It has been reported that the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu has been destroyed by Islamist rebels, retreating from attacks by French and Malian government troops. If so, this is a historical disaster of vast proportions. The Institute was the depository for around 30,000 unique Arabic manuscripts. Together, these represent the collective historical, theological, scientific and cultural knowledge of Timbuktu, one of the world’s most important intellectual centres from the 13th to the 16th centuries, when it formed part of the Mali and Songhay empires. Whilst the rebels themselves must be held responsible for this appalling act of destruction, it had been widely reported that rebel soldiers were using the archives building as a base. Those directing the French-Malian attack must therefore have known the potential risk to the manuscripts from their actions.
In recent decades, the manuscripts of Timbuktu, carefully preserved for centuries in private homes by generations of scholarly families, have received significant scholarly and diplomatic attention. Timbuktu was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, and in the 2000s a major bilateral project between the South African and Malian governments led to the construction of the Baba Institute and the centralisation of many endangered manuscripts in a state-of-the-art preservation and research facility. This was as much a political as an intellectual exercise – it sent the message that Africa, a continent commonly portrayed as outside of or irrelevant to the main currents of historical change, led the world in the production and exchange of ideas, and can do so again today and in the future.
The Timbuktu project also asserted that Africa can manage and preserve its own historical treasures. Whilst the apparent destruction in Mali may undermine this important message, it prompts us to consider the ways in which historians preserve such fragile materials in a world of conflict and inequality. Timbuktu’s scholarly families had preserved its manuscripts for centuries in imperfect circumstances; in contrast, the Baba Institute project brought together the manuscripts in a prestigious and prominent building, a scarce resource in a region generally characterised by poverty and weak states. When the rebels first seized Timbuktu in January 2012, they immediately identified the Baba Institute as a major asset, occupying the building and using it as a headquarters for their operations: many rebel soldiers were said to be using the Institute as a dormitory. In contrast to the early destruction of Sufi shrines they regarded as idolatrous, the rebels initially protected the manuscripts, most of which are Koranic in nature. Now, however, it appears that a vast and entirely irreplaceable archive has been lost: a handful of manuscripts taken to Bamako following the occupation, and the tiny proportion so far digitised by the Institute, may be all that remain. Indeed, the rebel fighters may have destroyed the historic evidence that one of Africa’s greatest medieval civilisations successfully combined Islam with pioneering scientific and cultural knowledge production.
It is to be hoped that some of the scholarly families, most of who were persuaded to place their invaluable possessions in the modern and apparently secure facility of the Ahmed Baba Institute, may have instead opted to continue their historic practice of keeping the manuscripts in secret hiding places. Their efforts had kept Timbuktu’s heritage reasonably safe during many centuries of upheaval: the decline of the great west African empires, Moroccan conquest, French colonial rule, Malian independence and one-party state rule, and the more recent devastating effects of climate change. The painful lesson of these events is that Timbuktu’s traditional practices of preservation may prove more enduring than the well-meaning efforts of modern archivists.
Miles Larmer is Senior Lecturer in International History at the University of Sheffield, specialising in southern-central Africa. If you would like to read some of Miles’ recent research, you can see his article ‘Chronicle of a Coup Foretold: Valentine Musakanya and the 1980 Coup Attempt in Zambia’, Journal of African History, 51.3 (2010), pp. 391-409 [log-in needed]