Saturday, October 30, 2010

South Africa helps Mali modernise ancient libraries

South Africa helps Mali modernise ancient libraries

24 Jan 2009
By Rainer Schwenzfeier

South Africa and Mali opened a high-tech library in the Malian desert town of Timbuktu on Saturday, boosting efforts to preserve thousands of ancient manuscripts documenting Africa's academic past.

The launch is part of a South African plan to help Mali to protect up to 150,000 manuscripts, some of which date from the 13th century and document subjects ranging from science and the arts to social and business trends of the day.

South Africa has also been training Malian conservators to protect the texts, which some say will force the West to accept Africa has an intellectual history as old as its own. Others draw comparisons with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

"Timbuktu is symbolic, not of a narrow Islamic or African civilisation, but of a civilization that was the synthesis of what knowledge was available in the world then," South Africa's President Kgalema Motlanthe said at the opening on Saturday.

"More importantly, it was part of Africa's contribution to the foundation of today's civilization," Motlanthe added, having been guided around the renovated Ahmed Baba Institute.

Documents will now be stored in rooms and cases where conditions such as humidity are controlled and pests like termites cannot eat the ancient scrolls.

Timbuktu, some 1000 km (625 miles) northwest of the capital, Bamako, was once a famously rich town where gold, ivory and slaves were traded and some 25,000 students gathered to study at its university during the 16th century.

Desert tourism aside, Timbuktu is now a remote town on the edge of the Sahara desert in one of Africa's poorest nations.

Many of the manuscripts have been hidden, sometimes in chests buried in the sand, as owners feared they might be stolen by Moroccan invaders, European explorers or French colonialists.

The documents, which range from ancient copies of the Koran written in gold or ornate calligraphy to studies on music and commentaries about corrupt politicians, suffered as a result.

"These riches, accumulated over the course of time, have often been damaged. A large number faded and became unreadable," said Mali's President Amadou Toumani Toure.

Former South African President Thabo Mbeki, who launched "Operation Timbuktu" after a visit there in 2001 and returned on Saturday, has said he hopes the work will help "restore the self respect, the pride, honour and dignity of the people of Africa".

Other donors such as the United States and Norway are helping with the preservation of the manuscripts, which are stored in numerous other private and public libraries.

Ancient Books Reveal Timbuktu’s Former Glory, Illustrate Need for Libraries

Ancient Books Reveal Timbuktu’s Former Glory,
Illustrate Need for Libraries.

Finding Dulcinea
April 12, 2010
by Sarah Amandolare

Removed for copyright reasons.

In Timbuktu, a new move to save ancient manuscripts

In Timbuktu, a new move to save ancient manuscripts.

Curator Abdel Kader Haidara leafs through a delicate old pamphlet.

By Tristan McConnell,
The Christian Science Monitor
February 5, 2008

Timbuktu, Mali

Abdel Kader Haidara carefully picks up one of a dozen small leather-bound books lying on his desk and leafs through the age-weathered pages covered in Arabic calligraphy.

Urbanization threatens Namibia's traditional Himba culture This tiny book is centuries old and one of more than 100,000 manuscripts that can be found on shelves and in boxes in Timbuktu, the ancient Malian city of mud-brick walls nestled between the Niger River and the Sahara Desert.

"The manuscripts are our heritage," says the curator of the Mamma Haidara Manuscript Library, the largest of more than 20 private libraries in the city. "They have been passed from generation to generation. They are the history of Africa, the history of mankind."

But if not for an $8 million donation from South Africa, this history might have been lost forever.

The manuscripts in Arabic and African languages cover almost every conceivable subject from history and medicine to law and human rights, from astronomy and philosophy to conflict resolution and literature. It's a Who's Who of ancient kingdoms. Some are close to a thousand years old, written on paper, tanned gazelle skin, or tree bark, and they provide a rare glimpse into a precolonial African history of intellectual endeavor, historians say.

"It is often thought that there was no writing in Africa but the manuscripts prove otherwise," says Mohamed Gallah Dicko, director-general of the Ahmed Baba Institute, named after Timbuktu's leading 15th-century scholar. "Before and during our colonization there was writing."

