Rescuing cultural treasures in Mali

25.02.2013 - Article

During their occupation of parts of Mali, Islamists have heavily damaged the country’s cultural treasures. German assistance helped make it possible to bring historical manuscripts to safety.

During their occupation of parts of northern Mali from early 2012 to early 2013, Islamists not only mistreated the local population and endangered the security of the entire region, but also heavily damaged the country’s cultural treasures. Since these groups were militarily driven back, Germany has been helping bring these treasures to safety and preserve them.

Rescued manuscript from Timbuktu
Rescued manuscript from Timbuktu© AA

The items rescued are precious manuscripts from Timbuktu, the intellectual and spiritual centre of Mali. These manuscripts hold the twelfth- and thirteenth-century Arab world’s entire body of scientific, philosophical and theological knowledge. Some of them date back as far as the ninth and tenth centuries.

Of some 350,000 ancient manuscripts held in Timbuktu, Dr Abdel Kader Haidara, with international support, was able to save more than 200,000 from destruction. Haidara is a manuscript expert and the president of the non-governmental organisation SAVAMA-DCI.

Many manuscripts are in poor condition and need to be preserved (file photo)
Many manuscripts are in poor condition and need to be preserved (file photo)© picture-alliance/abaca

German assistance helped bring more than 4000 of these manuscripts to safety in Bamako, the Malian capital, where they have been stored in archive boxes. The Gerda Henkel Foundation, which is particularly dedicated to preserving Islamic culture, has also helped fund the needed preservation measures. To ensure that practical support for preserving the endangered manuscripts continues in the future, the Federal Foreign Office is inviting international partners of the previous rescue operations to Berlin in April 2014. Here they will agree on further steps to restore, archive and digitise the manuscripts and coordinate future international efforts to protect these valuable cultural assets.

A man from Timbuktu displays his treasures (file photo)
A man from Timbuktu displays his treasures (file photo)© picture-alliance/abaca

The city of Timbuktu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as are its three major mosques and sixteen ancient mausoleums. Eleven of these mausoleums were destroyed by the Islamists during their occupation of Timbuktu in 2012. Reconstruction work has now begun.

While retreating from advancing French and Malian troops in January 2013, the Islamists also ravaged the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research, which held some 40,000 manuscripts. Between 2000 and 3000 documents were burned, but most of the others were rescued. Some of them were hidden in private homes.

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