Saving Timbuktu’s Treasures

Syed Amir examines what was at stake as religious fanatics attacked the brilliant heritage of the great Malian centre of Muslim civilisation

Saving Timbuktu’s Treasures
On September 27, 2016, the International Criminal Court at The Hague witnessed an uncommon spectacle. Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a member of the terrorist organisation Ansar Dine (Ansar ad-Din), an affiliate of Al Qaeda, was hauled before the court, convicted and sentenced to nine years of imprisonment. He confessed to orchestrating and participating in the destruction of historic, cultural and religious monuments - including mosques and shrines - of Timbuktu, Mali, dating back to the late 15th and early 16th centuries. In his statement, he begged forgiveness from the people of Timbuktu, stating, “I would like them to look at me like a son that has lost his way.”

The wanton destruction of Timbuktu’s cherished monuments by radical Islamists was not a singular event. The militants are not content with enforcement of their harsh, punitive brand of faith: they are equally committed to destroying all symbols of social and cultural life of the people they subjugate. Having no appreciation of the value of cultural or religious heritage, they destroy monuments that are embodiments of a nation’s glory and showcase its architecture, arts and archeological treasures.

Afghanistan perhaps was the earliest country to suffer such mindless destruction. The statues of the Buddha at Bamiyan, carved in the 4th or 5th centuries AD, which had survived even the Mongol conquests in the Middle Ages, were blown up by the Taliban in 2001. These ancient lifeless carvings, somehow, threatened their convictions. A worse fate befell the archeological monuments of the city of Nimrud, the capital of the Assyrian empire. These sites in Northern Iraq, almost 3,000 years old, were some of the most prized treasures of human civilization going back to antiquity. Yet, the remnants of ancient palaces, temples and pyramids were gratuitously ravaged by the zealots of ISIS, the so-called ‘Islamic state’.

Similar atrocities were inflicted on the ruins of the city of Palmyra in Syria during its occupation by ISIS in 2015. Declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, the city - once part of the Roman Empire - was a luminous center of culture and art in 1st and 2nd centuries AD in the Middle East. Mercifully, the destruction of these sites has been less extensive than what was once feared. However, the damage to the exquisite collection of artifacts showcased in the museum was much more severe.

A continent away, in Africa, the city of Timbuktu - once the proud jewel of the Malian empire - has gone through its own period of desolation. The city had experienced a golden age some five centuries ago. As the curtain was finally descending on eight centuries of Muslim power in Andalusia in the late 15th century, Timbuktu at the edge of the Saharan Desert was thriving as the centre of Islamic learning. It was witnessing an extraordinary period of florescence of arts, religious scholarship and research, bringing fame and fortune to the city.

Writing in JStor Daily, author Lorraine Boissoneault noted that it was not the plentiful gold that brought fame and wealth to the city, although the metal was indeed plentiful. Rather, it was the illustriousness of the scholars studying at its numerous academic institutions that was responsible for its renown. Any learned man visiting Timbuktu, it is said, was treated with great kindness and hospitality in the hope that he might share some of his knowledge with local students. The population of the city followed the Maliki fiqh (school of jurisprudence) and Sufi mystic doctrines - both inclusive and gentle.
In its glory days, it is reported that manuscript-sellers earned more than any other traders in Timbuktu

By the early 14th century, Timbuktu had become a meeting place for trade caravans arriving from nearby countries - laden with gold, cotton, ivory and other precious commodities. According to a legend, Mansa Musa, the emperor of the Malian empire, travelled from Timbuktu to Makkah for Hajj in 1324 via Cairo. He had eighty camels in his entourage, carrying three hundred pounds of gold dust each, “besides, several thousand slaves, all clad in silk robes.” He dispersed so much gold on the way that the price of the precious metal plummeted. Mali at the time produced some 60 percent of the world’s supply of gold. It is a fascinating story, but even if apocryphal, highlights the great prosperity of the region at the time.

