fame of the manuscripts spreads, conservationists fear those that have survived centuries of termites and extreme heat will be sold to tourists at extortionate prices or illegally trafficked out of the country.

South Africa is spearheading "Operation Timbuktu" to protect the texts, funding a new library for the Ahmed Baba Institute, named after a Timbuktu-born contemporary of William Shakespeare.

The United States and Norway are helping with the preservation of the manuscripts, which South African President Thabo Mbeki has said will "restore the self respect, the pride, honor and dignity of the people of Africa."

The people of Timbuktu, whose universities were attended by 25,000 scholars in the 16th century but whose languid pace of life has been left behind by modernity, have similar hopes.

"The nations formed a single line and Timbuktu was at the head. But one day, God did an about-turn and Timbuktu found itself at the back," a local proverb goes.

"Perhaps one day God will do another about-turn so that Timbuktu can retake its rightful place," it adds.

The National Library of South Africa

Timbuktu and Beyond

John Tsebe is quick to point out that while South Africa may be at the forefront of creating libraries meant to serve African needs and both promote and preserve African knowledge, the country hasn't been developing these concepts in isolation. Under the aegis of the National Library, Tsebe has initiated regular meetings among librarians across the continent to brainstorm ways to improve and upgrade their institutions. One such conference, held in May 2005, which the National Library helped to organize, was entitled, "From Papyrus to Print-Out: The Book in Africa," and focused on an ambitious set of topics that ranged from the preservation of books and oral literature to the impact of information technology on book development and on literature.

But perhaps no undertaking better illustrates the continental vision that underpins the development of the National Library than the story of the Timbuktu manuscripts. These materials, some of which date back to the 13th century, are primarily housed in private collections in the city of Timbuktu, in Mali, and have been estimated to include some 300,000 texts. For hundreds of years, Timbuktu was a traditional center of Islamic learning and scholarship; works on law, theology and science, along with poetry, biographies, dictionaries, Qur'anic studies and other materials have already been catalogued. This treasure house of knowledge highlights the fact that Africa has a vital and deep-rooted written record of its culture and history that can stand beside its many oral traditions.

In 2001, during a state visit to Mali, South African president Thabo Mbeki offered his nation's help in preserving the Timbuktu manuscripts. An international effort is now underway to build an environmentally stable library to house, preserve and digitize these materials, efforts that also aim at making them accessible to scholars across the globe. As part of this project, the National Library of South Africa has helped to train Malian conservators and worked with South African architects, engineers and builders who are involved in conceiving and constructing the new building.

In launching the project, President Mbeki hailed it as the start of "our challenge to reclaim and embrace the rich African heritage which we were denied for centuries by Eurocentric perspectives, colonial racism and racial domination."

Reclaiming South Africa's "rich African heritage" is very high on the National Library's agenda in light of the long years of segregation that afflicted the country. Through centuries of colonialism and continuing on through apartheid, officials of South Africa's national library system were not focused on cataloguing and preserving literature, artifacts and other materials relating to the history of the nation's nonwhite population. In that context, Mandla Hermanus, a program assistant at the National Library's Cape Town campus, explains that the choices made about library collections have far-reaching cultural, historical and social effects. "There is no such thing as neutrality," Hermanus says. "Every decision made about what to keep and collect, what to display and highlight, or what to discard are all substantive, even political decisions that reflect power realities at any given point in time." Until very recently, Hermanus says, these power realities included "the story of how one group of people were regarded as deserving of a particular status and the others would be relegated to the background."

1 comment:

Jeremy Janson said...

I would just note that Africa is a huge place, and there was never really any doubt tht Mali was a great empire.