Lost Treasures of Timbuktu

Scholars are rushing to rescue the medieval manuscripts that put one of the world's most remote towns on the map. Saving Africa's literary history from destruction

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Horst Friedrichs / www.anzenbergergallery.com

More than words At a library in Timbuktu, an expert restores a damaged manuscript

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The growing sense that the manuscripts are tangible proof of Africa's sophisticated history has inspired a series of projects to restore, conserve and keep them in Mali. A few of the 32 family libraries in Timbuktu have received foreign funding from institutions such as the Ford Foundation or governments such as those of Spain, Norway and Dubai. Six years ago, South Africa's government began the museum project to house the Ahmed Baba Institute's huge collection. Until now there has been no building in Timbuktu with the space or sophisticated temperature control in which to keep old documents. Curators hope the new building will persuade locals to entrust their collections to Mali's government, by loaning or selling them to the museum. "It inspires confidence in people," says Riason Naidoo, who led the Timbuktu project for South Africa.

The End of Isolation
The flurry of projects and interest has boosted Timbuktu's tourism trade. The driver who meets me at the tiny airport introduces himself (in perfect English) as "Jack — like Jack Bauer [from television's 24]." Crowds of Europeans converge every January to attend the musical Festival of the Desert in nearby Essakane. And young locals — armed with French and English — ply their trade as guides for adventure tour groups.

As news of the manuscripts has filtered out over the past few years, another group of visitors has begun arriving: antiques collectors and dealers looking to snap up rare and valuable treasures at bargain prices. Locals say the number of collectors has increased markedly over the past year. The village of Ber, an hour's drive from Timbuktu across the blazing sand and past boys leading donkeys that haul spindly thorn branches home for firewood, might seem remote and protected. But when I arrived there in May, collectors had recently visited in search of manuscripts, according to locals. "Since April, people have descended on the village from Libya, Burkina Faso, Morocco," says Mohammed Ag Mahmoud, 83, the imam of the tiny community of mostly Tuareg tribesman.

Preserving the documents in normal times is not easy: a flood flattened one house in Ber last October, obliterating more than 700 manuscripts. Mahmoud says his family's collection of thousands of manuscripts include many with termite damage. One of his sons, Omar Ag Mohammed, shows me about 30 of the books, which are kept stashed in a rickety wooden closet in his small house. The most cherished volumes are not here, but buried in the desert. "We use ashes to protect them from the termites," he tells me. "Then we build a dome on top of them, so we know where to find them."

But the real threat comes from people — both outsiders and insiders. Ber might at first seem unchanged by modern life. Tuareg traders still arrive on camel, bearing giant bricks of salt which they transport across the Sahara for weeks — just as traders did centuries ago when the area's manuscripts were originally written. In Mahmoud's mind, too, local attitudes remain unchanged. Locals remain fiercely distrustful of outsiders, he says, including Mali's government in Bamako, with which locals have been at odds for years. Many people still jealously guard family heirlooms as a tangible form of security. "We won't sell our manuscripts, even if you offer us billions. They will be left to the children who will look after them. We know which those are."

And yet younger Malians, even in Ber, deep in Mali's remote north, are very different from their parents' generation. Few can read the manuscripts' old Arabic script, and some are beginning to ignore long-held taboos against selling them. When I visit Essayouti, Timbuktu's imam, at home, he shows me four 
 15th century leather-bound manuscripts that locals had sold him the day before for about $200. Many locals, he says, simply need the money, or don't know who will next look after the books. "We are trying to explain to each new generation why these are important," he says, peeling back the pages of one of the tomes. "We tell them to pass them along through the generations. But many young people have no use for them. There are some who will see them as an easy way to make money."

If Timbuktu's children decide to sell the manuscripts, there will be nothing to stop them. Unlike antiquities laws which protect old carvings, for example, Mali has no law barring people from taking manuscripts out of the country. As international interest in the works grows, so too could their value on the world market, according to some experts. In 1979, Zouber, the President's counselor, bought 25 Timbuktu manuscripts from the daughter of a former French diplomat who had been stationed in Mali and had taken them with him when he left; Zouber tracked her down in Cannes and paid about $25,000 for the lot. "Now they're worth perhaps 10 times that amount," he says.

Such sums might be a great temptation to a generation that has so far seen little material benefit from its heritage. Fida Ag Mohammed says many elders still favor passing manuscripts down from father to son. "Each generation must appoint one youth to take care of them," he explains. "It has to be someone who will never leave." But as young Malians grow more modern and more mobile, getting them to stay may prove difficult.

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