During its glory days, the fabled city was visited by some famous travelers. Hasan Mohammed Al Wazzan, also referred to as Leo Africanus, was a Berber from Granada, Andalusia, who, in the twilight of the Muslim rule in Spain, emigrated and settled at Fez, Morocco. He travelled extensively in Europe and Africa in the early 16th century, also visited Timbuktu in 1510 and later wrote a book, History and Description of Africa, which remained the major source of knowledge about Africa in Europe for a long time.

Some of Al Wazzan’s writings have been quoted by Natalie Davis in her book, Trickster Travels. She found that “Timbuktu was possessed of a fine mosque and palace rich in gold, busy artisans and merchants selling goods from all over the world, prosperous citizens enjoying musical instruments and dance. Scholars, preachers and judges were numerous and honored.” In the absence of printing presses, many scribes were employed to transcribe the erudite texts. “Manuscript-sellers earned more than any other traders in Timbuktu.” The city had world-class centers of learning, legions of scholars and their students who authored thousands of valuable manuscripts. Estimated to be 700,000 in number and written mostly in Arabic, some dating back to the 13th century, they addressed a wide spectrum of subjects including religion, Islamic jurisprudence, Greek philosophy, medicine, science and astronomy.

Timbuktu’s golden age came to an end in 1591 when the Moroccan army defeated the much weaker forces of the Songhai Empire and captured Timbuktu. One of the most distinguished scholars, prolific authors and jurists at the time, Ahmad Baba, urged his countrymen to resist the invasion. He was arrested and many of his precious manuscripts destroyed. He died in Timbuktu in 1608.

In time, the control of the city passed from the Moroccans to Berbers and then in 1893 to French colonialists. However, an unprecedented period of misery was unleashed when in March 2012, Timbuktu fell under the harsh rule of the extremist outfit Ansar Dine. It brutally imposed an intolerant, fanatical version of its religion on a population that hitherto had practiced a far gentler form of it. In a recent book, The Bad-Ass Librarian of Timbuktu, author Joshua Hammer has narrated in detail the systematic destruction of the historic monuments, mosques, tombs and shrines considered sacred by the local people. Ansar Dine especially demolished mausoleums of Sufi saints who were revered and to whom the people turned to draw solace and succour in difficult times. They instituted harsh punishments and banned all forms of music, characterising it “Satan’s music.”

The people of Timbuktu had guarded the ancient manuscripts over the centuries with their lives. In the early 20th century, their existence and an appreciation of their value became widely known. Efforts - supported by UNESCO, the University of Oslo and the governments of Kuwait and South Africa - were launched to protect and preserve them. The Ahmad Baba Library and Research Institute, named after the famed 16th-century scholar, was established in 1973 with the objective of preserving the manuscripts and making them accessible to scholars worldwide. The library has a collection of 30,000 documents and is equipped with many modern facilities for copying and digitisation

The control of Northern Mali and Timbuktu by Ansar Dine placed the prized manuscripts in great peril. In his book, Hammer explains that many of the documents contained the “reasoned discourse and intellectual inquiry that the militants in their narrow, rigid interpretation of religion, their hatred of modernity would not tolerate.”  There was world-wide concern for their survival.

Then, something miraculous happened. Abdel Kader Haidara, who had worked in the Ahmed Baba Institute for years and had inherited from his father a great passion for the Timbuktu manuscripts, sensed the danger faced by them. At great personal risk, he organised a successful clandestine operation to move thousands of manuscripts from Timbuktu to a safe location in Northern Mali - one that was still in the government’s hands. Braving militants, bandits and the weather, he rescued some 400,000 manuscripts that are now neatly and safely stored in the town of Bamako in Mali. Ansar Dine has since been driven out of Timbuktu and the city is returning to a normal life. The singular vision and heroic action of one person ensured the survival of the national treasure, ensuring its availability to the coming generations.