Monday, 28 January 2013

Confusion over Mali manuscripts

There is some confusion today, exactly two years on from the looting of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, about the fate of the library of the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Islamic Studies and Research. This reportedly held between 30 000 and 40000 (depending on how they were counted) of the estimated 100,000 ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu. Scholars had only recently begun to catalog and digitise this vast group of documents, dating back to the 12th century. There are reports from the Malian security and military sources that the library was torched by retreating Islamist troops (who'd been using it as sleeping quarters) as the French forces approached the town. Timbuktu mayor Halley Ousmane, speaking from the capital Bamako, confirmed reports of the fire at the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research, denouncing what he called a crime against culture (AFP, 'Liberation too late to save Timbuktu treasures from fleeing Islamists', the Australian,  January 29, 2013). The centre had been set up in 1973 and in 2009, a new building was opened following an agreement with South Africa to protect the manuscripts as African heritage. Timbuktu was for centuries a cosmopolitan city and a centre of Islamic learning. The Ahmed Baba Institute collection included
a wide array of court records and documents revealing international relations in the ancient world, giving them importance beyond Mali itself. The records may also have offered a window into the selling of slaves across the Sahara, shedding light on the roots of the trade. Many of them had not yet been read 
The fate of the historical heritage of Timbuktu has aroused international concern since radical Islamist rebels seized the city in April 2012 having seized the north of the country in the chaos that followed a military coup last March. The rebels instituted a regime of strict sharia law in the region. Previously, as widely reported in the world's press, there had been destruction of some of the city's historical monuments on religious grounds during the ten-month occupation. The city is rich in such monuments the mosques of Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia, restored in the 16th century, are considered “essential examples of earthen architecture and of traditional maintenance techniques,” according to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. Sidi Yahia had its gate destroyed last year (superstition had it that this gate would only be opened at the end of the world), but it is unclear how much Djingareyber and Sankore were damaged. Sufi tombs near these mosques were destroyed - local still worshipped at the sites as part of Sufi tradition, a practice that offended the religious radicals who overtook the city. It seems that the extremists destroyed all or almost all of the estimated 333 Timbuktu tombs dedicated to saints. The ancient sites around the city were also reportedly being looted during the unrest.

However there seem to be some doubts about the initial reports. Initially it was the mayor of Timbuktu who told the world's media that he has credible accounts of Islamist militants burning ancient manuscripts, but in fact he had fled to Bamako, so this is not first hand knowledge. Initial reports suggested two Timbuktu libraries had been burnt. Some manuscripts were hidden or 'in private hands' in the city or nearby before that and . The first images of a ransacked manuscript library in Timbuktu, showing they're not burned -- thousands of manuscripts are damaged or gone  (Sky News, 'Mali: French Troops Advance In Timbuktu',  Tuesday 29 January 2013.) There were disturbing images of ransacked manuscript library in Timbuktu, empty shelves in empty storage magazines. Early reports however suggested that one worker at Timbuktu library "says 3,000 manuscripts may be destroyed, but many were safely removed before jihadis arrived". There may have been "only 100 to 300 manuscripts in the ransacked library" but a larger number were temporarily stored in it last year according to 's Twitter stream. The "empty vaults" in the new Timbuktu library had always been empty, even before Islamists occupied it. So the report of "thousands stolen" may be incorrect (this seems a repeat of the early reports of the looting of the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad). Neither does the building seem to have been 'torched'. There are burnt papers visible in teh Sky news video, but are these ancient manuscripts from the library or papers detailing what the occupiers were doing which they did not want falling into French hands, or both?   The next few hours will no doubt resolve the question as more journalists arrive in the city.

 It will be interesting to see whether these reports about massive looting are an attempt by the Malian forces to distract attention from reports of abuses being committed as they take over rebel-held territory.
the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda warned Mali over reports its army had committed abuses. Rights groups and journalists have reported allegations that Malian troops have executed suspects on the spot in towns recaptured during the offensive. “All those alleged to be responsible for serious crimes in Mali must be held accountable,” he warned. 
 The advance into Timbuktu, 1000 kilometres north of Bamako, came 18 days after the French launched their offensive to wrest the vast desert north from the Islamists in support of Malian troops.

UPDATE: See now: "Mali: Timbuktu Locals Saved Some of City’s Ancient Manuscripts from Islamists",  

BBC "In pictures: Timbuktu's manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Institute",

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