On 29 May South Africa officially handed over the brand new library for the Timbuktu Manuscripts to the Malian government. South Africa was instrumental in the building of the climate-controlled facility and the training of archival staff.
The facility will be known as the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research. It can house between 200 000 and 300 000 documents, and has space for exhibitions too.
South Africa, represented by Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane, transferred the building to the Malian minister of higher education and scientific research, Siby Ginette Bellegarde.
The construction of the library was instigated by former president Thabo Mbeki, who visited Timbuktu in 2001.
Mbeki later said he had been “moved” to see the dedicated staff at the Ahmed Baba Centre struggling to preserve the priceless documents with very little resources or funding. At that time there were about 18 000 manuscripts in the building. The centre is Timbuktu’s only public library.
Without properly sealed rooms and climate control, the manuscripts were in danger of being irreversibly damaged by insects, the dry air and the abrasive Sahara sand.
After seeing this Mbeki resolved to do something to intervene, and he declared the library’s construction an official Presidential project.
On Africa Day in 2003 the project was initiated under the auspices of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development. Fittingly, Africa Day in 2010 was celebrated on 25 May, just four days before the handover ceremony.
The entire project was managed through a trust fund, which helped to raise funds through various activities, such as public exhibitions in South Africa of some of the manuscripts in 2006 and 2008.
The project had a threefold aim: to build the new library to cutting-edge specifications; to train Malian staff in the proper techniques of preservation and restoration; and to raise public awareness of the need to preserve this valuable part of Africa’s heritage.
The South African National Archives was closely involved in the training process, both in South Africa and Mali.
The existing Ahmed Baba Centre also underwent an extensive upgrade.
Ancient hub of learning
The historic city of Timbuktu, which lies about 15km north of the Niger River in Mali, was founded around 1100 by Tuareg nomads, but it was only in the 11th century that a permanent settlement was established.
Timbuktu was inscribed on Unesco’s World Heritage list in 1988. In its heyday, in the 15th and 16th centuries, the city was renowned as a centre for learning and Islamic studies. Scholars came from all over Africa to study at the many prestigious institutions which flourished there.
Although many of its people are now impoverished, modern Timbuktu still evokes a sense of the golden days, not only in the historical buildings scattered all around, but in the many private libraries that still exist. These family-run libraries sprang up all over Timbuktu as more and more Muslim scholars passed through the city, leaving behind them a written legacy in subjects ranging from astronomy, mathematics and geography to religion and legal matters.
Although nobody knows exactly how many manuscripts still exist, it is estimated that between 300 000 and 700 000 of the priceless tomes are preserved, most of them in private homes.
Three imposing, ancient mosques – Djingareyber, Sankoré and Sidi Yahia – stand in the city as a reminder that the University of Sankoré once housed the largest collection of books since the one found in the ancient Library of Alexandria. The university still functions today, and accommodates about 15 000 scholars.
While Africa is most often associated with an oral tradition of passing down learning and culture, the Tumbuktu manuscripts are proof that it also has a substantial written heritage – that was much greater than that found in Europe during the same era.
The legendary Ahmed Baba was a scholar at Sankoré – he is honoured in the name of the current facility, built in the 1970s by the Malian government with the assistance of Unesco, which has tried to preserve, restore and digitise the documents.