Maverick Life


Iconic archive: The manuscripts of Timbuktu

Iconic archive: The manuscripts of Timbuktu
Image design: Malibongwe Tyilo for Maverick Life (Images supplied)

Susana Molins Lliteras’ chapter in the book ‘Babel Unbound’ explores the reports that came out on the morning of 28 January 2013 that the Ahmed Baba Institute – home to thousands of African Arabic manuscripts – had been burnt by departing rebels.

Just before the Franco-Malian recapture or liberation of Timbuktu after 10 months of rebel occupation, the mayor of the city, Hallè Ousmane, reported from his exile in Bamako that the Ahmed Baba Institute had been burnt by departing rebels.

Institut Ahmed Baba (Image supplied)

He had no other details. Thus, rumours about the burning of “the library of Timbuktu” and more than “25,000 of its ancient manuscripts” were born and spread like wildfire, making front-page headlines in the international media. Newspaper, radio and Internet reports spoke of the “barbaric” nature of the “destruction of precious world heritage”, with clear undertones of a “clash of civilisations” discourse. This was another proof of “Islamist” depravity, of the irreconcilable differences between “us” and “them”, of the “threat” to the values of the civilised world from the “monsters” with whom no dialogue is possible.

In addition to the initial reports, images soon began to surface. Alex Crawford, a Sky News journalist who was there with the French forces, aired footage from the new Ahmed Baba archive building, built by the South Africa of Thabo Mbeki’s African Renaissance era. Impactful images showed empty manuscript preservation boxes thrown on the floor, burnt leather pouches and a pile of ashes, as an “Ahmed Baba worker” narrated the utter destruction imparted by retreating insurgents. At the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project’s office at the University of Cape Town, colleagues and I spent days responding to the frantic calls of journalists from all over the world. We advised caution in the light of unconfirmed reports and tried to clarify some questions about the manuscripts and their history: “No, we don’t deal with scrolls; the majority of the manuscripts probably date from the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries onwards and, as strange it may sound, the content of the manuscripts belongs to the categories of the classical Islamic-Arabic intellectual tradition.”

Internally, we insistently reached out to our colleagues in Timbuktu – those who remained, as the majority had left the city for the capital, Bamako, during the occupation – who for the previous eight days had suffered communications, electricity and water blackouts. We analysed the available footage, noting the small pile of ashes, inconsistent with the burning of thousands of manuscripts, as reported, and established that the “Ahmed Baba worker” interviewed was in fact a local tour guide well known to us for sourcing Tuareg jewellery, but with little knowledge of the manuscripts. Finally, we were able to communicate with Dr Mohamed Diagayeté, from the Ahmed Baba Institute, who, reporting from Bamako, was able to confirm that the majority of the manuscripts of the Institute were, at the time of the occupation, stored in the old archive building, which was still intact. Piecing together confirmed information, we began to speak against the media frenzy and panic-inducing reports, which, nevertheless, had already left their mark and cast the conversation in a very particular way – this was a clear, black-and-white case of a “clash of values”, leaving little room for ambiguities or questions.

Nevertheless, there exists in many European languages a much longer and entrenched association with Timbuktu, as implied in the phrase “from here to Timbuktu”: going to the most remote or unreachable destination, existing only in the imagination. Critically, this connotation is rooted in a much larger racist discourse on Africa, as a continent devoid of history and indigenous knowledge production.

Over the next few days, fragments of reliable information about the fate of the Timbuktu manuscripts began to surface through different sources, slowly proving the previous rumours baseless. By this time, though, the surge in media attention about Timbuktu had almost disappeared, just as suddenly as it materialised. The Institute’s personnel confirmed that over 10,000 manuscripts stored in the underground vault of the new Ahmed Baba Institute building – which the insurgents had made their headquarters, where they had lived for about 10 months – were still intact.

The images of destroyed boxes and ashes belonged to the conservation and digitisation units in the upper part of the building, which were ransacked. Eventually, an estimated 4,000 manuscripts stored in those areas were declared “missing” – and currently their fate, as well as their exact number, is still unclear, although there have been reports of some manuscripts being sold in the city and even in refugee camps as far away as Mauritania.

In the following weeks, more spectacular news reports emerged of the colossal “smuggling” operation that had taken place during the occupation, when hundreds of thousands of Timbuktu’s manuscripts, belonging to both the public Ahmed Baba Institute – old building – and to numerous private collections, were transported to Bamako under perilous conditions. Again, this story captured the imagination of multiple publics, witnessing an explosion of media reports, interviews with those responsible and eventually two journalistic books (The Book Smugglers Of Timbuktu: The Quest for this Storied City and the Race to Save Its Treasures and The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu) and a documentary recounting the tale. This time, the narratives depicted heroic librarians from Timbuktu – likened to the “Monuments Men” who saved treasures from the Nazi regime – willing to sacrifice their lives for their “precious treasures”, which are “the world’s heritage”, and who were framed in the discourse of “good Muslim vs bad Muslim”. Thus, the eruption of the manuscripts of Timbuktu to the forefront of public discourse about the world’s cultural heritage scene was inserted into a narrative of “precious cultural heritage in peril”, which prevails to this day.

