This is a post a bit outside the norm for this blog, so apologies. I have just been processing the devastating initial reports about the burning of many of the Timbuktu manuscripts by the departing troops ahead of the Malian/French retaking of the town. I have also read some reports that mention that quick-thinking locals managed to save many of the manuscripts. All in all, a sad situation and one that stresses the necessity of digitization in the process of preservation.
I used to work, indirectly, on and with these manuscripts. I pored over them and looked for ways to explain their significance to others. I worked for an organization called Aluka (since acquired by ITHAKA) from 2006-2008 and then for ITHAKA until just last year. In 2007-2008 we worked with the local libraries of Timbuktu to begin digitizing these manuscripts, the oldest of which date to the 13th century. We (our organization) set up digitization labs, provided training, equipment, etc. as part of larger structure/umbrella of outside interest in the region and this heritage in particular. These manuscripts are kept as well as possible safe from the arid elements of northeastern Mali. They are in various states of decay (not in the metaphysical “we are all in various states of decay” sense, but literally withering). A fraction of these have been digitized and made available online through several organizations. Our organization helped digitize a fair share along with the great librarians of Timbuktu. And my position within this organization was to help explain their significance as learning objects. I would have done a better job now knowing what I do. But life is like that. Things happen when they happen.
Historically, these manuscripts link Islam across North Africa and through the ancient trade (salt, mostly) routes of the Sahara. They link West Africa with Egypt with the Middle East. They link our past with our present. They cover any number of subjects from law and jurisprudence to religious rites, warfare, agriculture, etc. They are often in Arabic and some are in Turkish and other languages. They establish Timbuktu as one of the great centers of learning in history. And many artifacts from that age are now destroyed. Timbuktu itself is a shell of its once glory, a town more or less overlooked by the changes and machinations of progress and encroaching modernity. But they are a critical link to our past and how our ancestors structured reality and their responses to it. They are more than textual transmissions of information; they are wonders of marginalia and palimpsests, written over again and again. A record of people linking and decoupling from the ideological and social movements of the time. They taught me to see these towns on the edges of deserts or mountain ranges as port cities, the nodes on oceans of exchanges and ideas.
Ephemerality, it seems to me, is the core condition on which all learning takes place. The intersection of time and space and context and meaning. These manuscripts are more than just records or reports or authoritative texts. They are intersections of activity that scholars would revisit again and again, interpreting and making meaning. They are artifacts waiting to be sifted through and deciphered and applied to some present context. We mix these variables up into some heady cocktail of meaning; we just do so now with one less ingredient. A diversity of artifacts just exited the social and intellectual consciousness. History teaches us that we think often of these artifacts as merely succumbing to nature or time; in this instance, the devastating effects of time were channeled through us as people. These manuscripts meant something and for some that led to preservation and for some that led to destruction. Ideas and representations of those ideas still matter and they will always be ephemeral, married to a time and a place and particular context. Just not ours any longer.
To learn more, see any or all of the following: