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Timbuktu manuscripts

Dirke Köpp / mc June 10, 2014

Islamists would have destroyed them, but they were smuggled to safety. The medieval manuscripts from Timbuktu are now being restored with the help of a German university.

Mali Timbuktu Bibliothek Dokumente
Image: picture-alliance/abaca

Eva Brozowsky is on her way back to Bamako. The Malian capital has been her place of work for the last year. The 34-year-old restorer of historical artefacts and specialist in paper is a member of a team of German scientists who are working to save ancient manuscripts from the library in Timbuktu from the ravages of time.

These documents are among the most historically important in West Africa and have been listed as part of UNESCO's World Cultural Heritage since 1988.

Timbuktu, which lies some 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) to the north of Bamako, was one of the spiritual centers of Islam in the Middle Ages. The 1,200 year-old manuscripts include works on alchemy, astrology, medicine, the Koran and history.

Brozowsky believes this collection is comparable in significance to the contents of all of the libraries in the whole of Germany.

There is a plan to build a special archive for the Timbuktu manuscripts in Bamako so that they can eventually be made available to researchers from Mali and abroad.

Brozowsky said the collection consists of between 280,000 and 500,000 manuscripts. Not all of them need to be restored. "But half of them are so fragile that they need to be stabilized before they can be stored away and digitalized," she said.

Heat, acid and insects

The dry desert climate in Tumbuktu has made the paper brittle, it disintegrates easily. Insects have also gnawed their way through some of the manuscripts. Even the ink with which they were written has inflicted damage because of the acid it contains. Once documents have been eaten away, they can't be restored. Brozowsky appealed to international public opinion to ensure that sufficient funds are available to rescue them.

Mali Timbuktu Bibliothek Dokumente
Not all of the hundreds of thousands of manuscripts need restorationImage: Getty Images

The present project receives backing from the German foreign ministry, international donors and Germany's Gerda Henkel Foundation. The Düsseldorf-based foundation has already donated half a million euros ($ 369,000) to help save the manuscripts.

Michael Hanssler, who heads the foundation, said they have a special program devoted to researching the political undercurrents of Islam - both historical and contemporary. Over the last four or five years, they have also backed a whole series of projects in Africa. "What is particularly fascinating about these manuscripts is that only a tiny fraction - between two and three percent - have been examined by researchers. The vast majority haven't even been looked at," he said.

Re-writing the history of Africa?

Dimitry Bondarev from the University of Hamburg is in charge of the project for saving the Timbuktu manuscripts for posterity. He said they will help us understand the past better. "There is an enormous potential here for making the history of Africa more comprehensible," he said.

This is because scholars from all over Africa and further afield congregated in Tumbuktu in the Middle Ages to study and to write. The legendary city was located along one of the most important trade routes through the Sahara, encouraging the exchange of knowledge.

"These manuscripts could mean that parts of African history will have to be re-written," Bondarev said. He also believes that the more recent history of Islam and the activities of Islamist groups in northern Mali could be better understood with the help of these manuscripts .

However, the historical documents were very nearly destroyed by those Islamist fighters. After a coup in Mali in 2012, Islamists seized the north of the country and begun to destroy World Heritage sites in Timbuktu and Gao.

Bildergalerie Rote Liste des gefährdeten Welterbes (Timbuktu)
Islamist militants targeted World Cultural Heritages in northerm Mali following a coup in March 2012Image: cc-by/Ranveig

'Very difficult and very dangerous'

How were the manuscripts saved? By the timely and secret intervention of Abdel Kader Haidara, director of the Mamma Haidara Memorial Library, and a dedicated band of helpers who smuggled them to safety.

"It was very difficult and very dangerous. But fortunately all went well in the end. We set up several committees - one in Timbuktu, one in Bamako, and one for the route between the two. One committee made sure the documents were packed properly for the journey, another escorted them to Bamako and a third made sure they were safely stored away on arrival," he said. The whole operation took six months.

Brozowsky is busy training assistants for the mammoth restoration project. Some are learning how to restore paper, others how to clean the manscripts while a third group are building the boxes that will house and protect them.

"It would take a single individual centuries to accomplish this task. The more people we have, the more funding we have, the quicker our progress. But it will probably take decades before we are finished," she said.