Protecting manuscripts in Mali to save cultural heritage and history

This month armed groups have been fighting in Mali. In a number of towns in this West-African country manuscripts are kept, sometimes in regular libraries, sometimes in the homes of families who try to preserve valuable sources for the history of their country. Timbuktu is the almost legendary town, the capital of a region with the same name. As for its name, the French spelling Toumbouctou can be found, too. Recently Tuaregs have tried to conquer Timbuktu in order to add it to a new Touareg state. The importance of the manuscripts present in Timbuktu and other cities in Mali has long been recognised. This week an appeal has been launched for the protection of these irreplaceable sources for the history of Mali, and more generally for West-Africa. The West African Research Association of the African Studies Center at Boston University is most active in promoting this urgent appeal. The IFLA, too, backs the appeal. Before more ruthless acts of violence take place with possible damage to people, their homes and belongings action is needed.

In this post I will look at research projects and digitized manuscripts from Mali. These projects might well preserve at least a part of the manuscripts and records that have survived sometimes for centuries, but are now closer to destruction than ever before.

The manuscripts of Timbuktu

The UNESCO has recognized the importance of the manuscripts in Timbuktu. Timbuktu itself was added in 1988 to the World Heritage List. Timbuktu has been home to a university since the fourteenth century. The manuscripts have been added to the Memory of the World register. With some disbelief I found only ten images in the UNESCO’s photobank for this project. Despite all efforts to study manuscripts in and from Mali the results to translate, edit and preserve them are still relatively meagre. The website of the Timbuktu Educational Foundation in Alameda, Ca., is one of the sites providing basic information on Mali and Timbuktu.

Today it was perhaps in illustration of this situation that even information on one of the largest relevant projects at the University of Oslo seemed at first to have disappeared. Between 2000 and 2007 Norwegian scholars have worked in a project for the preservation and promotion of the African literary heritage which led to an article and a provisional list of the manuscripts in the Ka’ati Library. More publications have resulted from the Toumbouctou Manuscripts Project sponsored by the Ford Foundation and the University of Cape Town. You can download three publications from the website, including a guide to the script used in these manuscripts. After registration you get full access to the database with transcriptions of manuscripts.

The African and Middle Eastern Division of the Library of Congress has digitized 32 Islamic manuscripts from the Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library and the Library of Cheick Zayni Baye of Boujbeha, both in Timbuktu. The manuscripts dating from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century are accompanied by presentations about Timbuktu and the history of Mali. The manuscripts can be searched in various way. Among the subjects are jurisprudence and Islamic law. The Library of Congress has also created an online exhibition on the ancient manuscripts of Timbuktu which covers much the same ground. In view of the current situation in Mali it is helpful to use the guide to web resources on Mali at the website of the Library of Congress.

The World Digital Library has within its collections 32 manuscripts from Timbuktu, all from the Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library, the very selection discussed here above. The Center for Research Libraries has created a digital library on the theme Slavery and Manumission Manuscripts of Timbuktu with 209 documents from the nineteenth century, again from the Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library, Timbuktu.

At Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, the Melville J. Herskovits Collection with Arabic manuscripts from West Africa contains a number of manuscripts from Mali. The catalogue to this collection can be searched online. Northwestern University has a digital collection Maps of Africa with some 100 maps. Stanford University provides a fine list of web resources on Mali, but apart from the projects already mentioned no other project for Mali’s manuscripts is included. Even the Internet Library for Sub Saharan Africa, a meta-catalogue and portal maintained by a number of German institutions, does bring only few projects relevant for Mali not yet mentioned here, but for anything else this portal can help finding answers or paths to answers on many subjects. The first project is based at Timbuktu, the Sauvegarde et Valorisation pour la Défense de la Culture Islamique. It has in particular helped renovating three libraries, and in creating a digital collection of manuscripts at Timbuktu, to be found at the Aluka portal with some three hundred manuscripts. Being accessible only to paying licensed users is a major drawback to view these digitized manuscripts at Aluka. The second project is La Bibliothèque des Manuscrits Anciens de Niger at the University of Niamey in Niger. This library holds manuscripts with texts from several countries in West Africa. Plans for digitization are announced in the library calendar.

