The Library of Timbuktu

Timbuktu – reality or illusion?

University gate

Gates of the Islamic University of Sankore, Timbuktu, Mali.

Timbuktu, legendary for being at the ends of the earth, at least in my native California.

Timbuktu was established as a trading centre near the Niger river, dealing in salt from the deep Sahara, African gold from Ghana (not the modern country of Ghana, but a North African empire of the Middle Ages), and finally, the slave trade, established when Arab raiders took over the city and converted its inhabitants. It prospered through its early centuries, thanks mainly to the fabled gold mines of west Africa, with the ore funnelled through the city.

The city was, the authors write, “the nexus of the trans-Saharan trade for more than 500 years … a trading emporium that prospered on gold and salt and slaves, whose reputation loomed so large that it attracted the avaricious attention of the Venetian traders and then of the sultan of Morocco.”

De Villiers and Hirtle argue that it is Timbuktu’s status as a centre of a tolerant form of Islam that means it has much to offer the world even in its faded state, having “triumphantly foregone fanaticism.”

The problem, they say, is illustrated by the city’s much faded glory.

Once a great centre of learning, its irreplaceable scrolls and treatises on Islam and its teachings lie mouldering in private homes and ill-kept public buildings. More is needed, the authors say, if Timbuktu is to play its part in helping to reconcile Islam and the West.

“Foreign money is helping, in a modest way, to preserve Timbuktu’s literary heritage – but why not do more, much more?” they wonder.

They suggest rebuilding the city’s once famed University of Sankoré as “a centre of learning at the intersection of politics and religion, as it was before.” That intersection, the authors say, contains perhaps the most demanding political issue of our time.

Timbuktu could have a larger role to play in expanding mutual tolerance.

Except that Mali is now the center of an international oil war.  US armed “Islamists” from Libya have invaded the newly found oil fields of Northern Mali and at least one refinery in Algeria.  Since both of these countries are part of the French Colonial Pact, France has taken over the “defense” of the region.

It comes just days after French President Francois Hollande declared “victory” in northern Malian cities. But the victory also had its price:

“I wasn’t home when the bombing began. I started praying when I learned my house was under attack. They ruined everything I had – my family and my livelihood. [My children were 11, 10, and 6]. They all died,” Idrís Meiga, a farmer from Konna, told RT.

Meiga’s story is not unique. In fact, it is becoming all too common to hear of similar tragedies in northern Mali.

“Some kids came running up to us and said their mom had died. I brought them to our house. Their mother died after an hour of clinging to life. The children have nobody else but us,” resident Abdul Kampó said.

Another story involved a mother who died from shell splinters, leaving three children behind – including a newborn baby.

Two young brothers drowned in a nearby river as they attempted to flee from the fighting.

These residents refuse to be persuaded by military claims of “victory.”

“People [in the town] say [French] war crimes must be prosecuted under the Geneva Convention,” Wancha said.

And while Hollande maintains that French military intervention in Mali will be short lived, the consequences of this war will affect the lives of these innocent civilians for a lifetime.

Meanwhile, airstrikes continue in Mali’s far north. Earlier Monday, 30 jets targeted training and communication centers of Islamist militants in the town of Tessalit.

What do the people of Mali think about all this?  From PressTV’s program Africa Today:

Press TV: Do you support this as a legal intervention, the President of Mali had asked for it , the French have citizens in Mali and they simply had to go in, the Africans weren’t ready?

Glazebrook: No I think we have to be very wary at taking the statements of the Western powers that they are there to stabilize the situation in Mali, we shouldn’t take that at face value .

The Western powers have proven to be liars time and time again and if we look at the results of their interventions, they have consistently been to create failed states not stabilized countries. They have turned Iraq into a failed state, Afghanistan, Libya and destabilization never stops at the borders of that they have targeted.

Press TV: But look at what Imam Mahmoud Dicko, the most senior Islamic representative in that country says thank God for France, these people were trying to import something foreign and tell us how to live Islam. Isn’t he the person we should understand and respect?

Glazebrook: Well there were a lot of people saying come on NATO in Libya and many of them now very much regret what they called for because they can see that actually NATO’s intervention hasn’t made Libya to a better place.

It has created the rule of the very same death squads and militias that are now roaming around Mali, in Libya. Do not forget that who caused the problem in Mali, where did these militias come from? They were armed and equipped just yesterday in terms of historical terms, just two years ago they were created by the French and the British– armed, trained, funded by the British, French and Americans. They have now destabilized Mali and what they are hoping to do is continue the destabilization into Algeria.

France is actually bombing them not to eradicate the threat but to push them northwards into Algeria. They are hoping to destabilize Algeria as well. The whole region is going to be destabilized.

So you are opening kind of question about are they there for the gold and uranium French companies in Mali, Nigeria and so on or are they there for the interest of the Africans?

Both of those presume that they are there to stabilize the country, they are not. They are there to destabilize and particularly to destabilize Algeria.

But what has happened to the fabulous Library of Timbuktu?  The modern equivalent of the Library of Alexandria, storehouse of ancient knowledge, did fall into the hands of those calling themselves Jihadists.  The Jihadists claimed to have destroyed it all.

A museum guard displays a burnt ancient manuscript at the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu. The majority of the ancient manuscripts appear to be safe and undamaged after fears the site was gutted by fire

A local man, Abdoulaye Cisse, holds a book for photographers. Jihadists claimed they burned most of the holy books, but the damage is not as bad as feared

But before they could be rounded up, the rebels scattered into the desert, torching homes, mosques and libraries, including parts of the city’s £16-million Ahmed Baba Institute, home to some 20,000 ancient documents on culture, science and geography, as they left.

. . . .

Built by the South African government in 2009, the Ahmed Baba Institute was named after a Timbuktu-born contemporary of William Shakespeare and holds thousands of priceless manuscripts in its climate-controlled, underground vaults.

During their rule, the militants have systematically destroyed UNESCO World Heritage sites in Timbuktu.

A spokesman for the Al Qaeda-linked militants has said that ancient tombs of Sufi saints were destroyed because they contravened Islam, encouraging Muslims to venerate saints instead of God.

Among the tombs they destroyed is that of Sidi Mahmoudou, a saint who died in 955, according to the UNESCO website.

One of the manuscripts. They are so culturally and historically significant they have been compared to the Dead Sea Scrolls

Owners have succeeded in removing some of the manuscripts from Timbuktu to save them, while others have been carefully hidden away from the Islamists.

With its cultural treasures, Timbuktu had previously been a destination for adventurous tourists and international scholars.

Extreme Islamist movements across the world have developed a reputation for the destruction of historic artifacts, monuments and buildings, such as the Bamiyan buddha statues in Afghanistan.

Speaking by phone earlier this week, city mayor Ousmane Halle said: ‘They torched all the important ancient manuscripts. The ancient books of geography and science. It is the history of Timbuktu, of its people.’

There has been incredible damage done.  But it has not been a total loss.  And for that the world can be thankful.


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