The manuscripts are threatened by the desert's harsh environment, by family neglect, and a scarcity of funds for preservation in the world's fifth poorest country. South Africa has stepped in and later this year will complete construction of a new library and research center a few yards from the high, mud walls and minarets of the Sankoré Mosque which was, 400 years ago, itself a center of learning with 25,000 students and teachers.

Riason Naidoo, the South African project manager for the new library, says it is important that this is an African initiative. "Normally funding comes in from aid organizations from the West. The difference with this project is that Africans are collaborating to preserve their own heritage for future prosperity."

The library is backed by South African President Thabo Mbeki, who has called the manuscripts "among the most important cultural treasures in Africa" and key to his notion of an African Renaissance to rival that of Europe in the late Middle Ages. The project is also supported by the Pan-African New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), which named the preservation of the manuscripts as its first cultural project.

Today Timbuktu is a crumbling sleepy outback, reliant upon foreign tourism for survival. It was not always so: in its medieval heyday – as Europeans hacked at one another with swords, suffered the Black Death, and emerged blinking from the Dark Ages – Timbuktu was a thriving crossroads for trade in gold, salt, and slaves. It was the center of great empires and the intellectual heart of Africa.

It is no longer the unreachable city of explorers' myths (the first Europeans did not get to Timbuktu until the 19th century), yet it remains remote, taking more than two days' travel by four-wheel drive vehicle from the Malian capital, Bamako.

At the Ahmed Baba Institute the new library cannot come too soon as each passing month sees manuscripts deteriorate and disappear. The institute's 30,000-strong collection will be housed in the library and made available to visiting researchers and tourists alike.

The manuscripts may also have a few messages for the modern world, says Dr. Dicko. "Here in Timbuktu there is no militant Islam, it is peaceful. Look across the road, there is a Catholic church! We all live together. In the [Western] world outside, 'Islam' is a dirty word. But not here. Here there is mutual respect."

These sentiments are echoed by Mr. Haidara, who, for years before taking charge of the family library, criss-crossed the desert seeking out lost manuscripts. He says his favorite manuscripts are those that deal with conflict resolution and the tolerance that is at the heart of Islam.

And locally the centuries-old manuscripts may once again offer hope for the future of the ancient city, this time in the form of tourist dollars as Timbuktu seeks to reassert its position in the modern world.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Chinguetti the library of the desert (Mauritania)

Chinguetti la bibliothèque du désert Chinguetti (Arabic: شنقيط) is a ksour or ancient trading centre in northern Mauritania, lying on the Adrar Plateau east of Atar. Founded in the 13th century, as the center of several trans-Saharan trade routes, this small threatened city continues to attract visitors who admire its spare architecture, exotic scenery and its ancient libraries.

The old quarter of the Chinguetti is home to five important manuscript libraries of scientific and Qur'anic texts, with many dating from the later Middle Ages. The Chinguetti region has been occupied for thousands of years and once was a broad savannah. Cave paintings in the nearby Amoghar Pass feature pictures of giraffes, cows and people in a green landscape quite different from the starkly beautiful sand dunes of the desert landscape found in the region today.

For centuries Chinguetti was a principal gathering place for pilgrims of the Maghrib to gather on the way to Mecca. It became known as a holy city in its own right, especially for pilgrims unable to make the long journey to the Arab Peninsula. It also became a center of Islamic religious and scientific scholarship in West Africa. In addition to religious training, the schools of Chinguetti taught students rhetoric, law, astronomy, mathematics, and medicine.

For many centuries all of Mauritania was popularly known in the Arab world as Bilad Shinqit, "the land of Chinguetti." Chinguetti is locally said to be the seventh most holy city of Islam. There is no recognition of this claim outside of West Africa, but whatever its ranking, the city remains one of the world's most important historical sites both in terms of the history of Islam and the history of West Africa.

Although largely abandoned to the desert, the city features a series of medieval manuscript libraries without peer in West Africa, and the area around the Rue des Savants was once famous as a gathering place for scholars to debate the finer points of Islamic law. Today its deserted streets continue to reflect the urban and religious architecture of the Moorish empire as it existed in the Middle Ages

The Chinguetti region has been occupied for thousands of years and once was a broad savannah. Cave paintings in the nearby Amoghar Pass feature pictures of giraffes, cows and people in a green landscape quite different from the sand dunes of the desert landscape found in the region today.