Initially I did not find the actual location of the West African Arabic Manuscript Project, but in the end the URL itself is clear enough. In the project the Al-Furqan Foundation, the Centre Ahmad Baba in Timbuktu and Northwestern University combine their forces.This bilingual website (English and Arabic) offers a database with descriptions of some 23,000 manuscripts in several West African countries, including Mali. The introduction to the Timbuktu records explains that now some 9,000 manuscript descriptions from Timbuktu have been entered into the database. Between 1990 and 1998 five volumes of the catalogue of manuscripts in Timbuktu have appeared which have been used for the database. These manuscripts constitute a third of all manuscripts presently entered. This fact shows the importance of Timbuktu very well. A first simple search in the database – approachable in English, French and Arabic – for law as a subject yields already more than 900 results. Much more manuscripts have still not been recorded. The “digital library” of the Al-Furqan Foundation is in fact a manuscript catalogue. At present it contains some 7,000 manuscripts from Mali.

The National Library of Mali in Bamako is mentioned as one of the partners of the Réseau francophone numérique, a consortium of a number of national libraries in France and francophone countries around the world, but alas no item from Mali is included in this digital library.

A double challenge

When writing this post it became soon clear I face here two challenges, dealing with Africa and with Islamic law from the position of someone trained in European history and law. At my website and here I try to present subjects and themes from all over the world. Until now Asia, Africa and Latin America have been almost absent here. This post will certainly not redeem these gaps. In fact you might agree that slavery is another subject painfully avoided here, as is colonial history. In my latest post I did mention slavery in medieval Italy, not exactly the time and place where I had most expected to detect traces of slavery. It is only sensible not to put several major themes or subjects into one post, but I promise my readers that I will every now and then try to put an Eurocentric and anglophone approach aside.

Having made thus a solemn promise to present here a wider variety I will not hesitate to return briefly to this post’s subject. I would like to point you to a very useful list of digitized Islamic manuscripts at Archivalia, and to the website of the Islamic Manuscript Association. For this post I could use my notes for pages with relevant links on African law and Islamic law that I will eventually add to my legal history website. Writing about subjects stemming from every era, country and civilization need preparation if you want to create a result worth reading.

For your convenience I give an overview of digitized manuscripts:

Islamic manuscripts from Mali, Library of Congress – also at the World Digital Library
Timbuktu Manuscripts, Aluka-World Heritage Sites/JSTOR
– Slavery and Manumission Manuscripts of Timbuktu, Center for Research Libraries

A postscript

Both for the background of Mali’s history, the importance of the Timbuktu manuscripts and the actual situation an article for The Root, ‘Fabled Timbuktu in Peril from Malian Coup’, by Michael Gomez of New York University will tell you much more than I was able to do here. The Africa department of Radio Netherlands Worldwide brings more details on the capture and current situation of Timbuktu and civil war in Mali.

A second postscript

There is a second town in Mali home to many manuscripts, Djenné. I briefly mentioned a number of projects for safeguarding endangered archives in Djenné in a post in September 2014 about the Endangered Archives Project of the British Library. Following a pilot project (EAP 269) the projects EAP 488 and EAP 490 focus on manuscripts kept privately by families at Djenné, a treasure trove as important as Timbuctu. Some 4,000 manuscripts are now known against two thousand at the start of these projects. The website of the Djenné Manuscript Library gives a list of manuscripts. For the Dogon country the pilot project EAP 764 will deal with archival collections in Bandiagara. Among the new fundraising projects for Timbuctu is T160K. In 2013 the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library in Collegeville, Minnesota, too, is involved in digitizing amnuscripts from Timbuktu. For this goal the library received in 2014  a grant from the Dutch Prince Claus Fund. From January 28 to 30, 2015, a conference was held at Bamako, Mali to discuss plans for the future conservation and digitization of manusrcipts in Mali.

In 2015 Maja Kominko edited a volume of articles commemorating the efforts within the EAP, From Dust to Digital: Ten Years of the Endangered Archives Programme (2015), also available online. The digital version of this book has even embedded audiofiles. In this volume is an essay by Sophie Sarin, ‘In the shadow of Timbuktu: The manuscripts of Djenné’ (pp. 173-187), which you can download separately (PDF).

In 2014 Brown University, Providence, RI, digitized the only manuscript from Timbuktu in their holdings with magical and mystical treatises.

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