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Local Traders Loaded Their Goods Onto Cargo Boats

Local Traders Loaded Their Goods Onto Cargo Boats

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08/01/2008 03:40 PM
AFRICA'S LITERARY TREASURE TROVE
The Rush to Save Timbuktu's Crumbling Manuscripts
By Matthias Schulz and Anwen Roberts
Fabled Timbuktu, once the site of the world's southernmost Islamic university, harborsthousands upon thousands of long-forgotten manuscripts. A dozen academic instutionsfrom around the world are now working frantically to save and evaluate the crumblingdocuments.
Susan Vogel / Icarus FilmsThe Grand Mosque at Djenne, Mali. The area's rich cultural heritage is only beingslowly discovered.
Bundles of paper covered with ancient Arabic letters lie on tables and dusty leather stools. In thesweltering heat, a man wearing blue Muslim robes flips through a worn folio, while others arebusy repairing yellowed pages.An astonishing project is underway in Timbuktu, Mali, one of the world's poorest countries. On thesouthern edge of the Sahara Desert, experts are opening an enchanted Aladdin's Cave, filled withhundreds of thousands of ancient documents.The Ahmed Baba Library alone contains more than 20,000 manuscripts, including works on herbalmedicine and mathematics, yellowed volumes of poetry, music and Islamic law. Some are adornedwith gilded letters, while others are written in the language of the Tuareg tribes. The contentsremain a mystery.Manuscript hunters are now scouring the environs of Timbuktu, descending into dark, claybasements and climbing up into attics. Twenty-four family-owned collections have already beendiscovered in the area. Most of the works stem from the late Middle Ages, when Timbuktu was animportant crossroads for caravans. It was home to gold merchants and scholars, and it evenboasted a university with 20,000 students. The old saying "the treasures of wisdom are only to befound in Timbuktu" summed up the ancient city's appeal.But the legacy of the oasis, written with ink made from gallnuts, is beginning to fade. Roughly adozen academic institutions are now involved in saving and evaluating the documents. The Frenchare developing a database, while the United States has donated a device to digitize the damageddocuments. The Norwegian cities of Oslo and Bergen are training locals to become conservators.Shamil Jeppie, a Cape Town historian charged with managing the multinational effort, recentlypublished a book, "The Meanings of Timbuktu," in which he describes the current status of theproject. European colonialists suppressed the "intellectual history of West Africa," Jeppie writes,and now it is time to rediscover the site that some have referred to as an "African Oxford."
SPIEGEL ONLINE - Druckversion - Africa's Literary Treasu...http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,druck-5695...1 of 58/3/08 11:07 AM
 
Harlan Wallach/NUAMPSTeams digitize rare works in thenew studio in Timbuktu.
Hunting for Mali's Hidden Documents
This is an astonishing assessment, given Timbuktu's status as a desert town in the middle of nowhere. In 1825, a European managed to navigate the difficult route down to a bend in theNiger River, south of the Sahara. By the time he reached the oasis, he had run out of water andwas barely alive. Shortly after entering the city he was murdered. Timbuktu was taboo --off-limits to Christians.Even today, Timbuktu is not an easy place to get to. From August to February, local riverboatscalled pinnaces bob their way up the Niger River, landing at the port town of Kabara, 10kilometers (6 miles) from Timbuktu. The landscape is dominated by sand dunes until shortlybefore the city's suburbs. The desert wind known as the Harmattan is about as pleasant as adragon's breath.And yet the old section of the city is blanketed in an odd, heavymagic, filled with mosques topped by bulbous minarets andwealthy citizens' opulent houses, cube-shaped buildings withmeter-thick walls made of baked clay.According to an employee at the Ahmed Baba Library, Mali wasoverrun by the French colonial army after 1880. "The Frenchdidn't want us to have the manuscripts, and they tried to stealthem," says the library worker. The documents were hidden toprotect them.But now the hunt is on. The house of Ismael Haidara, a historianwhose ancestors include the Visigoths and jungle kings fromsouthern Mali, has proven to be a treasure trove. Haidara, aprivate citizen, horded more than 2,000 bundles of papers,passed down through 11 generations of his family. "This is ourfamily history," he says, pointing to a leather slipcase from theyear 1519.Albrecht Hofheinz, an Arabist from Oslo, estimates that there are up to 300,000 forgottenmanuscripts in Mali. Insect bites have discolored the pages, he says. "The paper disintegrates, isdestroyed by mold or eaten by termites." Time is of the essence. Some of the volumes are beingphotographed using a digital photo studio provided by the University of Chicago. The first of thedocuments are expected to beavailable on the Internetby the end of the year.The contents of astronomical documents are already being analyzed. "So far 112 texts onastronomy have been discovered," explains Petra Schmidl, a historian of science at the Universityof Frankfurt am Main. They include calendar calculations, astrology and a depiction of thePtolemaic world system.Researchers are now looking forward to studying the tattered archives that contain reports onancient oases and nomadic societies. The manuscripts also include lists of goods transported bycaravans. Will the documents finally shed some light on the mysterious caravan trade?There are many questions on how the trade thrived in the desert. The world's largest desertstretches 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles) from north to south. How did the caravans make itthrough? Archaeologists have not even scratched the surface at the caravans' destinations inGhana and the Ivory Coast.But they have uncovered new finds in the Sahara, including traces of an ancient infrastructure.Water storage facilities have been found in the middle of the vast desert, as well as places fed byunderground wells. Desert palaces once built by the Tuareg were unearthed in the Essouk oasis innorthern Mali.It is now clear that the Arabs were the first to conquer the inhospitable arid zone. While Rome'slegions ventured no further than the edges of the desert, they penetrated far deeper into theSahara.
SPIEGEL ONLINE - Druckversion - Africa's Literary Treasu...http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,druck-5695...2 of 58/3/08 11:07 AM
 