The city was originally founded in 777, and by the 11th century had become a trading center for a confederation of Berber tribes known as the Sanhadja Confederation. Soon after settling Chinguetti, the Sanhadja first interacted with and eventually melded with the Almoravids, the founders of the Moorish Empire which stretched from present-day Senegal to Spain. The city's stark unadorned architecture reflects the strict religious beliefs of the Almoravids, who spread the Malikite rite of Sunni Islam throughout the Western Maghrib.

After two centuries of decline, the city was effectively re-founded in the 13th century as a fortified cross-Saharan caravan trading center connecting the Mediterranean with Sub-Saharan Africa. Although the walls of the original fortification disappeared centuries ago, many of the buildings in the old section of the city still date from this period.

Today, along with the cities of Ouadane, Tichitt and Oualata, Chinguetti has been designated as a World Heritage site. The Friday Mosque of Chinguetti, is widely considered by Mauritanians to be the national symbol of the country.

The Great "Friday Mosque" of Chinguetti

Source = Wikipedia

The Ancient Books and Libraries of Tichit, Mauritania

Caravan Leaders and Saharan Scholars
Source = Saudi Aramco Magazine September 2010

Caravans have long been the lifelines of the Sahara. But today, Tichit (in Mauritania) remains largely “landlocked,” without a highway linking it to Mauritania's national road system. Its dwindling population nonetheless relies less on caravans than on the diesel truck that regularly makes its way across the rough terrain from Tijikja, to the east, to replenish the town's supplies and carry out its primary exports: amersal salt and dates.

Throughout history, long-distance trade in Mauritania was a male profession. In Tichit, though, caravanning was not just a man's world. The wealthiest women of Tichit invested in caravan journeys by contracting family members and laborers, or sending slaves; women in the lower classes of society joined caravans themselves, for the most part accompanied by their husbands and children. Those women are remembered by all because of their leading role in planning, coordinating and directing camels, loads, supplies and family labor. This is why the story of Jarfuna, the remarkable woman caravan leader, lives on in the oral traditions of Tichit


Tichit has a long tradition of excellence in Islamic learning and scholarship. As early as the 12th century, several Muslim scholars had settled in Tichit, among them Sharif 'Abd al-Mu'min. Today, there are some 20 large libraries in this Saharan oasis that contain manuscript collections bearing witness to the vibrant scholarly community that once flourished here--including the 800-manuscript library of the family of Limam Ould Abdel Mu'min, who heads the only museum of Tichit.

Lying at the base of a limestone escarpment, accessible only by camels and off-road vehicles, Tichit was once so verdant that archeologists have found evidence of plant domestication going back some 4000 years.

Lying at the base of a limestone escarpment, accessible only by camels and off-road vehicles, Tichit was once so verdant that archeologists have found evidence of plant domestication going back some 4000 years.

In recent years, the Fondation des Villes Anciennes, under the Mauritanian Ministry of Culture, has been working to preserve manuscripts in Ticht and sister oasis towns. In Tichit, some families have taken matters into their own hands by creating the Club pour la Sauvegarde des Manuscrits de Tichit, which is cataloging six family-library collections. Mohamedou Ould El-Sharif Bouya, who directs the club, is a scholar and local historian, a role passed down to him by Daddah Ould Idda, the late custodian of Tichit's history. Much material assistance is needed to secure these Saharan treasures for posterity, he says.

Several Tichit women were known as distinguished scholars, and their stories are recounted in the town's oral traditions. The mosque of Tichit, its façade decorated with the triangular niches typical of the town's stone buildings, has a special entrance for women that is notable for its beauty and size. Today women from all three of Tichit's clans still run primary schools in their homes where they teach the Qur'an and basic Arabic literacy to boys and girls.

In Tichit, it is traditional for both boys and girls to become literate, mostly through education in the chapters (surahs) of the Qur’an.

