Sunday,17 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1136, 21 - 27 February 2013
Sunday,17 December, 2017
Issue 1136, 21 - 27 February 2013

Ahram Weekly

Mali’s Geniza

The fate of the literary heritage
of Timbuktu reminds
Jill Kamil of that of the rich literary heritage of Old Cairo

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Timbuktu flourished in centuries past as a hub for Islamic scholarship, as a bustling crossroads where traders exchanged salt, gold and cattle. It played a central role in the spread of the Arabic language and Islamic culture across West Africa. The library of the Ahmed Baba Institute held about 40,000 of the estimated 100,000 ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu, some of which was torched last week by retreating militants. Its destruction would have been the greatest loss of the written word in Africa since the loss of the library of Alexandria (if indeed it was burned), and the Geniza documents in Cairo — named after the storeroom in which they were held in the Synagogue of Ben Ezra in Old Cairo.
Both libraries, those of Timbuktu and Old Cairo, contain written information unknown to the world of scholarship. Indeed, scholars had only recently begun to catalogue and scan the vast trove of documents in the former, now housed in a brand new museum, in the hope of gaining an insight into matters ranging from how ancient people dealt with climate change, to the genesis of a liberal, tolerant strain of Islam in West Africa.
Until colonial times, a network of trading routes across the barren wastes of the Sahara were traversed by nomads, warriors and camel herders. Great market cities grew up around oases, and Timbuktu was one of the most important. It was described, and often photographed, as a city of gold situated in a sea of sand, traversed only by Arabs on dromedaries and by traders exploiting its wealth of minerals: iron, coal, manganese, copper, oil and gold.  
Indeed, that fitted into my childhood vision of a vast and exotic land — a  make-believe place at the edge of beyond, the stuff of fairy tales. There is little wonder. It came from the mouth of my grandmother who told me many fanciful stories, and Timbuktu was firmly planted in my mind as a metaphor for remoteness and wealth.  
My introduction to the real Timbuktu was, however, fairly recent. I came across a copy of the 2007 publication bearing the title Timbuktu by Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle, which was described in the blurb as a “thoughtful history”. I bought a copy, and found it to be packed with information about what it is like to journey across one of the world’s most famous deserts, and to understand what it was like to live in, and travel across the sandy wastes of the Sahara. From it I learnt that Tuareg nomads — the desert’s best adapted inhabitants — were not the only ones to traverse the vast wastes of the Sahara; that, in its heyday, Timbuktu was one of the centres of the world, a wealthy metropolis, and an important centre of the trans-Saharan trade that included gold from Ghana, salt from the deep Sahara, and money from slave markets. From this indeed thoughtful book, I learnt that it was from merchants returning to their homelands from Timbuktu that stories were spread of a fabulous place, rich beyond measure, and with wise and generous kings.
Well, that time has passed. A joint French and Mali force has re-taken Timbuktu from Al-Qaeda rebels and are in control of the city, but not before they managed to torch part of its rich literary heritage. Why did they, Al-Qaeda Muslims, seek to destroy Muslim literature? Simply because it included some literature on Sufi mysticism which is against the teachings of the Islamist fighters.
With the arrival of the Arabs in North Africa in the seventh century, the Sahara became part of an international system of far-flung trade that linked the Islamic world all the way from Morocco to Indonesia. Salt was common in the Sahara but rare and precious in sub-Saharan Africa. The granular substance was extracted by evaporation from salt mine wells and despatched to the markets of Senegal and Mali via camel caravan — the “ships of the desert” — which brought back with them gold, slaves, ivory, ostrich feathers, perfumed resin and other exotic and luxury items. These, in turn, we traded with the East for a vast range of goods including glass, pearls, sheets of bronze, calico and silk.
Within two centuries Timbuktu, which was founded in the early 11th century by the Tuaregs, became a trading emporium and a centre of Islamic learning and religion. It boasted impressive schools and libraries that attracted scholars from as far afield as Mecca, Alexandria, Baghdad, Tripoli, Spain and Morocco. The arts flourished there, and Timbuktu survived as a centre of sophisticated scholarship, exerting a hypnotic attraction on the Mediterranean world; until, that is, it attracted first Venetian traders, and then the sultan of Morocco who wanted the gold traffic for himself.
All this convoluted history was written down, bound, and preserved. A new building at the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu was recently built to house manuscripts. It was designed as a one-stop research centre for the documents. A team of experts based at the University of Cape Town in South Africa aimed to ensure that the manuscripts were digitised to prevent them from being irretrievably lost. Now some of them have been lost. Just how much we do not yet know, since the library at the institute was not the only collection.
The Timbuktu documents date from as far back as the 12th century, and until recently it was erroneously argued in certain Western circles that African cultural tradition was largely or rather completely oral. The thousands of the documents already studied in a UNESCO project contradict that idea. Experts say that the manuscripts include a wide array of court records and documents revealing international relations in the ancient world, way beyond Mali itself. Who knows whether further studies may open a window into the selling of slaves across the Sahara, or even the shedding of light on the roots of the trade. What is clear is that, had the rebels succeeded in totally destroying the literary heritage of Timbuktu, it would have been an incalculable catastrophe to world scholarship.
This is why it reminded me of the Geniza documents of Old Cairo. They too, were almost lost. Back in late 19th century, a Lithuanian scholar heard of a horde of manuscripts in a synagogue in Old Cairo. Naturally curious, he obtained permission to inspect it and, finding a huge mass of cracking leaves of paper along with crumbling bindings (in those days regarded as of no particular significance), he selected several thousand manuscripts, wrote a description of the storeroom and its contents, and left Egypt to continue his worthy wanderings.
Four years later, collectors around the world got wind of the discovery and approached the keepers of the synagogue, who sold off most of balance for a paltry sum. This collection was subsequently split up. The bulk ended up at Cambridge while other fragments found their way to Budapest, St Petersburg, Paris and Philadelphia. Sorting out and studying them in different museums, libraries and private collections proved a major task because most texts were vernacular Arabic written in the Hebrew script, some were written in Hebrew, and others were Hebrew texts written in the Arabic script.
No one took an interest in the discarded fragments in the synagogue until 1950 when the ceiling of the storeroom in which they were kept collapsed and they were “discovered”. This extraordinary body of manuscript fragments, more than 250,000 in number, are known collectively as the Geniza Documents have been hailed as a major historical breakthrough. They provide valuable information about what was evidently a vibrant society in which Muslims, Christians and Jews were engaged in commerce around the Mediterranean.
So, when I watched on a TV news programme how the bound copies of the Timbuktu library were being handled, with fragments of the texts crumbling beneath clumsy fingers, I was reminded of the value of the discarded fragments in Old Cairo, and shook my head in horror.
When I noted that no attention was being given to the bindings, I was reminded that the bindings of the books found in Old Cairo were packed with documents including contemporary letters, bills, and information that cast light on mediaeval social life in the area, and again I reacted with grave concern.
A UNESCO spokeswoman says the organisation was following closely the rapidly changing situation in Timbuktu, and was taking the necessary steps to safeguard the surviving texts. But I nevertheless wonder how about the country’s vitally important literary heritage has already been lost.

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