Alyssa BantaA private family library in theTuareg village of Ber, 40 miles eastof Timbuktu.DER SPIEGELThe historical trans-Saharantrading routes.
There is evidence of a Moorish influence in Ghana by as early as 800 A.D. Vast gold deposits werefound in the Ghanaian rain forest. Their owners, the Soninke kings, ruled a realm that stretchedto the banks of the Senegal River.
Point of Departure for Desert Journeys
According to Arab accounts, the black rulers lived in tents guarded by large dogs wearing gold andsilver collars and manacles. According to Arab geographer al-Bakir, one of these kingscommanded an army of 200,000 soldiers.The country provided cola nuts, ivory, cotton and semipreciousstones. Local traders loaded their goods onto cargo boats andtransported them on the Niger to Timbuktu. The city was thepoint of departure for journeys into the desert.Camels stood at Timbuktu's water troughs. Its residents includedArabs, light-skinned Berbers and dark-skinned members of theMalinke tribe. The oasis smelled of lamb dung and fresh spices,and muezzins called out from its minarets. Gold, a form of payment, glistened everywhere -- as dust, nuggets and fist-sizedlumps.In 1324, when Kankan Mussa, one of the kings of Mali, went on apilgrimage to Mecca, via Cairo, with his ostentatious entourage,he was so generous with the precious metal (he had broughtalong two tons of it) that gold prices on the Nile plunged. News of the wealthy black monarch even reached faraway Europe. ACatalan map of the world depicts him with thick lips and holding ascepter.Kankan was so impressed by the palaces of the Orient that he brought home an architect, whocreated malleable mud-brick imitations of the Arab mosques in Timbuktu. The Djingerber Mosque,with its sugarloaf-shaped towers, still stands in the city today.There is an even larger mosque in nearby Djenne, part fairytalecastle and part termite hill. Each year after the rainy season,when cracks have formed in the outside walls, hundreds of workers participate in what has become a national pastime cumreligious service. Men climb up along wooden scaffolding in theoutside walls, praying as they climb, to apply fresh mud to thestructure.For many years, such customs were all but unknown in Europe(US ethnologist Susan Vogel filmed the annual mud plasterceremony last year for the first time). In the past, those travelingto Timbuktu had to traverse seemingly endless volcanic plains androcky plateaus -- at temperatures of up to 55 degrees Celsius(131 degrees Fahrenheit). The area south of Murzuk, an oasisnotorious for its role in the slave trade, consists of a vast,shimmering sand bowl measuring 90,000 square kilometers(34,700 square miles, or about the size of Portugal).Anyone who lost his way there was literally baked.The Arabs only managed to complete the journey through the desert with the help of camels. Acamel can drink 200 liters of water at a time, and its kidneys retrieve large amounts of water afterurination. The Arabs also enlisted the help of the Tuareg tribes, which lived on ridges in thecentral Sahara.Even there, surrounded by hyper-arid sand pans, volcanic basalt chimneys and pinnacles, life waspossible. The Tuareg drilled deep wells, and they had their black slaves excavate longunderground canals with slight inclines to bring in ground water.
SPIEGEL ONLINE - Druckversion - Africa's Literary Treasu...http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,druck-5695...3 of 58/3/08 11:07 AM

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