A series of 15th- and 16th-century manuscripts, smuggled out of Timbuktu in 2012 after the city fell into the hands of Islamist rebels, go on show this week (19 December 2014 – 22 February 2015) at the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels (Bozar). The exhibition, “Timbuktu Renaissance”, includes 16 original manuscripts with texts about science, politics and law, and was organised by Abdel Kader Haidara, the director of the Mamma Haidara library in Timbuktu. After war broke out in Mali in April 2012, and jihadist insurgents took over the city, he helped secretly transport a trove of manuscripts, books and documents to the Malian capital Bamako.
Homemade twig pens stand like off-duty soldiers in a jar on Boubacar Sadeck’s worktable. The morning sun steals into a room stuffed with a jumble of papers, ink bottles and stretched animal hides. He sits thoughtfully before a blank sheet of paper, with several old manuscripts — the color of dark tea and covered with Arabic script — open at his side. Occasionally a breeze wafts in and playfully flicks one of the old brown pages to the floor. Copying the words of ancient scholars in elegant Arabic calligraphy makes Sadeck feel close to heaven.
Abba al-Hadi could not read any of the priceless manuscripts he gingerly placed into empty rice sacks each evening last August before spiriting them through Timbuktu’s darkening streets. The wiry septuagenarian had never learned to read or write but, having spent four decades working as a guard at the Ahmed Baba Institute, a state-run body responsible for the restoration and preservation of much of this storied town’s written heritage, he was all too aware of the value of the brittle pages bound in leather cases.
The world has been focusing on the Malian city of Timbuktu and on the fate of its ancient shrines and manuscripts, but few are aware of the city of Djenné, 220 miles to the south-west. This Unesco World Heritage Site sits in the heart of the Niger delta, just 75 miles south of Sévaré, the town from which the French continue to launch air strikes into the north of Mali, where pockets of rebels are still present.
Read More: The Manuscripts of Djenne
As the desert inches south into the city of Timbuktu, the sand settles on your skin and the air feels heavy in your lungs. When I travelled there nine years ago, the mythical city, home to the shrines of three hundred and thirty-three Sufi saints, left a bleak impression, tempered only by the selected wonders under glass at the Ahmed Baba Centre, an edifice which, until last Friday, housed between sixty and a hundred thousand manuscripts dating back as far as the thirteenth century. Other smaller libraries and private collections held many more. Until last week, the total number of historic manuscripts in Timbuktu and its surrounding region was estimated at about two hundred thousand.
Read More: Libraries of Timbuktu
See also: Timbuktu Manuscripts Safe
The vast majority of Timbuktu’s ancient manuscripts in state and private collections appear to be unharmed after the Malian Saharan city’s 10-month occupation by Islamist rebel fighters, who burnt some of the scripts. The news, based on information from persons directly involved with the conservation of the historic texts, came as a relief to the world’s cultural community which had been dismayed by varying media reports of widespread destruction of the priceless manuscripts.
Read More: Timbuktu Manuscripts Safe
The ancient Malian city of Timbuktu has housed for centuries thousands of manuscripts which are invaluable to the history of Africa and Islam. Several thousand of them seem to have been lost or taken away by retreating Islamist militants as French and Malian troops were advancing towards Timbuktu.
View Images: Timbuktu’s Manuscripts
Timbuktu’s main library, officially called the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Islamic Studies and Research, is a treasure house containing more than 20,000 manuscripts covering centuries of Mali’s history.
Read More: Timbuktu Library