Timbuktu Update

30 January 2013

13.00, Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Tombouctou Manuscripts Project
Huma (Institute for humanities in Africa)
University of Cape Town

Since the start of this week there are reports about the destruction of library buildings and book collections in Timbuktu. It sounds as if the written heritage of the town went up in flames. According to our information this is not the case at all. The custodians of the libraries worked quietly throughout the rebel occupation of Timbuktu to ensure the safety of their materials. A limited number of items have been damaged or stolen, the infrastructure neglected and furnishings in the Ahmad Baba Institute library looted but from all our local sources – all intimately connected with the public and private collections in the town - there was no malicious destruction of any library or collection.

By Sunday January 27 the Ansar Dine rebels had fled Timbuktu.  The French army and its Malian partners entered the town on that day.

One of the first reports on Monday morning out of the town was that a library and books had been set alight.  A Sky News journalist, Alex Crawford, embedded with the French forces, reported in the evening from inside the new Ahmad Baba building, which is opposite the Sankore mosque.  This building was officially opened in 2009 and is the product of a partnership between South Africa and Mali.  It is meant to be a state-of-the-art archival, conservation, and research facility. Images showed empty manuscript enclosures strewn on the floor, some burnt leather pouches, and a small pile of ashes.  She reported that over 25,000 mss had been burned or disappeared. Additional images showed her going down to the vault of the archives and looking at empty display cabinets. No signs of fire could be seen.

The mayor of Timbuktu, Hallè Ousmane, based around 800 km away, in Bamako, was quoted in various media reports that a library building and manuscripts were torched by fleeing rebels. There is no other evidence but the word of the mayor. News spread to international media and the mayor’s words were reported as hard fact.

We tried all of Monday, since these reports appeared, to contact colleagues in Timbuktu but without success. The town was in a communications and electricity blackout since around January 20, we were told by Malian colleagues; no eyewitness reports had been coming out of the town for more than a week at this point.

Sources from Bamako in the evening reported that Mohamed Ibrahim Cissé, President of the Chairman of the Board of the Cercle of Timbuktu still confirmed, on France 24, that the new Ahmed Baba Institute building had been burned by the Ansar Dine before fleeing.

By Monday night we finally managed to contact our colleague, Dr Mohamed Diagayeté, senior researcher at the Ahmad Baba Institue, now based in Bamako. He heard much the same reports that we heard. However, he added that the majority of the mss. of the Institute was still stored in the old building – opened in 1974 and on the other side of the town, from the new building.  He told us that the latest news about the new building, as of eight days before the flight of the Ansar Dine, was that the building had not been destroyed. He said that around 10,000 mss had been stored in the new building since there was no more space for the mss in the old building.  They were placed in trunks in the vaults of the new building.  Upstairs, where the restoration was taking place and boxes were made there were only a few mss.  After seeing Sky News footage, he says that the images were of the few mss upstairs waiting to be worked on by the conservators.

However, by Tuesday morning, Dr. Mahmoud Zouber, Mali’s presidential aide on Islamic affairs and founding director of the Ahmad Baba Institute, told Time, that before the rebel take-over the manuscripts: “They were put in a very safe place. I can guarantee you. The manuscripts are in total security.”

Finally, the journalist Markus M. Haeflinger, writing in Neue Zuercher Zeitung this morning, reports on his interview with the previous and present directors of the Ahmad Baba Institute in Bamako, on how the larger part of the Ahmad Baba collection was hidden and even transported out of Timbuktu during the crisis.

The protection of the cultural and intellectual heritage of this region needs to be enhanced and promoted. The abandonment of the security of Timbuktu nine months ago, the flight of archivists and researchers, and the closure of libraries should not be repeated. We remain in contact with our colleagues in Mali and are keen to establish precisely which manuscripts were damaged, destroyed, or stolen.

  • Comments: 0


  1. Marina de Regt’s avatar
    Marina de Regt 30/01/2013 #

    Thanks for the detailed update! I was so worried but it seems the media has done its work again, and spread unnecessary rumours. Keep up the good work!

  2. Jeff Spurr’s avatar
    Jeff Spurr 30/01/2013 #

    It is a relief beyond words to hear that the manuscripts are safe.  Bravo to those who — like the curators at the Kabul Museum long ago — placed these precious cultural objects beyond harm.  Wherever fanaticism is a threat — considering the fate of the collections of the Oriental Institute and National and University Library in Sarejevo in 1992 — such protective custodianship is critical to local and world heritage.

  3. Kim Baker’s avatar
    Kim Baker 30/01/2013 #

    Thank you so much for the comprehensive report - with so much misinformation going around, it is a pleasure to receive a credible report.

  4. Lenny Deans’s avatar
    Lenny Deans 30/01/2013 #

    I would also like to thank you on clarifying the media report on these manuscripts.

  5. Tom King’s avatar
    Tom King 31/01/2013 #

    What a relief!  Thanks!

