Mali: Priceless Ancient Timbuktu Manuscripts Saved From Hardline Islamists Shine in Brussels

A manuscript page from Timbuktu

In 2012 Tuareg and Islamic separatists took over northern Mali, imposing draconian-style Islam on an already devout people. The invaders destroyed crucial works of Malian heritage including the tombs of Muslim saints listed with UNESCO, the UN cultural protection agency. One of the guardians of the manuscripts saw what could be the fate of some 355,000 ancient texts in the ancient city when he walked through the city and saw total disorder.

"I went to some buildings, administrative offices which were pillaged. I saw lots of important administrative papers all over the town and that really, really shocked me and I thought automatically of the manuscripts because those manuscripts are also made of paper," said Dr. Abdel Kader Haidara, the General Director of the Mamma Haidara Manuscript Library in Timbuktu.

Haidara spoke with other librarians in Timbuktu and sprung into action. "We agreed to put the manuscripts from the libraries into metal cases and then bring them to different families. And that is what we did at the beginning", he says about spearheading the operation.

These were the same Timbuktu families who had originally given the ancient manuscripts they had in their possession to Haidara. All but 4,202 of the manuscripts were saved.

Human rights tracts and beautiful Korans are among 16 ancient texts from northern Mali on display in a new exhibition "Timbuktu Renaissance" curated by Haidara at BOZAR, the Center for Fine Arts in Brussels, Belgium.

The manuscripts from the 11th to the 18th century are a sampling of works handed down from generation to generation in the learned city of Timbuktu, Mali.

"We chose these manuscripts to show the different subjects in the texts. Here you see two that speak of astronomy. Look at the designs here", Haidara tells RFI as he walks through the display cases. "And here is a manuscript that is about mathematics. You see the calculations, the results. And here is one that speaks about human rights. And here's one about philosophy".

Last June Mali's Cultural Minister N'Diaye Ramatoulaye Diallo visited Belgium as part of her initiative to revive the country's economy and mood and spirit through culture. Diallo met with Kathleen Louw the project manager for Africa at BOZAR and the idea to hold an exhibition was launched.

Louw says that Haidara in his capacity as the president of SAVAMA DCI, a non-governmental organization for safeguarding and valuing manuscripts for the defence of Islamic culture, made this special trip across the Sahel to Brussels with the pieces.

"He came with them in his suitcase so he carries them personally, they travel business class with him", she laughs. "They arrive and we don't have to organize a special transport independently from him, he's their guardian", Louw says.

Not all the manuscripts are in Arabic. Some seven percent are in Ajami, an Arabic script from the African languages of Fulani, Swahili, Wolof, Soninke, Songhai, Tamasheq and Hausa. Dr. Xavier Luffin, professor of Arabic literature at the Université Libre du Bruxelles, worked as a consultant with BOZAR reading the selected manuscripts and adding some missing information.

Although there were some alphabets for African languages most were passed down through oral tradition. "In West Africa in the middle ages, you had no writing tradition. So they adopted Arabic as their first alphabet", Luffin says.

So what secrets, if any, can be unlocked by these manuscripts? Haidara points to a tract sheathed in leather, written by Al Hajj al Martel, a Mali sage who, while on his way to Mecca for a pilgrimage, found that a war had broken out between Borno state and Sokoto state in present-day Nigeria. Martel stayed to mediate.

"And when it was finished, when the war was over, al Hajj al Martel wrote about everything he used, such as diplomacy, the arguments he took from the Koran, the arguments he took from tradition, the ancient examples that he learned from old manuscripts; he wrote all of this here", Haidara says, pointing to the document.

"These manuscripts were never published, never translated and they can perhaps help us resolve a big part of today's problems, which is conflict", he adds.

Could this reveal a way to deal with Boko Haram, the current Islamic insurgency in northern Nigeria?

"Yes this is a good example to settle problems. Therefore we'd like to translate this and to publish it in English and send it to Nigeria and in French and send it to Europe and in local languages in Africa, we can send it all over for people to understand that we have to return to reality", Haidara says.

Among the tracts on human rights, astronomy and medicine is an excerpt of the Koran. It stands out as one of the most beautiful in the collection and it is project manager Kathleen Louw's favourite. "I think it's the oldest piece, the 11th century Koran sheet. We only have one of the pages, but it's actually a full manuscript, and it's quite amazing."

The piece is the second Surat, a chapter in the Koran called "The cattle" verse 56-57. The elegant calligraphy is written in bright red and blue as well as black the typical colour of the ink used in the majority of the manuscripts. And near the centre of the page is a large, gilded gold teardrop.

"This Koran manuscript was written on fish skin. Here you can see how it was decorated, how it is gilded, how these words are in a different colour because that's a holy book", Haidara says.

Luffin says that the coloured ink is used for specific reasons. "The tradition is that you write the consonants in black and then when you add the vowel, you will add them in red or blue. In the Arabic tradition, you don't have punctuation before the end of the 19th century", he says.

"Which means that in order to know how to stop in the text you put the first word of a sentence or the main word of a sentence in another colour and it's a way to render the punctuation" or to highlight the important words or the vowels, Luffin says.

"Normally in Arabic, you don't write the vowels but you have three exceptions: when you write the Koran, you have to put the vowels to make sure the text is well read. It's the same for poetry. When you write poetry you have to write vowels as well and for all the Ajami documents", he says.

The jihadists remain a threat in northern Mali where they claim they are fighting for the true Islam. Haidara managed not to encounter any militants during his rescue operation but he questions their ideology and their quest to destroy the heritage of Timbuktu.

"We work with ancient manuscripts that were written in the 11th, 12th, 14th, 15th, 16th centuries. Therefore we always follow the ancient ones. The old books, the old manuscripts that were written by great scholars and that is our religion. We can't follow something that in reality is new. That's our way", he says.

Haidara was persuaded by family members at a young age to take up his vocation as the guardian of the manuscripts. He's passing on his knowledge to his six children about conservation, Arabic calligraphy and how to read Arabic. But he also makes sure the relatives of those who originally owned the manuscripts also benefit from their heritage.

"Outside my house in Timbuktu, every year we hold classes during school holidays in a manuscripts library for the children of those who originally kept the texts, that they know what we are doing and they can continue after us", Haidara says.

And until February 2015 visitors to BOZAR museum will also be able to take a look at the valuable Timbuktu heritage that Abdel Kader Haidara is protecting.

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