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Timbuktu’s Ancient Manuscripts Under Threat

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Timbuktu’s Ancient Manuscripts Under Threat

In June, Ansar al Dine rebels, who took control of Timbuktu following a military coup in Mali in March, started destroying ancient tombs and libraries in the city, some of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Before the destruction, a preservation and study project started by the South African and Malian governments to save Timbuktu’s ancient manuscripts for posterity was making progress. Curtis Abraham reports on what is being done to save the manuscripts from further rebel destruction.

In the fabled Malian city of Timbuktu, West Africa tradition dies hard. Africans here still use the Niger River for their ancient fishing excursions in locally-made canoes. The past is very prominent in the present. The three great mosques or madrasas (schools) of Djingareyber, Sankore, and Sidi Yahya are a testament in mud architecture to the city’s golden age.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, Timbuktu was a fabulously wealthy African city. It was the city’s key role in trans-Saharan trade in gold, ivory, slaves, salt, and other goods – a trade conducted by Tuareg, Mandé, and Fulani merchants – which led to its prosperity.

With wealth came learning, libraries, and universities. The city was perhaps the most important centre of learning in sub-Saharan Africa during the 15th and 16th centuries, where scholars of religion, arts, and sciences flourished. During this time, tens of thousands of manuscripts were commissioned and meticulously executed by African academics.

However, when the Moroccans invaded the city in the 1590s, academics and most of their writings were banished by the Moroccans. Miraculously, a treasure trove of thousands of manuscripts survived persecution – and is presently lying untouched in trunks or has been buried in the thick mud walls of mosques for generations.

But now all this is in danger of being destroyed and lost forever. A military coup in March this year has opened a Pandora’s Box in the northern part of the country.  In late June, Ansar al Dine Tuareg militants, who took control of Timbuktu from their former MNLA Tuareg allies, and whose aim is to create an Islamic state across the whole of Mali, attacked tombs of revered saints and scholars in Timbuktu. These are places of pilgrimage.

Ansar al Dine’s strict interpretation of Islam is akin to the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Wahabi of Saudi Arabia where the worshipping of shines (or the wearing of amulets to ward off malevolent spirits) is haram or forbidden.

Destroying the past and future

The rebels used pick-axes and other instruments to knock down the tombs of Sidi Alpha Moya and Sidi Mukhtar. They also destroyed the tomb of Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Timbuktu has 16 such sites

The rebels broke off doors, windows, and wooded gates from Ben Amar’s grave and burned them. They later set fire to the tomb itself, and went on to attack and deface a 15th century red wooden door in the Sidi Yahya Mosque, one of the most famous mosques in Timbuktu, as onlookers sobbed.

But the destruction did not stop there. The Islamist fighters then destroyed two tombs at Timbuktu’s famous Djingareyber mosque.

“The rebels are oblivious to the heritage of Timbuktu, as we have just witnessed with the destruction of a number of tombs by the Ansar al-Din,” says Shamil Jeppie, director of the Tombouctou [Timbuktu] Manuscripts Project of the University of Cape Town, South Africa. “These are the graves of people highly regarded in Timbuktu and the region. Among them are men who were both saintly and scholars.

“The rebels may next focus on the manuscripts with Sufi content – with which the libraries are filled. It is strange to hope for any person or group to be illiterate but in this case one hopes that they cannot decipher the materials because of their inadequate literacy in the language or script of the materials. One hopes that they are just not interested in the materials. If they are interested in them then it should be to see that they are cared for,” Prof Jeppied added.  

But he was not alone in his condemnation of the destruction of Timbuktu’s cultural heritage. “I believe this is a tragedy for all of humanity”, lamented Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s director general.

According to the latest reports, the Ansar al Dine rebels have not yet harmed any of the priceless manuscripts but they are worryingly close. They took over the new building of the Ahmad Baba Institute, and computers and data were reportedly stolen as well as vehicles belonging to the Institute. But the reports said the insurgents did not enter the rooms and underground vaults where the manuscripts are stored.  

