Mali’s political crisis threatens Timbuktu manuscripts
On April 1, Tuareg rebels groups claimed control of the ancient city of Timbuktu as part of an offensive sweep intended to establish an independent state in northern Mali. The rebel seizure of the northern half of Mali occurred in the wake of a March 22 coup by Malian military officers that deposed the president, creating unstable political conditions in the capital.
As an array of actors work to resolve the multiple crises—political and humanitarian— now facing Mali, local and international onlookers are becoming increasingly concerned about the safety of the hundreds of thousands of manuscripts held in public and private collections throughout Timbuktu, some dating from the 13th century. These precious primary sources—in Arabic and African languages written in the Arabic script—embody centuries of social, cultural, literary, and religious history in sub-Saharan West Africa.
Sign the Petition to Save Timbuktu’s Manuscripts
To express concern about the manuscripts’ fate amid the political turmoil, fifty-one distinguished African scholars and library directors (from 14 countries) have signed an urgent Call to preserve the ancient manuscripts of Timbuktu and Mali
. The West African Research Association (WARA) has made the appeal available as on on-line petition, in English, French, and Arabic. To sign the petition, visit the WARA
Northwestern’s Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa
(ISITA)’s founding Director John Hunwick played a pivotal role in drawing international attention to the richness of the Timbuktu manuscript heritage —through his long-time collaboration with Timbuktu library owners and scholars, and his cataloging and translations of Timbuktu manuscripts. Hunwick founded ISITA at Northwestern in 2000 with the mission of raising awareness of sub-Saharan Africa’s deep traditions of Islamic literary activity and scholarship. ISITA urges interested parties to express solidarity with our colleagues in Africa by signing and circulating the Call to preserve the ancient manuscripts of Timbuktu and Mali
For up-to-date information about the Timbuktu libraries, visit the site of the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project
, based at the University of Cape Town. Project Director Shamil Jeppie has been in regular contact with Timbuktu library owners since the conflict erupted, and updates are being posted on the site’s blog. Jeppie’s impressions of the situation in Timbuktu as of April 11 are summarized in a Reuters article: “Timbuktu Librarians Protect Manuscripts from Rebels”