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Culture

Rescue mission for Mali's cultural treasures

Thousands of valuable ancient manuscripts were threatened when Islamic rebels burned down a library in Timbuktu in January. Now Germany is helping Mali rescue and preserve its cultural treasures.

Abdel Kader Haidara, director of the Mamma Haidara Library, and his staff were able to save more than 200,000 documents from the libraries in Timbuktu - and not without a bit of adventure. Some of the manuscripts had to be smuggled out of Timbuktu in private cars to the capital, Bamako.

The German Foreign Office is now getting involved in the rescue operation. Currently, more than 4,000 of the most important science, philosophy and theological manuscripts from the Arabian Golden Age in Africa, dating from the 12th to 15th centuries, are being stored at the Germany embassy.

"It was very fortunate that the 200,000 texts from Timbuktu were saved. I'm very glad that Germany was able to play a role in saving a large part of these valuable cultural treasures," said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, expressing his commitment to supporting the rebuilding of the burned library. "Now it's important to make a record of what has been saved and to maintain what is there for future generations." The Foreign Office has not yet revealed the exact amount of financial backing it will offer.

Islamic rebels set fire to the Ahmed Baba Institute when they were fleeing Malian and French soldiers on January 28, 2013. The building was only opened four years ago with construction costs totaling several million euros. The institute's library held thousands of valuable texts which were listed as part of UNESCO's World Cultural Heritage. The Ahmed Baba Library is just one of 80 such private libraries in Timbuktu.

The Ahmed Baba Institute in Mali

The Ahmed Baba Institute was burned in January 2013

'Cultural crime'

The extent of the fire's damage was unclear at first and experts from the University of Capetown's Timbuktu Manuscripts Project, tasked with archiving the documents, could not be certain just how many cultural treasures had been destroyed. They had managed to catalogue less than a third of the 30,000 manuscripts in the Ahmed Baba Library prior to the arson, which press dubbed a "cultural crime."

Time Magazine in late January reported that Timbuktu residents and cultural conservationists may have known in advance that Islamic rebels were intending to destroy the Ahmed Baba Library. Consequently, many of the documents could have been brought to safety long before the arson. Shamil Jeppi, director of the Tomboctou Manuscripts Project, confirmed the Time report.

Germany's Gerda Henkel Foundation has pledged to support future endeavors to rebuild the Ahmed Baba Library. Based in Dusseldorf, the foundation aims to promote academic research including the study of ancient Islam.

"At the moment, we are liaising with the Foreign Office, first and foremost to record which texts exist," said Michael Hanssler, chairman of the foundation. "No one really knows how many texts there are in total and how many have actually arrived intact in Bamako. We need to discuss with academic experts what to do next. The most likely scenario is that the manuscripts will be electronically archived and stored in a stable environment to protect them from changes in temperature and humidity."

A 15th century manuscript from Timbuktu

This 15th century manuscript from Timbuktu is among the recovered treasrues

Center of learning

Hanssler explained that, in the 16th century, Timbuktu was an educational center with more than 20,000 students and 100 to 150 Koran schools. "The manuscripts describe the history of the area and thus have a cultural significance that goes beyond just Mali. They include Islamic legal documents and corresponding interpretations of Islamic law, but there are also travel reports and teachings about astrology, rhetoric and the Arabic language," he said.

Additionally, he said, there are very old papers in the library about botanical medicine and music, and apparently even the sandals of the Prophet Muhammad.

Hanssler emphasized that it is important to work closely with the Malian experts and make sure that as many documents as possible remain in the country. "Together we should be looking for a safe storage place. Obviously this is based on the premise that internal fighting is not going to reach the capital," he said.

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