Major private owners of manuscript collections are said to have hidden or packed their ancient documents away for protection. Some may have even smuggled them out to Bamako, the Mali capital, or to neighbouring countries.

But this is not the first time these ancient texts are being hidden because of armed conflict and occupation. Some manuscripts were hidden away for centuries under mud houses and in desert caves from Moroccan invaders, European explorers, and French colonialists.    

The armed occupation and apparent cultural destruction of Timbuktu by the Ansar al Dine  (they have vowed to destroy the tombs of all the revered holy men of the city) come as a major setback for experts attempting to translate, digitalise and preserve these ancient texts.

South African project

One such project involved examining the scientific contents of tens of thousands of these documents. In 2003, a South Africa-Mali Timbuktu Manuscripts Project was officially launched as a bilateral cooperation agreement between the two governments.

Their goal is to research various aspects of the literature of the handwritten works of Timbuktu – arguably the largest collection of written artifacts in Africa. The project also aims to train young African researchers in the preservation, translation, and digitalisation of the ancient texts for future generations.

Then in February 2006, “The Project on the Search for Scientific Contents of the Timbuktu Manuscripts”, an offshoot of the main study, was launched as a joint collaboration between the University of Cape Town’s Department of Science and Technology (DST), and Bamako University in Mali.

The aim is to unlock the scientific secrets of the Timbuktu manuscripts, something which has never been previously attempted.

The South African government initially funded the project to the tune of R500,000 (about $70,000 at the time). However, since the occupation of Timbuktu by the Ansar al Dine, the government of South Africa has remained conspicuously silent about the desecration of the sacred sites.

The expectation is that these fragile reams of paper, some dating back to the 13th century, may yield surprises not only in the field of astronomy but also in the disciplines of botany, medicine, biology, chemistry, mathematics, and climatology.

The main ambition of the researchers is to try and build as complete a picture of the status of science studies and research during the ancient Mali and Songhay empires as possible.

The project also hopes to investigate the extent of the participation and contribution of African astronomers to medieval Islamic scientific culture.

“This project is important because it seeks to reveal aspects of the history of science in Africa that the world does not know about,” says Dr Thebe Rodney Medupe, the chief researcher of the project. “Until we thought of this project, the common belief amongst scientists was that Africans only began studying and participating in science only recently after the arrival of Europeans in our continent.

“We hope that the findings from our project will revise all of that so that our continent can get the respect it deserves, regarding its relationship with science. The fact that right now we can speak with confidence that black people were studying mathematics and astronomy over 300 years ago is something that was unthinkable during my school days. The common perception was that Black Africans could not think or do science.”

The bulk of the Timbuktu manuscripts are currently housed in the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research. While most are in Arabic, some are in indigenous languages such as Songhai and Hausa, written using Arabic script.

There are also several volumes of catalogues, and there may be up to 18,000 manuscripts! Entries of the Ahmed Baba library catalogues indicate the existence of 37 manuscripts that deal with the topics of astronomy and astrology. Medupe’s team also discovered 27 such articles in the famous Mamma Haidara Memorial Library. Furthermore, there are also 32 manuscripts on astronomy which have been identified in the libraries of the Al-Furqan Foundation, but no studies of the scientific content of the manuscripts have been done before.

There are also 25 private libraries in and around the city of Timbuktu. However, only eight of these are open to scholars. And out of that eight, it is only the Mama Haidara Memorial Library that has catalogued its ancient texts.

Key questions

Some key questions that Dr Medupe and his colleagues are hoping to answer by surveying the thousands of ancient manuscripts include whether or not the astronomers of Timbuktu knew that the Earth was round. Did they also suspect that they were living in a helio-centric or sun-centred solar system? Did they have any instruments for looking at the heavens? What were their thoughts about meteor showers, comets and eclipses? Was their mathematical knowledge sufficient enough to apply it to the study of the sky? Did they keep any records of astronomical events?

One particular question the researchers would like to answer is the possibility of a two-way flow of scientific ideas between the known centres of medieval Islamic science, such as Baghdad and West
Africa.