Historically, many of Tichit's female intellectuals belonged to the Shurfa clan, which traces its lineage to the Prophet Muhammad. Like their male counterparts, they memorized the Qur'an to earn the respectful title of hafidhat, and some of their writings are preserved in the Club pour la Sauvegarde des Manuscrits. The earliest example is A'ishatu mint al-Faqih Abu Bakir ibn al-Amin ibn al-Sha' al-Muslimi, who lived in the 18th century. It is said that she once traded 70 camels for a single manuscript: Ibn Hajjar's collection of hadith, or sayings of the Prophet.

Another example is Al-Hasniya mint Fadil al-Sharif, a 19th-century scholar. She married another scholar with whom she had four sons, all of whom became scholars themselves. When she died, numerous praise songs and poems were written in her honor. Several of them have been published in Dala al-Adib, an anthology of Saharan literature by Jamal Ould Al-Hasan. Fatima mint Shaykhna Buyahmed is the most celebrated of these learned women, partly because she lived in more recent times—from the late 19th through the mid-20th century. The daughter of a legal scholar who taught her Islamic jurisprudence, she so excelled in the study of the law that she occasionally wrote fatwas in the name of her father.

Jarfuna, by contrast, used her limited literacy to run her caravans, but she wasn't the only Masna woman to leave her mark as a businesswoman. Fatimatu mint Seri Niaba, for example, was a gifted 19th-century entrepreneur, as well as a learned individual. Although she did not leave any scholarly writings, Fatimatu, like many women of Tichit, earned her access to the caravan economy thanks to her literacy.

Muslim women protected their property rights by keeping a paper trail of their commercial and civil affairs. They documented credit transactions and loan disbursements, and they wrote to men and other women with whom they conducted trade and exchanged market information. To be sure, only privileged and exceptional women—Fatimatu among them—acquired the skills necessary to make use of contracts and correspondence. Tichit depended on caravans to bring in limited supplies of writing paper, making that commodity relatively expensive. Not everyone could afford to engage directly in the caravanning economy at this level or, alternatively, to hire scribes.

Ornamental leatherwork adorns what will become a usaada, or cushion. In the past, women used the same skills to decorate the leather bindings for manuscripts that are preserved in Tichit’s libraries.

Women were involved in Tichit's scholarly and caravanning activities in other ways, too, by crafting and ornamenting the leather bindings that protected manuscripts. The women of Tichit also made and decorated with colored dyes the cushions and small leather pouches that were among their primary export products. Indeed, there is a firm foundation for the popular Mauritanian proverb, “The woman is the man's trousers” (Limra' sirwal al-rajul), for it conveys the idea that a woman protects her husband and, by extension, their family.

Partial reprint of article in Saudi Aramco World Magazine, September 2010

Thursday, August 19, 2010

In a fabled city at the end of the earth, lies a treasury of ancient manuscripts

Fida ag Muhammad holds up the remains of a centuries old manuscript which has been eaten away by termites. Similar texts have been found in the villages around Timbuktu. Photograph: Xan Rice

Xan Rice in Timbuktu
The Guardian,UK
Monday 2 July 2007

A hot wind stirred up the desert sand. Fida ag Muhammad, a wispy man with a blue-grey turban, hurried across the street. Reaching a mud-brick building, he quickly unlocked its corrugated iron door and pushed it open. A beam of soft early-morning light pierced the darkness. On a metal table covered with a red bath towel sat half a dozen leather-bound manuscripts. Carefully untying the string around a small weathered pouch, Mr Muhammad pulled back its flaps to reveal a sheaf of yellowed papers. Their edges had crumbled away, but the neat Arabic calligraphy was still clear.
"A Qur'an," he said. "From the 1300s."

For an outsider, such a remarkable find might seem extraordinary. In Timbuktu and its surrounding villages like Ber, where Mr Muhammad lives, it is commonplace. After centuries of storage in wooden trunks, caves or boxes hidden beneath the sand, tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts, covering topics as diverse as astronomy, poetry, music, medicine and women's rights, are surfacing across the legendary Malian city.

Their emergence has caused a stir among academics and researchers, who say they represent some of the earliest examples of written history in sub-Saharan Africa and are a window into a golden age of scholarship in west Africa. Some even believe that the fragile papers, which are now the focus of an African-led preservation effort, may reshape perceptions of the continent's past.

"It has long been said that there was only oral history in this part of the world," said Salem Ould Elhadje, 67, a historian in Timbuktu. "But these manuscripts come from an African city, a city of black people."

