Priceless heritage is being destroyed in Timbuktu
French troops are now on the streets of Timbuktu, and the forces of Al Qaeda are nowhere to be seen. But if the latest news reports are accurate, the Al Qaeda fighters may have destroyed some of the world's greatest cultural treasures before they fled.
Timbuktu is home to an almost bewildering array of history. Hundreds of thousands of old manuscripts are thought to have been stored there, some of them dating back to the 11th century. Almost all are in classical Arabic, compiled by Arab and African scholars over centuries.
Wrapped in goatskin covers, these ancient texts, covering subjects as diverse as mathematics, medicine, astronomy, law and philosophy, have survived numerous invasions over the generations.
According to the mayor of Timbuktu, the militants may have destroyed a library of manuscripts. If true, it would be an enormous cultural crime. These manuscripts are not merely the culture of Arabs and Africans; they are the culture of humanity. A mere fraction of these texts would be a prized research asset for any university, a major exhibition for any museum.
And yet we know practically nothing of what is in them. Although Unesco and a South African-funded research institution have worked to photograph the manuscripts, they have done so with barely 10 per cent of them. The sophistication of what they have found has shocked researchers. We can only imagine what else lays undiscovered.
I've been interested in the heritage of Timbuktu for several years. I first became interested in the art of the vanished West African kingdoms while in Morocco. Since then my interest has grown and I have tried to learn more.
We know very little about these kingdoms, built around the Niger River and its tributaries, in the parts of West Africa near where modern-day Ghana and Nigeria are. They existed from at least the 12th century; their names - the empires of Songhai, Mali and Benin - are evocative and familiar from museum texts, but little is known of daily life in these states.
What historians can surmise suggests an extensive civilisation, indeed a functioning bureaucracy. These kingdoms traded over hundreds of kilometres of the Sahara and had systems of taxation and standing armies. It is inconceivable that such political structures could exist without extensive writing.
The coming of Islam to the region, probably by the 13th century, must have been accompanied by some dislocation of existing rulers and even kingdoms. But the lingua franca of Arabic allowed the region new trading opportunities, not only with the Muslim cities directly north across the Sahara, but with the vast Arab world beyond Egypt, and through it to Europe and Asia.
The adoption of Islam also meant the beginning of large annual caravans heading to Mecca for the Haj, bringing trade, contacts and understanding. West Africa was now tied into the Arab world.
The writings of the great Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun contain descriptions of the court of Mansa Musa I, the ruler of the Malian empire in the 14th century, who spread Islam among his people. He grew vastly rich from trade with the outside world - so wealthy in fact that when a study was produced last year of the wealthiest people in history, he topped the list at an inflation-adjusted $400 billion (Dh1.46tn).
The expeditions of European nations to these kingdoms began with awe at their wealth and power, and ended in shock as the colonial powers systematically destroyed these realms.
The kingdom of Benin, for example, was destroyed by the British at the end of the 19th century in anger, after an attempted coup was repelled. The British not only destroyed the entire city but stole thousands and thousands of sophisticated artworks, which were given to European museums and collectors.
The process of conquering these kingdoms and claiming their land was, as the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said noted in a different context, also a process of denigrating the cultures. This led even such European luminaries as Immanuel Kant to suggest that Africa had no written history, only oral literature.
The manuscripts of Timbuktu disprove that claim. By the 16th century, the city was one of the greatest centres of learning in the world. Such was the depository of manuscripts that when Henry Louis Gates, the chair of Harvard's African Studies Institute, visited in the late 1990s he burst into tears, overwhelmed at coming face to face with evidence that the European claim that Africa had no written record was false. "I knew that the mind of the black world was locked in those trunks," he said.
The existence of these manuscripts fascinates me. I remain convinced that the descriptions of the great West African kingdoms will be found in the Timbuktu manuscripts; that just as Arab travellers wrote about the societies they encountered in Asia and Europe, so African writers described the societies of the African continent.
But the Timbuktu manuscripts also frustrate me. At a time when the Arab world spends billions on buildings, roads and weapons, I wonder why Arab governments and individuals cannot find a fraction of that money to safeguard and study the history of the Arab world.
A mere few million dollars would be enough to take all the surviving Timbuktu manuscripts out of their desert remoteness, digitise them and make them available online to scholars around the world. The history of now-vanished civilisations is buried in the deserts of Mali, all written in a language we can still read.
On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai
Updated: January 29, 2013 04:00 AM