30 August 2023
Photo: Nicolas Réméné
From Timbuktu to Bamako: aerial view of Gao in the north-east of Mali.
The manuscripts of Timbuktu are irreplaceable documents of the cultural history of West Africa. Since 2014, the CSMC has been working on site to preserve them. While the security situation in the country worsens, the final courses of the ‘Timbuktu Manuscript Training Project’ took place this summer.
Maria Luisa Russo is calling in from Bamako. As Field Manager, she heads the CSMC’s branch office in the capital of Mali. There and in Timbuktu, 1000 kilometres away in the north of the country, she had a stressful time this summer. ‘For international guests, travel between Bamako and Timbuktu is only possible by plane’, she says. ‘Travelling by car or boat is too dangerous. And once in Timbuktu special security measures are needed.’ While the security situation in Mali, especially in the north, is steadily deteriorating, she had to coordinate the completion of a training programme that aims to contribute to the long-term preservation of a cultural treasure of inestimable value: the manuscripts of Timbuktu. These manuscripts from the 15th to the early 20th century are one of the most important testimonies of the West African literary tradition – but the unstable situation in the country is endangering their future.
The CSMC has been active in Mali for almost ten years. In the summer of 2012, Islamist terrorists took over large parts of the north of the country, including Timbuktu. The marauders deliberately destroyed monuments protected by the UNESCO. The written heritage in the city’s libraries, also part of the UNESCO World Heritage, was acutely threatened, and around 4,000 manuscripts were destroyed. Still, under dramatic circumstances, around 300,000 manuscripts could be rescued from Timbuktu and were brought to Bamako (the brochure ‘Safeguarding the Manuscripts from Timbuktu’ tells the story of this mission).
Out of the reach of the terrorists, however, the manuscripts were not yet safe. In Bamako, there were no facilities to store such a quantity of fragile manuscripts appropriately. In order to conserve them and to make them accessible for research, several countries supported emergency measures – including Germany and experts from the CSMC. Since then, the Cluster has been present in Mali with several projects that are intended to foster both the preservation of and research on this written heritage, including the twelve-year DFG project ‘African Voices in the Islamic Manuscripts from Mali’ (Ajami Lab).