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Saving Timbuktu’s Manuscripts, One Ancient Page at a Time


Technicians working for Savama in Bamako, photographing and digitizing the manuscripts. DULCIE LEIMBACH
Technicians working for Savama, a nonprofit group in Bamako, Mali, photographing and digitizing ancient manuscripts from Timbuktu. DULCIE LEIMBACH

BAMAKO, Mali — The deliberate burning of thousands of ancient manuscripts by the Islamic jihadists who seized Timbuktu and other parts of northern Mali in 2012 dealt an emotional blow to the culture and scholars there and far beyond. To add insult to injury, some of the manuscripts, which were destroyed in the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research in Timbuktu, were about to be digitized in its conservation room — but not in time.

Now, after most jihadist groups were expelled from the region by the French military in 2013, many of the manuscripts that were saved from Ahmed Baba and private libraries in Timbuktu are being safely kept in Bamako, the capital. A project to restore, digitize and catalog them has begun through a program managed by Unesco’s office here.

The project is being promoted as a cultural and economic benefit to Malians, who continue to recover from “the crisis,” as they call it, entailing not only the jihadists’ insurrection — which continues on a more sporadic basis — but also a military coup and a dive deeper into poverty. Yet, some Malians in Timbuktu have found fault with aspects of the manuscript restoration project, which is part of a multimillion-dollar plan by Unesco to save several mosques and about a dozen mausoleums up north that were damaged, too.

The work on restoring and safeguarding the country’s cultural heritage sites is a mandate written into the United Nations Security Council resolution that authorized the UN peacekeeping mission to Mali last year. It was the first UN resolution to include a clause to “protect from attack” heritage sites in a conflict zone and was a reaction to the destruction of the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001.

“Minusma is here to support Unesco’s work and Malian government authorities” to ensure that the country’s cultural heritage sites in the north are protected and rehabilitated, said Sophie Ravier, chief of the environment and culture unit at the UN mission in Mali (called, in shorthand, Minusma), in an interview here in August.

Unesco has calculated that $11 million is needed to carry out the long, tedious task of restoring the sacred sites and manuscripts. The manuscripts burned — or stolen — by the Ansar Dine insurgents in the library of the Ahmed Baba center numbered 4,203. They were damaged by the Ansar Dine on their last day of siege in the city, as the French military arrived to liberate it. (The insurgents had been using the institute as a barracks.)

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Unesco helped originate the center in 1967 as a Malian state entity, with money from Kuwait, to provide a home for the ancient manuscripts in the greater Sahel region; it was rebuilt with South African funds in 2009.

The manuscripts “are the second lung” of Timbuktu, with the other being the mausoleums and the mosques, said Lazare Eloundou, a restoration expert who works for Unesco in Paris but has been seconded as bureau chief to Bamako for a year now to oversee the project. He is also an architect, originally from Cameroon.

About 370,000 manuscripts, nearly 95 percent of the total based in Timbuktu, made it to Bamako through elaborate smuggling schemes from private homes and from the Ahmed Baba center during the jihadists’ nine-month siege, said Dr. Abdul Kader Haïdara, whose nonprofit group, Savama, is leading the restoration work in Bamako. Of those rescued, about 26,000 came from the Ahmed Baba library, Eloundou said.

Those numbers most likely include single pages and not whole books, Ravier of Minusma said. She said that $3 million had been raised so far from donors.

An ancient manuscript from Timbuktu, written in Arabic and chewed by termites.
An ancient manuscript from Timbuktu, written in Arabic but devoured by termites. DULCIE LEIMBACH

Savama’s secret mission to remove the manuscripts from Timbuktu, including boating the books in steel boxes up the Niger River, was covered extensively by British and other media. (On its huge arc through West Africa, the river flows through both Timbuktu and Bamako.) Dr. Haïdara worked on the mission with Dr. Abdoulkadri Maïga, the director of the Ahmed Baba Institute, and Timbuktu families.

Reached by Skype in Timbuktu in August, Dr. Maïga said that he was separately restoring the 61,000 manuscripts that remained at the center, also under the Unesco umbrella. That includes manuscripts donated from people outside the city, as in Ber nearby.

Dr. Maïga began as the director in 2012, but he left three weeks after the Ansar Dine invaded; now that he is back at Ahmed Baba, he is restoring the manuscripts there. He said that he worked in a “complementary” manner with Dr. Haïdara, but he preserves the books at the center as an employee of the state. The jihadists destroyed the manuscripts as an act “against the state” and not for religious reasons, Dr. Maïga added, as opposed to the mausoleums, which were pick-axed by the Ansar Dine because the sites were considered idolatrous.

Minusma, whose headquarters are parked in a former high-rise hotel on the banks of the Niger River in Bamako, is also involved directly in the Unesco project, providing, for example, air transport for experts’ visits to and from Timbuktu. The city itself has been stabilized but it is hard to get to by car — about a two days’ drive — and the outskirts are dangerous. Two peacekeepers, from Burkina Faso, were killed in a suicide car bomb attack on Aug. 16 in Ber, about 32 miles from Timbuktu.

The peacekeeping mission has a “quick impact project” budget, $50,000, which is being used to rehabilitate libraries in four Timbuktu homes that were damaged from a suicide attack in 2013, Ravier said. The homes are being rebuilt using traditional mud-brick material, with a Malian architect and local masons using Unesco rehabilitation guidelines.

