Sunday, 15 July 2012

History at risk

Ancient University in Timbuktu
I must apologise for the infrequency of my blog posts of late. Things have been very busy and it may be some time before I can resume writing about the ancient world as normal. I would however like to write a brief blog post highlighting a particular threat facing one of the world's largest repositories of ancient knowledge.

The Malian city of Timbuktu (or Tombouctou depending on your spelling preferences) is an ancient city that flourished as the seat of empires in the Middle Ages and after. It was a centre of trade and learning and tens of thousands of excellently preserved manuscripts remain in the libraries of the city. The writings range over a variety of topics and are an incomparable resource, not just for untangling the history of the region, but for understanding the history of the world at that time, as Timbuktu was a crucial component of the Eurasian trade networks of that era.

Recently, the country of Mali has experienced a secessionist movement in the north. This was composed of two groups, one of which (MNLA) was striving for a primarily secular, Tuareg-led state and the other of which (Ansar Dine) was primarily concerned with establishing a form of sharia law in the region. The two formed an alliance but recently, this alliance has fractured and Ansar Dine now control the major urban centres in the region, including the historic cities of Timbuktu and Gao.

Ansar Dine have since seriously damaged at least one UNESCO World Heritage site in the city and, according to some sources, have decided to destroy the others as well. This is a disgrace and a shame, but ultimately, shrines can be rebuilt. I am more concerned about the fate of the libraries, most of which have not been digitised, and which, if destroyed, are irrevocably lost to the world.

In fairness to Ansar Dine, they have not specifically said that they intend to destroy the manuscripts. But the blatant destruction of a heritage site does not speak well for their respect for history. Also, even if they leave the books alone there is still significant danger. Timbuktu will almost definitely become a warzone, as either the Malian army or the MNLA decide to reclaim the city from Ansar Dine. If the city becomes a warzone the books will be at risk of destruction from bombing, artillery, fires and looting. Even the best intentions of Ansar Dine would not be sufficient to protect the books.

I have noticed some people on the Internet using this episode as a way of denigrating Islam as a whole. I would urge those people to re-examine the situation. Many, if not all, of these manuscripts have been written by Muslims and many of them deal with topics such as the Qu'ran, so it would be false to use this situation to somehow imply that Islam is inimical to the study of history or any such conclusion.

I don't wish to draw attention away from the major human catastrophe in the region, as many thousands of refugees flee the cities, nor do I wish to advocate any particular course of action (certainly not any form of intervention) but I do believe that the world needs to know that this drama is unfolding and to use public opinion to persuade all the powers in the region to act in a way that protects human rights and culture.


Timbuktu Manuscripts

For up to date information on this issue please keep an eye on world news networks.

Here is a link to a BBC picture gallery on the subject:

Here is a link to an ongoing project to protect and preserve the Timbuktu manuscripts. (their blog is a useful source of information on the subject).