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Saving the Timbuktu Manuscripts

The research project
As early as the 12th century CE, the city of Timbuktu in Mali, West Africa, was an important trading town and, as a junction of several key trading routes, evolved as of the 14th century at the latest into an important centre for the entire African continent. In the 15th century Timbuktu moreover became a renowned academic centre, attracting numerous scholars from the Islamic Maghreb and sub-Saharan regions. The city’s great importance over the centuries is reflected in an immense number of scientific, philosophical and theological texts, written in Arabic and sub-Saharan languages from the ninth century onwards. The manuscripts, stored in around 35 private libraries and the national Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu, are important sources on the cultural history of the entire region and extremely significant for the written record of West-African history.   When Islamic groups occupied northern parts of Mali in spring 2012 the entire stock of manuscripts, designated UNESCO World Heritage, was at risk of destruction. In the course of an eight-month rescue operation led by the director of the private Bibliothèque Mamma Haïdara in Timbuktu, Dr. Abdel Kader Haïdara, roughly 285,000 manuscripts (95% of the total) were successfully retrieved from war-torn Timbuktu and taken to the capital city, Bamako, over 700 km away. Yet it is not only the difficult transport conditions and provisional storage in approx. 2,400 metal boxes that now pose a threat to the condition of the manuscripts. Indeed, the climate in Bamako, which differs from Timbuktu’s dry desert climate, with a rainy season lasting several months and generally higher humidity, is damaging the hand-written works. Whereas around 60% of the documents are in a stable condition, 20% have suffered considerable damage and another 20% are deemed extremely fragile. The paper is subject to mould and other processes of degradation.  

Aim of the research project
The aim of a joint project by the German Foreign Office, international government and private partners and the Gerda Henkel Foundation is to secure, digitalize and restore the manuscripts being stored in Bamako and as such to ensure their accessibility for Malian and international research in the long term. To this end, in the year under review a group of experts from the Bibliothèque Mamma Haïdara headed by Dr. Haïdara and the research centre SFB 950 “Manuscript Cultures in Asia, Africa and Europe” at the University of Hamburg headed by Prof. Michael Friedrich examined the scope and condition of the manuscripts. On the basis of this, restorer and paper specialist Eva Brozowsky is implementing immediate measures in Bamako in the framework of a 12-month project, such as dehumidification and ensuring a constant climate, and training Malian staff. West Africa researcher Dr. Dmitry Bondarev is lending the project his expertise and following the initial safeguarding measures will conduct the digitalization, cataloguing and scientific analysis of the manuscripts in cooperation with Malian staff. Financed by the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, a building in Bamako is currently being upgraded and furnished and fitted out with a restoration workshop. It is to be a modern centre in the Malian capital for preservation, restoration and research, where the manuscripts can be stored under good external conditions until a decision can be made as to a possible transfer back to Timbuktu.    

Support measures
The Gerda Henkel Foundation supports the research project in cooperation with the German Foreign Office and additional international partners by providing funding to cover travel, material and personnel costs.

Project leadership

Dr. Abdel Kader Haïdara
Prof. Dr. Michael Friedrich

Location

Bamako

Academic Project Manager

Dr. Abdel Kader Haïdara
Prof. Dr. Michael Friedrich

Film Project Manager
Prof. Dr. Michael Friedrich

Editorial Teams
Peter Prestel

Camera Technicians
Klaus Hernitschek

Editing Technicians
Klaus Hernitschek

Overall Planning Teams
Gisela Graichen und Peter Prestel

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