Rediscovering the Timbuktu Manuscripts

A turbulent history, a recent rediscovery, and the ancient library's current context

By SAVAMA-DCI

Conquest by the Moroccan sultan’s army (Battle of Tondibi on March 13, 1591 and the Battle of Bamba in October of the same year) brought about the fall of the Songhai Empire and the end of the Askia dynasty. The considerable decline in economic, commercial, and scientific activity that ensued in Timbuktu signalled a gradual cessation in manuscript writing.

Unveiling for the beloved friends eager for knowledge about religious duties and accountingSAVAMA-DCI

Strict repressive measures were inflicted on the scholars who were arrested, imprisoned, stripped of their property, and then deported to Marrakesh, like Ahmed Baba. Looting was carried out: the manuscripts were stored and hidden in trunks by the families before being gradually forgotten (although the trunks were passed down from generation to generation).

The 19th century saw a period of rebirth with the Kunta dynasty. Manuscripts were being produced once more. But this was also the start of colonization. The colonial period was one of "concealment" for the manuscripts.

The Holy QuranSAVAMA-DCI

After some manuscripts were exported by colonizers, the families began hiding their documents again, creating underground passageways or rooms hidden behind walls in their homes. Some of these collections can be found in the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Fonds Archinard, Fonds Oumarien, which can be consulted through Gallica).

The “rediscovery” of the manuscripts came several years after the end of the colonial period. In 1966 and 1967, two conferences were organized in Abidjan and Timbuktu by UNESCO to rewrite African history and protect the region’s heritage by founding a center specializing in the collection and conservation of manuscripts.

Enseigne de l'Institut des Hautes Etudes et de Recherche islamiques Ahmed Baba by El Hadj DjitteyeSAVAMA-DCI

The foundation of the Ahmed Baba Institute

The Ahmed Baba Center (CEDRAB) opened in Timbuktu in 1973. It initiated campaigns of collecting (asking families to give their manuscripts to the CEDRAB), processing, and conservation.

The CEDRAB—which changed its name to the IHERIAB—moved to new premises in 2009.

Les locaux actuels de SAVAMA by Source : SAVAMA-DCISAVAMA-DCI

The foundation of SAVAMA-DCI

The Mamma Haidara library acquired funding for the conservation and processing of its collections (Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Al-Furqan...). Taking advantage of the freedom of association introduced in 1991, the SAVAMA-DCI association was founded in November 1996 and moved into premises in Timbuktu. Its first act would be to raise awareness among the families, on a basis that differed from that of the CEDRAB.

La façade de la bibliothèque Al Wangari à TombouctouSAVAMA-DCI

SAVAMA-DCI provides technical and financial support to the families (for processing and conservation) and encourages them to keep the manuscripts in their families.

Finances were initially limited, but gradually, following exhibitions held in the United States in particular, SAVAMA-DCI found sources of funding, which enable it to engage in work to conserve and inventory the collections.

Arrivée des malles à Bamako lors de l'évacuation des manuscrits, SAVAMA-DCISAVAMA-DCI

Saving the manuscripts

With the jihadist occupation of northern Mali in 2012, the threat of the trafficking or destruction of the manuscripts became acute; an operation was organized by the SAVAMA-DCI NGO to transfer the manuscripts out of Timbuktu (and other towns in the region) to Bamako in particular.

Arrivée des malles à Bamako lors de l'évacuation des manuscrits, SAVAMA-DCISAVAMA-DCI

The Ahmed Baba Institute’s manuscripts were also some of the first to be saved.
SAVAMA-DCI moved to new premises in Bamako. The manuscripts are stored in various places around the city.

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