The Timbuktu of myth is a place at the end of the earth. In reality its location was the key to its development nearly a thousand years ago. With the Sahara directly north and the Niger river south, it was established as a rest stop for travellers and a trading post for gold and salt. By the late 1500s, however, when it formed part of the powerful Songhai empire, it had become known as a centre of great learning.

Books became hugely prized. Travellers from as far as the Middle East brought manuscripts to Timbuktu to sell. Using paper manufactured in Europe, scholars in the town produced their own original work, which was then copied by their pupils. Commercial transactions were recorded - slaves and ostrich feathers were among the goods traded - as were the pronouncements of learned men on everything from the environment to polygamy and witchcraft.

"Every manuscript contains surprises," said Shahid Mathee, part of a University of Cape Town team studying the manuscripts. "We have even found texts where scholars offer advice on overcoming erection problems."

Timbuktu's decline began in 1591 with a Moroccan invasion. But the practice of writing, copying and storing manuscripts lived on here and in other west African cities such as Gao and Kano.

It was not until 1964, at a Unesco conference, that Timbuktu's literary wealth was recognised. Still, it took a further 37 years for the campaign to document and preserve them to gain momentum.

On visiting Timbuktu in 2001, the South African president, Thabo Mbeki, was shown some of the manuscripts held at the Ahmed Baba Institute, named after the city's most famous scholar, including a copy of Islamic law dating to 1204. Mr Mbeki was so impressed he declared them to be among the continent's "most important cultural treasures" and pledged to set up a project to help properly conserve the manuscripts.

After centuries of exposure to the harsh desert climate, abrasive sands and hungry termites, many of the manuscripts are badly damaged. Even those intact, such as Mr Muhammad's Qur'an, are so fragile the pages may disintegrate when handled. "Every minute, every second, part of a manuscript is being lost," said Mahmud Muhammad Dadab, a scholar who compares their value to the works of Victor Hugo and William Shakespeare.

With South African money, a £3.5m home for the Ahmed Baba Institute, featuring a museum, archive and rooms for scholars, is being built in the heart of the city, and will open next year. Meanwhile workers are trying to safeguard the institute's growing stock of 30,000 manuscripts.

In a large room with fans whirring overhead, a team is building made-to-measure cardboard boxes for every manuscript that will provide protection from the dust. Fragile pages are being carefully affixed to special Japanese paper to stop them crumbling.

Across the courtyard, researchers sit in front of computers documenting the contents of each manuscript. Then, with the help of computer scanners, ancient knowledge is uploaded into the 21st century. "We are creating a virtual library," said Muhammad Diagayete, 37, a researcher who was busy documenting a 1670 text on astronomy written in blue, red and black ink. "We want people all over the world to be able to access these manuscripts online."

Private collections are also being restored. Outside interest, and funding, has helped to create more than 20 libraries in Timbuktu, from tiny collections with a few hundred documents to Ismael Haidara's Fondo Kati Bibliothèque, which has more than 7,000 leather-bound manuscripts dating back to 1198. Many were brought from Andalucia, Spain, by his ancestors, who came to Timbuktu in the 15th century.

A few doors down is the Mama Haidara library run by Abdel Kader Haidara, no relation to Ismael, the best-known curator in the city. With funding from US foundations, he is also digitizing his 9,000-document collection, and is building extra rooms for scholars and tourists, as well as an internet cafe.

Before opening the family library, he helped to build up the Ahmed Baba Institute's collection, travelling all over the region by camel, canoe and car to try to persuade families to part with their manuscripts in exchange for livestock or printed books.

It was a difficult task. Though many families cannot read Arabic, the manuscripts are regarded as precious heirlooms that cannot be sold.

In Ber, a two-hour drive from Timbuktu, Fida ag Muhammad spoke of valuable caches of manuscripts buried in the desert by families fearful that outsiders would try to prise them away.

As a result, experts believe that hundreds of thousands of manuscripts remain in private homes across the region, and the quest to find and conserve them will go on for many years.

"We have to persuade people that they need to be protected and documented," said Abdel Kader Haidara. "If we don't read what our ancestors said, we cannot know who we really are."

SOURCE - 2007