Timbuktu Manuscripts: Heroic Citizens Save Majority Of Texts From Destruction

Last week, as French troops prepared to withdraw from Timbuktu, Mali, reports surfaced that the Ahmed Baba centre, home to some 30,000 manuscripts, was attacked by Islamist militants. While journalists were quick to term ensuing archival damage a “world heritage disaster,” TIME and others later confirmed that, in fact, the archives remain largely in tact, thanks to the heroic efforts of citizens.  

As local actors are lynchpins of so-called “global heritage” management during conflict, they also represent a critical stakeholder in post-conflict restoration processes. Looking ahead, just and secure state-building in Mali is inextricably linked to the politics of heritage management.

In April of 2012, Timbuktu was attacked by two Tuareg rebel groups: nationalists from Northern Mali, and Ansar Dine, radical Islamists. Thereafter, insurgents from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb invaded and occupied the city. To stave off southward expansion of this patchwork Islamist regime, France intervened in Mali on January 11. Today, having forced extremists out of critical cities, including Timbuktu, France plans to defer operations to the Malian army and troops from neighboring African countries.

Months of violence — from militant implementation of Shariah Law to French air raids — have put Timbuktu’s rich material legacy at risk. Located at the crossroads of the trans-Saharan caravan route beginning in the 15th century, Timbuktu served as a center of learning, spirituality, and commerce, attracting scholars and scribes of biology, poetry, political science, and theology. Today, their ideas exist in hundreds of thousands of manuscripts, testifying to sub-Saharan Africa’s rich written history.

Since last summer, the international community has been especially concerned with the losses to “world heritage” associated with Islamic rule in Timbuktu, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. While Islamist separatists’ campaign to purify Timbuktu certainly involved violent iconoclasm, such as the destruction of Sufi tombs this July, recent reports on the matter have since proved hyperbolic: contrary to initial journalistic claims — largely misinformed by the Timbuktu’s mayor in exile, Halle Ousmani Cissé — the vast majority of these manuscripts are safe.

Timbuktu’s residents conducted a large-scale artifact rescue operation, salvaging some 95% (around 28,000) of the Ahmed Baba centre’s texts, according to the museum’s interim director, Abdoulaye Cissé. In some ways, citizen mobilization to protect Timbuktu’s patrimony is unsurprising: In Timbuktu, the Ahmed Baba centre — funded and designed by South Africa, France, and international donors — is a flashy development project, but, in fact, houses only 10% of the city’s manuscripts. Thirty or so of the city’s oldest families have long served as custodians of these treasures, passing the manuscripts from generation to generation.

Whatever historical precedent, the extraordinary efficacy and bravery of everyday residents, risking their lives for their city’s historical materiality, is something to be applauded. It is also something to be remembered as plans evolve to protect the manuscripts from future jeopardy and Mali’s political climate that remains high-risk.

Whose voices will be represented in decision-making processes about how to protect, present, and — more contentiously — profit from Timbuktu’s cultural artifacts? Familial, ethnic, governmental, and, to a lesser degree, international stakeholders have important roles to play in the process of preserving “global heritage.” 

French President François Hollande and UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova have already visited northern Mali, pledging to “act quickly to safeguard and rebuild this country’s outstanding cultural heritage.” Putting aside the rhetorical (and political) issue of whether or not cultural heritage may be “rebuilt” by an international organization, one thing is clear: local residents, who have long served as the most reliable trustees of Timbuktu’s historical patrimony thus far, deserve a voice in decision-making about the archives’ ongoing protection.

In the long run, the manuscripts’ security and preservation depends on Mali’s state capacity. Interestingly, the reverse may also prove true: in a city where residents risked everything to protect relics of their past, any transitional government’s popular legitimacy relates to its heritage management. Therefore, Mali's new Prime Minister Diango Cissoko must not only work with preservationist families and the international community to safeguard Timbuktu’s cultural patrimony, but also leverage this materiality to unify a diverse country.