Islamic science had its heyday during the period between the 8th and 16th centuries AD. During that time, most research in astronomy in the world took place in Islamic Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East. The knowledge resulting from this era went on to benefit European scientists during the time of the European Renaissance. The source of this knowledge was a combination of the translated Ancient Greek science manuscripts, and original research by medieval Islamic scientists.

The Timbuktu manuscripts are part of a much larger collection of Islamic writings found throughout much of West Africa. But such documents are not exclusive to West Africa alone. These ancient Islamic texts can be found in areas of sub-Saharan Africa where Islam has had a substantial impact on the life and culture of the indigenous African communities it touched. Such places include Sudan, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Mauritania.

“The most amazing part of this is that the study of Islamic science in the past in Africa may be more widespread than we think,” says Medupe, now an associate professor at the University of North West, South Africa. “This is because, these ancient manuscripts are found not only in Timbuktu, but in many older cities in Mali, the neighboring countries of West Africa, and all the way to the east in Sudan and as far south as Tanzania, I believe.”

Medupe and his colleagues continue to be optimistic about finding further astronomical data in the Timbuktu archives. Their optimism is rooted in two known facts. First, until quite recently, the stars dominated many aspects of human life, providing vital information on the time, changing seasons, navigation, and complementing spiritual beliefs. This cultural astronomy or archeo-astronomy is what Medupe and his colleagues are hoping to find in the Timbuktu manuscripts.

Second, it is well-known that Timbuktu traded extensively with Muslim traders from the Middle East. From the 8th century until the 15th century, Muslim astronomers took over from the Ancient Greeks as some of the most accurate and innovative mathematicians and astronomers in the world. Through the book trade and regular interaction between these two cultures, it is quite feasible that they shared and discussed observations and discoveries about the stars. They also developed and shared systems of mathematics.

Facing Mecca

Unlike the early Christian church, whose conservatism delayed progress in advances of scientific understanding for many centuries, because of teaching attitudes that were still rooted essentially in Plato and Aristotle, early Islamic investigations in astronomy, however, were driven by two main religious practices. The first was the requirement for Muslims to pray facing Mecca, and to orient their mosques in the direction of Mecca. This direction was determined in some cases by using stars to determine latitude and longitude for both Mecca and the locality of interest. Then trigonometric identities were applied to determine angles. Secondly, there was the need to determine proper times for prayers at sunrise, noon, afternoon, sunset and evening.

Practical solutions to both of these problems require the use of trigonometry, a section of mathematics that was not known during the times of Ptolemy, the Greek mathematician and astronomer. Ptolemy did offer solutions to these problems, but his methods were too cumbersome, say experts.

Muslim astronomers, however, devised easier solutions by inventing the cosine, tangent, co-tangent, secant and cosecant functions of trigonometry. The medieval Islamic astronomers also improved on the astrolabe, an instrument that was used to predict positions of the stars and planets.  

According to Dr Petra Schmidl of the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt, Germany, the Timbuktu manuscripts include texts that discuss calendars and timekeeping, which were written as poems.

“The interesting thing concerning pre-modern astronomy and astrology as presented in the Timbuktu manuscripts does not [just] concern new discoveries and information not available in other parts of the Islamic realm,” says Schmidl, who also collaborated with Medupe and Sharon Hawkes  on the documentary, The ancient astronomers of Timbuktu.

Schmidl adds that “the Timbuktu scholars deal with astronomical and astrological problems and questions, as well as methods and solutions that modern scholarship knows from pre-modern astronomy and astrology in other parts of the Islamic realm.”

Discoveries so far

So what ancient astronomical data have the researchers discovered so far among the manuscripts?

“The preliminary investigations point to connections with the western part of Muslim North Africa, for example the Maghreb,” says Benno van Dalen of the Institute of Islamic Science in Frankfurt, who was also a collaborator on the Timbuktu manuscripts project.