Soon, however, in closed circles, academic as well as local, questions about the operation began to arise. Were the manuscripts in Timbuktu in real danger during the occupation, as the large majority that remained were still unharmed? Was it really possible that the movement of thousands of manuscripts out of Timbuktu went undetected by the insurgents, when everyone leaving the town was thoroughly searched? What was the real monetary cost of the operation, its sources and possible geopolitical trade-offs? Finally, and more directly, now that many manuscripts were in Bamako – where the climatic conditions are very humid – what was to be their fate?

These questions arose amid the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO’s) fundraising efforts and conferences of experts; high-level, multi-state deliberation meetings; crowd-funding campaigns to “save” the manuscripts; the awarding of distinguished accolades for those involved – honorary doctorates and city medals, among others – and acrimonious group emails and H-net threads exchanged by different actors. It was soon clear that certain questions could not be raised in some circles, that the timing of the release of the news of the operation was deliberate and that even the rumours of the burning of the “library of Timbuktu” had not been contradicted by those in the know. There was much at stake in these public engagements, for both local and foreign actors, as well as librarians, archivists, academics, state bureaucrats and private foundations.

The question then arises: why and how did the manuscripts of Timbuktu – a dusty little town on the edge of the Sahara – erupt with such force in the headlines of global media and in the centre of public engagements on questions of world heritage?

Context here is essential: Timbuktu has recently become synonymous with a very specific type of heritage, of a pre-colonial written tradition in sub-Saharan Africa, associated with the manuscript legacy of Muslim West Africa – although an older association of the city as an impossible-to-reach, almost mythical location still lingers in popular imagination. In recent decades, the African Arabic written legacy of West Africa has popularly become known in public discourse as the “Timbuktu archive”, whether as a source for the history of the region in the pre-colonial and colonial periods or contemplated as a heritage phenomenon in the present. In some ways, the Timbuktu archive has recently become the “iconic archive” used to signify indigenous African writing and knowledge production before the advent of colonialism. This iconic archive has also assumed the status of “world heritage” in the present.

Nevertheless, there exists in many European languages a much longer and entrenched association with Timbuktu, as implied in the phrase “from here to Timbuktu”: going to the most remote or unreachable destination, existing only in the imagination. Critically, this connotation is rooted in a much larger racist discourse on Africa, as a continent devoid of history and indigenous knowledge production.

As this kind of colonial discourse gradually started to be debunked, the continent was redefined as the seat of oral history and as Shamil Jeppie contends “even in the case of the written legacy of Africa in Timbuktu, the popular view is that the authors of the works were ‘outsiders’”, “‘Arabs’”. Thus, as ideas about the historicity of Africa, the essentiality of its orality and the rediscovery of its written heritage have changed over time, so too has the Timbuktu archive undergone several reincarnations in the public imaginary. So where do these two Timbuktus – the iconic archive of written heritage and the mythical location – meet and how has the image of the city been transformed in and through public discourse and engagements?

At different times, the Timbuktu archive has been positioned – and claimed – in public discourse in various ways, by various players and publics in a complex geo-political and ideological game. Nowadays, to Africans and Africanists, it is proof of African civilisation and historicity, claiming for it the status – and benefits – of world heritage. To Muslims – African and otherwise – it is another example of the achievements of Islamic culture that need to be revived, especially in the face of current Islamophobia. To Western publics, invested in the exploration and scholarship of an exotic distant society, it is world heritage to be researched, protected from “extremists” and preserved – including opening their access to the collections. To some local actors – manuscript librarians, researchers and family collectors – vying for limited resources and attention for their archives, the manuscripts offer authentication of evidence-based claims (on land claims, historical disputes and postcolonial identities, for example), as well as lessons for the present, including peaceful conflict-resolution strategies and nation-building initiatives, seen as alternatives to “failed” Western models.

Although each of these publics, their imaginaries and public discourses are relatively distinct at some moments, they also merge and overlap at others, in the present and more distant past. Each of these publics lay claim to the “Timbuktu archive” differently, though in some respects in relation to each other, thus exemplifying the entwinement and mutual co-production of popular imagination and scholarly and political discourse.

Thus, the Timbuktu archive has accumulated a “public potency” that has something to do with the circulation of ideas about the archive, the accrual and recognition of its status by different publics at different times, and of claims and counterclaims made on its behalf. DM/ML

This excerpt forms part of a newly published chapter from an edited collection: Babel Unbound: Rage, reason and rethinking public life (Wits University Press, 2020).

Susana Molins-Lliteras is a Post-Doctoral Fellow based at the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative and the Historical Studies Department at the University of Cape Town (South Africa) and ASA Presidential Fellow for 2019.  For the last decade, she has been a researcher and coordinator at the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project (, and an integral part of the Project’s events and output, organising conferences, workshops and seminars on West African book and manuscript history. Her current book project, based on her doctoral dissertation, presents an archival biography the Fondo Kati, a private family manuscript collection in Timbuktu, elucidating how historical knowledge in and about Timbuktu is continuously produced, reproduced and refashioned.  She has published on the archives of Timbuktu and on the social history of a West African Sufi movement in South Africa.


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