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Preserving cultural objects: Saving manuscripts from Mali

Digitising the manuscripts creates back-up copies of the collections, allowing the fragile documents to be saved from unnecessary use in future.

Digitising the manuscripts creates back-up copies of the collections, allowing the fragile documents to be saved from unnecessary use in future., © Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC). Universität Hamburg

02.11.2018 - Article

In 2012, radical Islamist rebels were prevented from destroying thousands of centuries-old manuscripts: A ceremony marking this success was held in Hamburg City Hall on 2 November.

It was a dramatic rescue effort. Private cars, boats, donkey carts covered in tarpaulins – all sorts of unusual means were used in late 2012 to save centuries-old manuscripts from being destroyed by radical Islamist rebels. Thanks to efforts led by Malian librarian Abdel Kader Haidara, 350,000 Islamic manuscripts documenting the wealth of scientific, philosophical and theological knowledge of the West African and Arab worlds since the 12th century were removed from Timbuktu to the capital, Bamako.

Saving the documents, which are part of the UNESCO World Heritage, was possible thanks to support from German and international partners.

Ancient civilisation

The rebuilt Cheikna Sidali library in Timbuktu
The rebuilt Cheikna Sidali library in Timbuktu© Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC), Universität Hamburg

Timbuktu, in the north of what is now Mali, was once a major intellectual centre of Islam. Also known as “the Pearl of the Desert” or “the City of 333 Saints”, it became a trading crossroads for North and West Africa in the 11th and 12th centuries. It also became part of the Mali empire, which at the time covered large parts of West Africa. The city’s golden age came in the 15th and 16th centuries, when it became an important centre for mathematics and Islamic law. The manuscripts saved in 2012 are an expression of Timbuktu’s intellectual history.

Conserving, archiving and digitising the manuscripts and rebuilding libraries

Every manuscript is thoroughly examined and any dirt is carefully cleaned off.
Every manuscript is thoroughly examined and any dirt is carefully cleaned off.© Centre for the Study of Manuscrip Cultures (CSMC), Universität Hamburg

Since 2013, the Federal Foreign Office, together with the Gerda Henkel Foundation and the Jutta Vogel Foundation, has been supporting the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures at the University of Hamburg in cooperation with the Malian non-governmental organisation SAVAMA DCI. The aim is to conserve, restore, digitise and catalogue the manuscripts and to rebuild some libraries where they can later be housed.

Heidrun Tempel, Director for Research and Academic Relations Policy and Cultural Relations Policy at the Federal Foreign Office, stressed why Germany is committed to cultural preservation worldwide:

Without courageous people like Abdel Kader Haidara and his team, cultural objects cannot be protected. In the face of the many threats to the cultural heritage from war and destruction, the impact of climate change and infrastructure development, our commitment to preserving the cultural heritage is becoming more and more a matter of urgency. Protecting and maintaining cultural diversity is therefore one of the priorities of the Federal Foreign Office’s cultural relations and education policy. In supporting the preservation of the manuscripts from Timbuktu, we want to help save important testimonies to the cultural history of Mali, West Africa and the Arab world.

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