“Western Islamic astronomy, for example from Muslim Spain and the Maghreb, is in general quite different from astronomy in the eastern Islamic world,” Dalen continues. Between June and October 2006, Medupe and his South African and Malian colleagues translated 14 manuscripts, which covered the disciplines of astronomy, geography, and mathematics. These documents varied in size and are particularly difficult to read since they are not punctuated, and many have crucial pages missing, including their front covers. Some have astronomical data tables which are very important for historians of astronomy. In manuscript number 3660, a 10-page document discusses orbits, division of orbits, seasons, as well as foods and drinks to be consumed every month.

In another document, Number 2458, a 31-pager called “Illustration of a Poem by Mohammad Bin Ali”, the author writes about, among other things, days of the year, planets, lunar mansions, the duration of planets in constellations, and the source of moonlight.

Another document titled: “A Book about Knowing the Situations of the Moon in the Mansion” tells of ill fortune and bad fortune lunar mansions, and hours and their characteristics. Other manuscripts similarly discuss planets, constellations, orbits, seasons, the moon, sun, etc.

Among the treasure-trove of ancient texts is document Number 3670. Written in 1723, it is a copy of a commentary by Abul Abbas on a work by Mohammed bin Said bin Yehya bin Ahmed bin Dawud bin Abubaker bin Ya-aza, who came from Suz (probably Morocco).

The researchers are in the dark about further details of the author’s life. However, they suspect that he lived or came from the area near Timbuktu since he mentions Ahmed Baba, the most famous scholar from Timbuktu in the 1500s.

The manuscript starts by explaining what astronomy is, and what its uses are. Prof Medupe’s expert Arabic translators give a direct translation of what Abul Abbas thinks astronomy is: “… it is also called Science of Arithmetic. Because he who wants to know this science must look at the sky to observe the individual stars and to know their names. It is called Arithmetic, because he who wants to know it must learn Arithmetic.”

Abul Abbas then lists the uses of astronomy for guiding people at sea, determining calendars and determining prayer times. “These concepts of astronomy are exactly as they are being taught in classes of general astronomy today,” says Prof Medupe. What is unusual about this text is that it describes a geocentric or earth-centred model of the universe in 1700s Timbuktu 300 years after the Copernican revolution, which placed the sun at the centre of our solar system. The manuscript is a testament to the fact that these early notions of the universe (wrong though they are) were being independently developed in sub-Saharan Africa without European influence.

This particular document also includes precise definitions of Islamic calendars, month, leap year, etc. Furthermore, the author also gives algorithms on how to determine leap years in an Islamic calendar.

“I was reading Abul Abbas’s manuscript in Timbuktu, without an astronomical book or the internet for reference, so I decided to test the accuracy of their algorithm for determining the Islamic leap year by implementing it on a Fortran (computer language] programme,” says Prof Medupe. “Indeed the programme worked well, and so these people were very knowledgeable about the subject they wrote about.”    

The final chapter of Abbas’s text deals with a description of a geocentric model of the universe. This manuscript, which also contains diagrams of planetary orbits, does not only illustrate the well-known fact that Islamic astronomy borrowed a lot from Ancient Greek astronomy, but it also proves a far less known fact that Africans living below the Sahara were learning these ideas over 300 years ago.

Sadly, the Timbuktu manuscripts were already in peril prior to the arrival of Ansar al Dine. Climatic and environmental conditions in Timbuktu (and the wider region) are quite extreme, which combined, pose a considerable threat.

Insects and other vermin that eat paper and other materials, as well as poor quality paper also contribute to the deterioration of the manuscripts. Ironically, one of the rather unexpected elements that the conservation team has found is widespread water damage. Now there is even a more menacing threat – the Ansar al Dine rebels. As they continue their occupation of Timbuktu, many of Mali’s foremost researchers, conservationists, and library owners have fled for Bamako, the capital. This has left behind a void of skilled and knowledgeable experts who know how to handle the fragile manuscripts.

Several private libraries have also been locked while portions of the manuscripts (as well as other precious artefacts) have been removed from the libraries and museums and hidden away in private homes. The question is for how much longer?  

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