The destruction of thousands of valuable Islamic manuscripts held in the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu was one of the top stories on French TV on Monday and Tuesday, including video from reporters inside the library. According to the reports, the library had been ransacked and the manuscripts, some dating from the period when Timbuktu was the intellectual and spiritual capital of Islam in Western Africa, were burned by Islamic extremists before they fled the city out of spite for the inhabitants who welcomed the arrival of French and Mali forces sent to oust them. The video showed the broken empty cases where the manuscripts had been held, but it was obvious that the pile of ashes was too small to be the remains of the entire collection.
My first thought had been to wonder if these texts had been digitized. Oddly enough, some of the initial reports mentioned the inconsistency between the size of the ashes and the extent of the collection but appeared to assume the remaining manuscripts had been stolen. None mentioned any of the conservation projects or the availability of the digitized texts online.
I discovered the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project and Tombouctou Manuscripts Project for preserving and digitizing the manuscripts when I was doing some searches online just as the more comprehensive reports began to surface. Although some of the manuscripts were probably lost in the fire, the majority of them were apparently saved.
I’m glad to have learned of the project for digitizing these works and their significance for the history of books in Africa. Kidnapping and murder are crimes against men and women, but destroying manuscripts like these is a crime against humanity.
One advantage of our digital legacy is that this sort of crime will be much more difficult in the future. Someone somewhere will always have a copy of original works, and it won’t be obvious who has them or where they are.
Access can be denied, servers can be taken down, but thousands of individuals may have copies that can be exchanged in ways that are virtually undetectable and nonlocalizable. Knowledge and culture will be more easily preserved by those to whom it is most valuable, just as the enlightened people of Timbuktu preserved these manuscripts for thousands of years in private homes, and safely transferred them to a safe location when they were threatened by religious militants who had no qualms about destroying cultural and historical records they didn’t agree with.
Now if only our modern technology would make kidnapping and murder equally as difficult. That would be progress.
Timbuktu Update from the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project Blog
Mali: The Real Story Of The Burning Of The Timbuktu Manuscripts (article in French, Google Translation)
Online Exhibition: Ancient Manuscripts From The Desert Libraries Of Timbuktu
The Timbuktu Manuscripts Wikipedia entry