Over the last few days there have been a number of conflicting reports about the burning of the extensive manuscript library of the Ahmed Baba Institute in the city of Timbuktu. Initial bulletins suggested that the retreating militants had destroyed as many as 30,000 manuscripts dating from the thirteenth century onwards, devastating a significant part of Mali’s premodern cultural heritage. Just in the last twenty-four hours, we’ve learned that the damage may not have been nearly as extensive, as it appears most of the books had already been relocated to other locations in Timbuktu and its vicinity–though as the YouTube video below suggests, the communications near-blackout still leaves a lot of room for doubt. The Project has just posted an update, giving the latest known facts about the very fluid situation on the ground.
Seeking some more immediate context for this disturbing story, earlier today I spoke to Susana Molins Lliteras, who joined me on Skype from Cape Town. A Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town researching the region’s cultural history, Susana is also a member of the team spearheading the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project, an initiative aimed at digitizing and making available for study the written record of premodern Timbuktu. Susana’s expert perspective on this extensive archive is truly eye-opening, particularly for those of us who work on European materials. Our conversation ranged from the material nature of the manuscripts themselves (most of these early Timbuktu books were written on paper imported from Europe) to literary and cultural relations in the Mediterranean to the global politics of manuscript digitization–a subject on which she has some powerful things to say.
I hope readers will circulate this video widely. Susana speaks compellingly to current and ongoing threats to cultural heritage represented by the violence of the last week in Western Africa. But she also has a lot to say about the politics of manuscript and archival study in relation to tourism and economic inequality. Thanks for watching.
You can Like this blog on Facebook to receive updates about new posts.