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Sixteen original manuscripts from Timbuktu on view at the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels
Manuscrit de Tombouctou (c) Seydou Camara.


BRUSSELS.- On this exceptional occasion, sixteen original manuscripts from Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are on display in the Centre for Fine Arts. A discrete rescue operation meant they were kept out of the hands of the Jihadists during the 2012 war in Mali.

One of the aspects of war which people are less familiar with is the plundering and destruction of cultural and historic heritage, which often go hand in hand. Everyone remembers the images from 2001 when the Bamyian Buddha sculptures in Afghanistan were blown up by the Taliban, but today also priceless cultural objects and sites are being lost on a daily basis in countries that are in conflict situations such as Syria, Iraq or Lebanon.

In January 2012 war broke out in Mali and Timbuktu fell into the hands of Jihadists in March that year. The city, well situated at an intersection of rivers and trade routes, was at the peak of its glory in the 15th and 16th century a renowned Islamic centre of knowledge and a beacon of culture and tolerance. In Timbuktu numerous valuable books and manuscripts were in circulation, either written, copied or sold there. The collected knowledge about subjects ranging from African history to mathematics and chemistry, to public administration and law, were preserved and disseminated from there. Until the outbreak of the war they could be found in diverse public and family libraries, and private collections. During the war, the Jihadists imposed a radical form of Islam and attacked the cultural riches of the city. Confronted with acute danger facing the manuscripts, Mali and the international community raised the alarm. A group of representatives from the 32 family libraries, under the leadership of Abdel Kader Haidara, took personal risks to secretly transport almost the entire patrimony to the Malian capital Bamako. According to art historian Julie Chaizemartin ‘It is one of the biggest cultural rescue operations ever in the context of an exacerbated political-ideological war’. When the Jihadists gained entry to the Ahmed Baba Institute for Higher Learning and Islamic Research, all they found was around a hundred religious works from the nineteenth and twentieth century and a handful of relatively unimportant manuscripts.

The exhibition
The exhibition showcases a selection of 16 original manuscripts most representative of this heritage, with texts about science, politics and law. The sophisticated contemporary message they convey is remarkable. ‘Tragedies are caused by difference and by a lack of tolerance. Glory be to Him who creates greatness out of difference and lets peace and reconciliation reign’, is one example. (Quote from El Hadj Omar Tall (1797-1864))

The story of the selected manuscripts is presented in three languages (Dutch, French and English). The exhibition is further supplemented by photographs of manuscripts, of the city’s architecture and of Koranic schools today. In addition, you can enjoy clips from the films ‘Timbuktu’ and ‘The Last song before the war’.

The exhibition has been compiled by Abdel Kader Haidara, specialist in old manuscripts and director of the Mamma Haidara library in Timbuktu. He organised the manuscript rescue operation in collaboration with other library managers. In 2014 he won the German Afrikapreis for his work towards the rescue and preservation of the manuscripts of Timbuktu.

The Arabic and Ajami Manuscripts of Timbuktu
Contrary to general belief, writing in Africa was not introduced by European colonization. Apart from ancient local alphabets (Copt, Old Nubian, Ge’ez) and recent ones (N'ko), Arabic script was used very early in different parts of the continent, and the libraries if Timbuktu and the region are a rich example thereof.

Local manuscripts of the Saharan region from Mauritania to Sudan were written in regional variations of Arab script - Sudani, Sahrawi, Suqi...- all derived from the Maghribi script, reflecting commercial and religious contacts born out of the trans- Saharan trade. Beyond their script, the manuscripts of Timbuktu show other characteristics distinguishing them from the Arab written tradition, such as the gathering of loose folios in cases or folders rather than binding them, or the presence of catchwords - reference of the first word of the next page on the bottom right section of a page.

The corpus of Texts from Timbuktu, a regional religious and intellectual centre from the 14th century - consists of texts written in the Maghreb, or in the Middle East, or local copies of these texts, but also works written by local scholars, such as Ahmed Baba (1566-1627), or scholars from the Saharan region such as Usman Dan Fodio (1754-1817), from the Kingdom of Sokoto (Nigeria). These scholars came from families of scholars, such as the Kunta and the Godiawa. Furthermore, all the manuscripts of the region were not written in Arabic: works exist also written in Tamasheq, in Fulfude (Fulani) and in Hausa in Arabic script (these texts are called ‘ajami). This tradition was greatly shaken by the introduction of Latin characters during the colonial period. But one can still buy copies of poems in Wolofal (Wolof in Arabic characters) on the markets of Dakar, or even newspapers in Hausa in Arabic characters in Kano. A same author could write several languages: Uthman Dan Fodio for example, wrote treaties in Arabic, but poetry in Fulfude (Fulani), translated in Hausa by his son Isa.

Content-wise, these works often deal with religion or law, but also philosophy, exact sciences (mathematics, astronomy) and poetry (also inspired by religion and linked to Sufi brotherhoods such as the Qadiriyya and Tijaniyya), as well as historical topics. The most famous of these is the Tarikh al-Fattash, a chronicle of the Songhai Empire written by Mahmu’d Kati in the 17h century.

It is noteworthy to know that Arabic writing was disseminated in other geographical areas, notably along the coast of Eastern Africa, where numerous documents were found written in Arabic and local languages (Somali, Barawi, Swahili…) written in Arabic script.

Commentary by Xavier Luffin, Professor of Arabic Literature and Language at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) and of Arabic Dialect at the Catholic University of Louvain (KUL). Luffin’s research is focused on the cultural contacts between the Arab-Muslim world and Africa. He is the author of ‘Les fils d'Antara. Représentations des Africains dans la fiction arabe contemporaine” (Safran, 2012) and is currently preparing an anthology of Arab poets of African origin.

Returning Timbuktu to its rightful place as a center of knowledge, tolerance, and music though its cultural heritage.
Today, the conservation workshop for the evacuated manuscripts is housed in the headquarters of the ONG SAVAMA-DCI in Bamako. Timbuktu manuscripts require an extensive operation of cleaning, restoration, digitalization and cataloguing to allow their exploitation for scientific research. Technicians need training in new technologies of conservation and cataloguing systems. The government of Mali and the ONG SAVAMA-DCI are currently setting this in motion in the framework of larger projects with assistance from international lenders.

Among these, projects for the rehabilitation of damaged cultural heritage with the support of the European Union and various bilateral programs, and the international initiative Timbuktu Renaissance (no link to this exhibition). This initiative is the product of an action group led by Malians, and involving supporters from rock stars to government leaders to media moguls, and archivists from the US, Qatar and the UK, all motivated by the will to give Timbuktu a new development impetus through culture. They include, among others, Google, Wim Wenders, the Centre for Global Numeric cultures of UCLA. In the short term, this project aims at the revival of the Festival of the Desert, a documentary film, a virtual website, and a large exhibition. In the long term, the creation of a foundation to manage cultural, scholar, economic and social growth of Timbuktu and its region.





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