  6. Stephen W. Foster’s avatar
    Stephen W. Foster 31/01/2013 #

    It is indeed good to breathe a sigh of relief!  I had been worried ever since these barbarians captured the city.  You remember what the Taliban did to the statues of Buddha.

  7. tshepho’s avatar
    tshepho 31/01/2013 #

    Thats a relief

  8. Riyaaz Ismail’s avatar
    Riyaaz Ismail 31/01/2013 #

    A sigh of relief! We appreciate the detailed report.
    The mischievious,uncorroborated.  reports need to be addressed.
    We also require protocols for the safe keeping of manuscripts in times of instability and extremist forces.

  9. Kim Baker’s avatar
    Kim Baker 31/01/2013 #

    I have conveyed the update in this blog post to the mailing list of the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), and for interest, received the following message of thanks from a colleague in Malawi, to those who are doing such valuable work on this project and felt it would be good to share this feedback to Shamil Jeppe and his team:

    “Thanks for the wonderful work you have done on the Mali Cultural Heritage. You deserve a big pat and i wish i could give you an award of Excellence.
    George G.Makhalira

  10. Elaine Kelly’s avatar
    Elaine Kelly 31/01/2013 #

    This is wonderful news.  Thank you for going to such lengths to establish the facts, and I’m glad your efforts were rewarded with such a positive outcome!

  11. Muhammad Mustaqeem Shah’s avatar
    Muhammad Mustaqeem Shah 31/01/2013 #

    Salam. Indeed it is a relief, may God bless us with peace, ameen.

  12. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s avatar
    Nnamdi Azikiwe 01/02/2013 #

    So glad to have a first hand report.  Now we have to get to the business of making the contents of those documents widely known.  Thank you all for you r diligence in making sure the knowledge is preserved for generations to come.

  13. Djatagenius’s avatar
    Djatagenius 01/02/2013 #

    Thank you for this report.total relief to hear the manuscripts are safe.Never Again!

  14. Bill’s avatar
    Bill 01/02/2013 #

    after 600+ years, a librarian culture has standard drills for these events.

  15. ryanwc’s avatar
    ryanwc 01/02/2013 #

    To mention a minor silver lining amidst the clouds, I’m glad the attacks got so much attention because that introduced me and probably millions of others to the fact of these archives.  I look forward to learning more about the project and the contents of these fabulous ancient libraries.  I hope little was destroyed, and I wish everyone in Timbuktu well as you attempt to recover from the last year’s events, at the library and in your daily lives.

  16. Alan Vesty’s avatar
    Alan Vesty 01/02/2013 #

    To have lost this treasure would have been a mark of deep shame on the 21st century. Absolutely agree that more needs to be done to protect these records.

  17. Bryan Draper’s avatar
    Bryan Draper 01/02/2013 #

    We are all comforted to know that those of us who take the custody of cultural heritage seriously are operating “behind-the-lines” and with great foresight!  Best wishes from the USA.  Bryan Draper, Collections Conservator, Uni of Maryland Libraries

  18. Nellie Somers’s avatar
    Nellie Somers 02/02/2013 #

    To all our colleagues in the trouble torn area of Timbuktu we the Librarians and members of the Library and Information Association of South Africa (LIASA)are following your story on our network. We commend you for the efforts in trying to protect and preserve the unique rare and valuable manuscript collections, the worlds heritage and research resources. Thank you and take care.
    Nellie Somers

  19. Average Joe Bodybuilder’s avatar
    Average Joe Bodybuilder 02/02/2013 #

    Alhamdulillahi rabil aalameen

  20. Jacqueline Cabrera’s avatar
    Jacqueline Cabrera 02/02/2013 #

    Thank you for the updates. Mali’s cultural heritage professionals are doing a great. Please keep the world updated. I will post your update with the ARCS group (Association of Registrars and Collections Specialists).

  21. Menachem Began’s avatar
    Menachem Began 04/02/2013 #

    Fantastic news. Great work by the librarians and staff.

  22. dianabuja’s avatar
    dianabuja 04/02/2013 #

    Wonderful!  Please keep all of us informed.

  23. dianabuja’s avatar
    dianabuja 04/02/2013 #

    PS - readers may be interested in several blogs that I’ve done on history of the area - here, and more recent (scroll):

  24. anna nassisi’s avatar
    anna nassisi 04/04/2013 #

    It is fantstique! When could be saved the manuscripts we saved the umanity

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  37. richard williams’s avatar
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    there are a certain group of people who took a task upon themselves to be writing their own versions of history and burning other versions. however, we must be careful now with the manuscripts as it is definitely possible that france, England, Canada, and usa may have already infiltrated mali with their other versions of manuscripts to cause corruption and conflict with authentic manuscripts. please ensure that the history that you read and sources of manuscripts checks pout with oral traditions that have been long accepted.

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