Thursday, February 28, 2013

Not All Heroes Wear Body Armor

The saving of Timbuktu’s priceless historical manuscripts in Mali owes everything to the bravery of an unlikely group of heroes – archivists and librarians. These manuscripts have been subject to destruction by invaders for centuries. The latest incursion was by a coalition of Tuareg separatists and Islamic militants in April 2012. Each time foreign invaders threaten Timbuktu, however, whether a Morrocan army in the 16th century, European explorers in the 18th, French colonialists in the 19th or Al Qaeda militants in the 21st – the manuscripts disappear beneath mud floors, into cupboards, boxes, sacks and secret rooms, into caves in the desert or upriver to the safety of Bamako, Mali’s capital. Abdel Kader Haidara, the owner of a large private collection of manuscripts, described how, soon after the rebels reached Timbuktu, he and fifteen others worked for a month at night packing manuscripts into metal trunks, cataloguing them, locking the boxes with two keys and then hiding them. He would not say exactly where they were hidden, only that the manuscripts had been “dispersed” in more than 1,000 boxes. Timbuktu’s manuscripts are incredibly varied, in both length and subject. Some are fragments, single pages or a couple of leafs, while others are entire bound volumes hundreds of pages long. They cover topics as diverse as science, medicine, history, human rights, law, poetry and literature, but the vast majority are of a religious nature: handwritten Qu’rans, accounts of the life of the Prophet, prayers and expositions of Islamic philosophy. The overall value of the manuscripts is in their documentation of Timbuktu’s lost heyday as the centre of Islamic scholarship and the trans-Saharan trade routes of the 15th and 16th centuries. A so much more edifying story than that concerning the bombing of the National Library of Sarajevo.

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