The deaths of innocent civilians are always the anticipated casualties of any conflict. But, historical artifacts are often the silent victims of war. We’re seeing that now in the West African nation of Mali, as Al-Qaeda-backed rebels try to seize power. Late last month, as rebel forces retreated from the city of Timbuktu, they torched two buildings that held a number of antiquitous manuscripts; some dating to the 13th century A.D. Situated on the far southern edge of the Sahara, Timbuktu is one of the oldest, most continuously-occupied cities on the African continent. Founded by Tuarag nomads around 1100 B.C., it rose to become a critical trading post and center of Islamic culture in the region. Three of western Africa’s oldest mosques –Djinguereber (Djingareyber), Sankore, and Sidi Yahia – were constructed in Timbuktu in the 14th and 15th centuries A.D. In 1988, UNESCO added Timbuktu to its “List of World Heritage Sites in Danger.”
With such an extraordinary history, you’d think even Islamic rebels would do everything to maintain Timbuktu’s dignity. But, the hostilities racking Mali prove nothing is immune. If warring factions don’t care about innocent people, why would they care about a batch of aged texts?
The impacted manuscripts were retained in two separate facilities: an old library and a new South African-funded research center, the Ahmad Babu Institute. Completed in 2009 and named after a 17th century Timbuktu scholar, the latter structure utilized modern science and technology to preserve the deteriorating papers, which had been hidden in wooden trunks and boxes and found buried in caves and beneath sand. Most of the texts were written in Arabic, while a few were composed in African languages, such as Songhai, Tamashek and Bambara. There was even one in Hebrew. They covered a range of topics, such as astronomy, poetry, music, medicine and women’s rights. The oldest dated to A.D. 1204.
One long-time Ahmad Babu Institute employee, Seydou Traoré, said only a small number of the documents had been converted to digital images. “They cover geography, history and religion,” he said. “We had one in Turkish. We don’t know what it said.” The manuscripts were important, not just because of their age, but because they exploded the myth that “black Africa” had only an oral history. Typically, the manuscripts were not numbered, Traoré said. But, the last word of a previous page was repeated on each new one. Scholars had painstakingly numbered several of the manuscripts under the direction of an international team of experts.
Essop Pahad, chairman of the Timbuktu manuscripts project for the South African government, said, “I’m absolutely devastated, as everybody else should be. I can’t imagine how anybody, whatever their political or ideological leanings, could destroy some of the most precious heritage of our continent. They could not be in their right minds. The manuscripts gave you such a fantastic feeling of the history of this continent. They made you proud to be African. Especially in a context where you’re told that Africa has no history because of colonialism and all that. Some are in private hands but the fact is these have been destroyed and it’s an absolute tragedy.”