Other private libraries in the city will also be repaired, Ravier said, so they can “receive back the manuscripts” as soon as they are finished.

A total of 45 libraries needs to be renovated in Timbuktu — and that “everywhere there is a stash of manuscripts is considered a library,” Dr. Haïdara said. The Ahmed Baba library is also being repaired, for the eventual return of the manuscripts.

“It’s a good message to everyone if the manuscripts go back to Timbuktu,” said Ravier, who is French and has a background in engineering, international relations and ethnomusicology. The manuscripts have always been a source of tourists’ fascination and a major base of the economy in Timbuktu, a Unesco World Heritage site.

Dr. Haïdara set up Savama to restore and digitize the manuscripts, including the creation of a database and a catalog, since neither exists, he said during an interview in his office in a Bamako neighborhood called Bako-Djikoroni. He formerly worked for the Ahmed Baba center and his family held manuscripts for generations in Timbuktu, he said. Media reports say he is the mastermind behind the smuggling of the books during the siege.

He has also become a rather polarizing figure among some people in Timbuktu who helped arrange the smuggling of the manuscripts from the city, including families who own the documents, contending that he has received too much media attention and has too much control over the books.

Dr. Haïdara has been somewhat successful in raising money to hold and restore the manuscripts, creating more tension among some people in Timbuktu. When he was asked about the criticism, Dr. Haïdara said that the Savama project would employ people in Timbuktu.

Regarding the criticism, Dr. Maïga said that he couldn’t “pronounce on complaints from families.”

Ravier confirmed that Dr. Haïdara is “very much involved in private fund-raising” for the manuscripts’ rehabilitation and that he has been “coordinating” with the owners of the private libraries in this work.

In the interview, Dr. Haïdara said that Savama estimated that its work would cost about 500,000 euros (about $670,000), and it has not received any money from Unesco. That should change, however, as Unesco plans to provide $250,000 to $350,000 to Savama to manufacture small linen boxes lined with chemical-free paper to store the papers, Eloundou said. Savama, he also noted, was training people to make the boxes.

“We will restore everything that needs to be restored,” Dr. Haïdara said, speaking in French through a translator. In his office, he displayed a 16th-century book on his desk, revealing a chunk inside chewed away by termites. To repair such holes, his technicians fill them with pieces of paper and copy the Arabic that is missing.

Dr. Maïga said that the Ahmed Baba center was also manufacturing boxes for its own manuscripts and has contracted with Dubai to carry out that task in Bamako.

Although Eloundou of Unesco said that the manuscripts were hard to value, its appeal to international donors of $11 million to pay for the full restoration project pinpoints some of their monetary appeal. He said that the donors include Switzerland, the European Union, the Netherlands, South Africa, Germany, Luxembourg, the Ford Foundation and the Gerda Henkel Foundation, in Dusseldorf. The project is estimated to take four years. (Dr. Maïga said that Norway and Luxembourg have been providing money to train and digitize the collection under his management.)

Unesco repeatedly says that $11 million is not much money for such a program, but for Mali, a country that sits at the bottom rungs of the UN’s human development index, that amount sounds like manna.

Dr. Abdul Kader Haïdara, who founded Savama, the nonprofit group, in Bamako. DULCIE LEIMBACH

Yet the goal of mending, digitizing and cataloging the books and repairing the mosques and mausoleums is one essential element of the recovery goal set by the government and the UN to inject confidence among Malians that their country can return to a semblance of normality and prosperity sooner rather than later. The manuscripts symbolize the important role that the region played in early Islamic civilization, long before the European colonists arrived. Timbuktu, a name that conjures a mythical destination, developed in the desert as the southern end of the trans-Saharan trade route that ended at the western Mediterranean Sea.

As Eloundou said, “This is the knowledge of our humanity.” So part of the financing, he added, would pay for “scientific research” and promotion of the manuscripts and possibly translating some of them into French and English. The manuscripts were mostly written in Arabic but also other African languages, including the local language of Bambara.

“The cultural activity in Timbuktu employed lots of people, with opportunities to look at and study the manuscripts,” he said, adding that the restoration is not only going to bring “back the dignity of people and cultural references” but also the “creation of jobs to the reconstruction on the mausoleums and mosques.”

The manuscripts date from possibly the 11th century to the 20th, when the French colonized the Sahel region. The topics run the gamut from medicinal remedies to occult science, from physics to mathematics, literature to chemistry. The manuscripts were typically bound in lambskin leather pouches and tied with cloth ribbon like a portfolio and written mostly by hand with ink made of Arabic gum and leaves, Dr. Haïdara said.

Scholars, philosophers, medical doctors and other learned people in Timbuktu wrote the manuscripts; some taught at the local universities and were prominent intellectuals, including Ahmed Baba, a scholar. Among the manuscripts is the Treaty of Islamic Law. Some books offer religious advice on menstruation for women. A medical manuscript recommends toad meat to cure snakebites and panther droppings to treat boils.

Up a flight of stairs in the concrete low-rise building that houses Savama, amid a room with dark cloth covering the windows and a few lamps, four people were photographing the manuscripts one afternoon, using Canon cameras tethered to computers to save the images electronically. Two men were each laying one page at a time on black mats under the cameras, while two women each recorded the information. They all wore masks over their mouths to avoid inhaling the dust. They put in eight hours a day in these close quarters.

“The women command the men,” an associate of Dr. Haïdara said, when asked who was in charge.


Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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