Manuscripts of Timbuktu in Exile

I closed the previous entry with a reference to my job in Bergen regarding the archives of Sean O’Fahey. Among the various contributions to the history and heritage of Sudan and Africa, O’Fahey has been the editor together with John Hunwick of the series of volumes titled Arabic Literature of Africa (ALA). For the four volumes published to date, see the related page at Brill’s.

Another major contribution by John Hunwick is his work on the manuscripts from Timbuktu, latest outcome of which was The Hidden Treasures Of Timbuktu, published by Thames & Hudson in 2008.

The Timbuktu Manuscripts have come this year at the center of world attention due to the Mali conflicts. The story can be summarized thus: following the insurgence of Islamist groups in Northern Mali, the collections of Timbuktu were claimed attacked and destroyed on the grounds of the heretical content of the works preserved in the manuscripts. Later on, however, it was reported that the Timbuktu manuscripts had already been moved to safe locations before the attacks and in anticipation of the threat pending. Subsequently, campaigns for their salvation, preservation, and rehabilitation have been undertaken.

A major role in these campaigns was naturally assumed by the Tombouktou Manuscripts’ Project supported by the Ford Foundation and the University of Cape Town that had already started working with the collection since 2004. Nonetheless, it was very recently announced that another sort of danger is now threatening the manuscripts, namely the climate of Southern Mali, where the manuscripts were evacuated in metal boxes, packed tightly and therefore increasing the risks of destruction by humidity, raising significantly during the summer months. An initial announcement at CNN was followed by a fund-raising campaign that is what pushed us into publishing the present entry.

Moreover, its title “Timbuktu Libraries in Exile” reminded us vividly of other exiled libraries, first and foremost the collection of Old Nubian documents, which after destructions during the centuries of the Islamization of the Middle Nile Valley and the violent deracination of the Nubians from their ancestral lands caused by the building of the Aswan High Dam, were lost forever or spread in various places around the world (mainly Egypt, Sudan, England, and Germany). The Nubia Museum in Aswan and the building of its sister-institution across the border at the Sudanese town of Wadi Halfa should become the natural homesteads of the collection that can be gathered in these two museums after being digitalized in the various places where it is hosted now. The moving of all the Old Nubian manuscripts to their region of origin should subsequently function as a tool for the education of the local population in the language, the literature, and the cultural heritage of their ancestors. Finally, the compromises needed to be made by the present-day owners of the manuscripts should be a paradigm for similar political resolutions, indigenous peoples’  rights’ recognition, dialogue on and across cultures, religions, ethnicities, and states.

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